Mary Ann Lienhart-Cross
Food & Nutrition
Many of you don’t bake as often as you once did for a variety of reasons. This time of the year you are now extra busy with church, family, social events and activities but nothing says the holidays like made-from-scratch holiday baking. It could be cookies, some kind of pie, a flavorful tender fruit cake or, of course, candy.
Nowadays there are some great packaged mixes that you can enhance with your own flavorings and additions such as chopped nuts and dried fruits. I recently had some tasty tender cookies made this way, it was a time-saver for the hostess and the cookies were great. But when it comes to Christmas cookies, there is nothing like the real cookie-making process.
When it comes to cookies made from scratch using basic fresh ingredients that you measure out, you need to plan ahead and use these ideas so that you can make the baking experience a success. I suggest you just leave recipes alone and prepare them in their traditional way for the holidays; you don’t want to disappoint your family. With a positive attitude, just a few ingredients and your time, it is possible to create an array of cookies in different shapes, sizes, textures and tastes.
Ingredients are what make for great-tasting cookies. The main four ingredients are some kind of fat such as butter, margarine, solid shortening or oil; eggs; flour; and sugar. Then you add other ingredients in various combinations including chocolate, cocoa powder, nuts, raisins, citrus zest, oatmeal, spices and extracts to create flavor and texture interest.
Most recipes call for a fat. The fat makes the flavor of the cookie, the color, and softness or tenderness. The fat also supplies the moisture that dissolves the sugar during the creaming process and this contributes to the overall smooth flavor of the cookie. I know that many of your cookies are eaten so fast that you or others have no idea what I am writing about.
Butter, salted or unsalted, makes for the best flavor in cookies and adds a creamy richness. Butter makes cookies that are more on the crisp side. When solid shortening is used, your cookies will be more on the tender or moist side. Margarine is sometimes suggested as an alternative, but cookies made with it tend to have a different texture and the dough may be harder to roll. Regardless of which fat you choose, soften it beforehand so it will cream easier and the sugar will dissolve faster.
Here are some additional fat facts that can make a big difference in your cookie baking success. If the recipe calls for margarine, make sure you use stick margarine because tub margarines have more water and air incorporated into them and you will have wasted all your ingredients and your time. Also, don’t try substituting oil for butter or solid shortening because you can mix oil and sugar forever and the sugar will never dissolve. This is because there is no water in oil and it takes water to dissolve sugar.
For the best dough, thoroughly cream softened butter with sugar using an electric mixer until it is light and fluffy. Creaming can take about five minutes if the fat is room temperature. Next, blend in all of the liquid ingredients such as eggs or milk. The final step is to add the dry ingredients as the recipe directs. I cannot stress this enough: Do not overmix the dough once the flour is added or your cookies will become tough.
Many cookie dough recipes say to chill before baking to prevent excess spreading. When dough is chilled, the flavors have a chance to blend together. The newer specialty cookie sheets help bake cookies that are evenly brown and more on the soft side. If you want to bake light or golden brown cookies, light colored cookie sheets or the baking stones are your best choices. The dark cookie sheets make darker crispier cookies. Also, remember cookies baked on greased sheets spread more than those baked on ungreased ones. Plan to space cookies far enough apart on the baking sheet to allow sufficient room for spreading during baking — an inch is usually good. Also, try to make the cookies the same size and shape so they bake in the same amount of time. For bar cookies, spread them evenly in the pan.
For cookie baking success always preheat the oven at least 15 minutes before using. For even browning, turn the cookie sheets halfway through the baking. You might want to bake only one baking sheet at a time, in the center of the oven, and allow an inch or more between the sheet and the oven wall so heat can circulate. It is best if you wipe the cookie sheet and let cool it before reusing so the next batch does not bake too quickly. When using two baking sheets, space them evenly and switch positions halfway through baking. It is better to underbake cookies slightly.
I don’t know about you but I am ready for a nice glass of cold milk or hot chocolate and cookies. Please enjoy cookies with family and friends.
Mary Ann Lienhart-Cross is county extension director and an extension educator in health and human sciences at Purdue Extension Elkhart County, 17746 C.R. 34, Suite E, Goshen, IN 46528-6898. Reach her by phone at 533-0554, fax at 533-0254 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.