Editor’s Note: Food writer Casey Barber says December is the month for baking cookies. Stay tuned for her January recipe selection, and for all the months that follow.
The calendar says December, but it should really read “Cookiember.” This is the month for bakers of all types and skill levels to go big and fill the kitchen with sweets and treats. It’s time to get on board the cookie train and allow the joy of baking and sharing treats with others to run full steam ahead through the holidays.
Irvin Lin, author of the dessert cookbook “Marbled, Swirled, and Layered: 150 Recipes and Variations for Artful Bars, Cookies, Pies, Cakes, and More” and founder of the Eat the Love site, has spent decades perfecting his holiday cookie baking routine. Whether you’re feeling ambitious, overwhelmed, sugar-rushed or a combination of all these feelings, Lin has expert ways to make this a delicious cookie season.
Lin suggests choosing a mix of cookies when baking for the holidays — “a crumbly one, a chewy one, a chocolatey one” — to give yourself and those you’re sharing with a variety of tastes and textures to try. If you have a roster of tried-and-true recipes, he recommends choosing “80% of your favorites and 20% of new ones you want to experiment with.”
Most importantly, Lin stresses, is to read the ingredient list as well as the full recipe instructions before you begin. “Don’t just start making a cookie thinking you have everything,” he said, before realizing that there’s only two tablespoons of sugar left in the pantry.
When reading the recipe, “mentally work your way through all the steps,” Lin said. “Sometimes they want the butter cold, and sometimes at room temperature,” for example, so you’ll need to plan for advance timing on many recipes.
While experienced bakers can frequently halve recipes to make smaller batches, “it’s totally OK to freeze cookies” to enjoy later or to keep them from going stale, Lin said. Freezing cookies can also help save time in the long run by allowing you to start your holiday baking early.
Lin makes cookies weeks in advance of his parties and thaws them at room temperature up to two days before an event. Freeze cooled cookies in sealed bags or lidded containers until needed, up to a year.
As for which kinds of cookies to bake, there are two things to take into consideration: your skill level as well as how much time you have to devote to the cookie cause. Here are a few suggestions to keep the holiday effort from being harried.
If you are short on time
Bar cookies are Lin’s secret weapon when it comes to holiday baking. “Cookies can be time-consuming because you do them in batches,” he said. They seem quicker than making a pie or cake, but “multiply 10 minutes times four batches” of cookies, and the time in the kitchen adds up.
Bar cookies, on the other hand, are “a one and done thing” not requiring constant monitoring. Lin likes to include a simple fudge brownie recipe in his holiday dessert lineup, made with a one-bowl batter that results in the perfect shiny brownie top.
Traditional Scottish shortbread bars are another bar cookie that yields incredible results from a simple recipe. Made with only flour, butter, sugar and salt (and vanilla extract, if you like) and with no need for cookie cutters or other special equipment, they’re one of the simplest classic holiday treats.
If you want to play around with the classics
“Most people who are doing multiple cookies have some experience baking,” Lin said, so they might want to adjust the flavor of a classic recipe to make it feel slightly new for the holiday season.
“If you have a favorite (cookie) but you want to tweak it, add some extract or fruit zest,” he recommended. Use peppermint, maple or almond extract for half the amount of vanilla extract called for in a recipe, or brighten up cutout sugar cookies with fresh lemon or orange zest.
Lin likes to add a pinch of paprika or black pepper to soft ginger molasses cookies or his gingerbread tree cookies to make the spice blend a bit more exciting. “Things you normally think about for savory recipes can work in sweet cooking,” he said.
If you want to go all out
Sometimes nothing but a multistep, showstopping holiday cookie recipe will do to make you feel like you’re really in the holiday spirit. (I admit that I tend to fall into this category every holiday season, my husband’s preference for peanut butter blossoms notwithstanding.)
Taking Lin’s advice to read the entire recipe through before starting to measure and mix is crucial when it comes to more complicated recipes. Many cookies, such as Lin’s red velvet crackle cookies, require that the dough be chilled before portioning and rolling, so it’s key to take that into consideration.
Chocolate peppermint sandwich cookies are not as difficult as they look but also require the step of refrigerating a dough made with black cocoa powder for that true Oreo cookie effect. Dyeing half the peppermint cream filling red is optional, but it certainly makes it festive.
Casey Barber is a food writer, artist and editor of the website Good. Food. Stories.