It’s Christmas cookie time. You know it is. I have a love/hate relationship with Christmas cookies and I don’t think I’m alone on this one. It’s that time of year when all my good intentions go out the window because there’s just too much to do and not enough time to do it. It happens like clockwork and yet always catches me by surprise when I find myself completely overbooked and overwhelmed. Then, because I don’t have enough going on, I realize I have those holiday cookies to bake but I have to say, I make some damn fine cookies. I think my friends would agree. Well, I hope they do otherwise I’m going to have to reconsider my gift list.
I’ve been doing this for a long time; gifting holiday cookies to the people who are important to me. Every year I think I’m too busy to pull it off. I mention to a few people I’m thinking of taking a pass. The responses are laughable – kind supportive words combined with a stricken panicked look and I know, no matter how busy I am, I’ll pull it off somehow. There have been years when they may have been called “New Years Cookies” but I get ‘em done.
Over time, this little project of mine has taken on a life of its own. I have a tendency to overdo it. One year, I made close to 10,000 cookies and wanted to shoot myself. That was the year I decided to cut down the gift list. The thing with these types of cookies, only give them to those that appreciate. Those that don’t get the ax. They won’t notice or care anyway and it’s much healthier for me. Last year was much better but I still gifted 50 boxes containing 19 varieties and that was nearly 5000 cookies total. Eek. Pulling this off requires one thing: organization. It’s no small feat and you have to be pretty on top of things but the key is to break it down into manageable steps. I’ve been doing this a while and have figured out a lot of things over time. So learn from my mistakes grasshoppers.
- GET ORGANIZED: make lists. You have to. I throw everything on an excel spreadsheet – what cookies I’m going to make, who’s on the gift list, batch yields, quantity per box, shopping lists, baking plans. By keeping batch counts every year, I have some pretty accurate projections and know exactly how many I need to make. Trust me, you don’t want to be short while in the midst of packing 50 boxes. I also track where everything stands at any given point. It’s the pastry chef in me and I feel like I’m making some progress. Sometimes I throw reminders on my calendar to keep on track but I have yet to stick to one of those this year. Whatever. It’s part of my holiday tradition that I’ll be behind schedule.
- DIVIDE AND CONQUER: remember, you don’t have to do a batch start to finish all at once. Most doughs freeze beautifully so make it weeks ahead, freeze and bake later. I try to have all my dough’s done and in the freezer by Thanksgiving. That rarely happens but one of these years, I might actually achieve that goal. It’s nice to have something to reach for.
- THINK ABOUT YOUR RECIPES: From both a taste and a visual perspective, aim toward a good mix of textures, colors and flavors. Get your bases covered – chocolate, nuts, spice, fruit (citrus and dried fruits) and vanilla. Think about your textures – crisp, soft, filled. The last thing you want after putting in all this effort is a monochromatic box full of the same flavors. Just avoid sticky-gooey. They tend to stick to everything making a messy box.
- DIFFERENT LOOKS: Christmas cookies are special – they should be pretty and wonderful, unique and interesting. Mix up your shapes – round, square, triangles. Do a few fancy cut-outs. Work in some different finishes – large grain sugar, glazes, crushed nuts or fancy pants royal icing work is just lovely. Fill a few with caramel or ganache for some tasty sandwiches. But think special – this is not really the place for your everyday cookie. And I’m just going to say it: I don’t care how great your chocolate chip cookie recipe is; it is not is a Christmas cookie.
- WORKHORSES: make the bulk of your cookies easy to produce – bar cookies, brownies, shortbread and my favorite, slice & bake logs. If you make bars in sheet pans rather than 9×9 pans, they’re much thinner and cut very elegantly. Cut them into thin rectangles or triangles rather than the usual squares for a different look.
- SHOWSHOPPERS: work in a few, just a few, really fancy cookies. These can be checkerboards, detailed cut-outs or windowpane types like linzer. What you’ll do is fill the box with the “workhorses” and put just a few of these pretty babies on top. As the box is opened, that’s what the recipients will see first and it’ll set the right “ooh aah!” tone. One year, just once, I made gingerbread gift tags with really fantastic icing work. I must have been unemployed that year.
- ONE DOUGH, MANY COOKIES: this is the single greatest idea known to cookie bakers. Take a basic butter cookie dough, divide it into portions and flavor it. I make a big batch, divide it into four equal pieces (with a scale to be precise) then to each piece of dough, I add different flavorings – citrus zest, cocoa powder, various spices, espresso powder, vanilla paste, maple syrup or finely chopped nuts. The sky’s the limit and you can make whatever you want. It’s much easier to take one dough and flavor it four different ways then to make four different doughs. I started 15 years ago with a recipe from Gourmet, bought the subsequent book and have gone from there. The December 2010 issue of Martha Stewart Living has a similar idea that’s worth checking out. I’m telling you, this concept will save your life.
- PACKAGING: There is a ton of great packaging out there that will really show off your beautiful cookies. One trip to The Container Store will hook you up but there are all kinds of great stuff at the corner drug store. But here’s what I do: I use plain white cake boxes and Chinese food containers with a pretty ribbon and nice gift tag. I like how very plain packaging highlights the pretty cookies plus it’s cheap.
- PACKING THE BOXES: years of doing this has taught me well. In the bottom of the box, put your sturdy cookies – the bars, biscotti, shortbread and the like. Next go the more delicate butter cookies. Now – and here’s the big secret – put the pretty ones on top. Just a few really good checkerboards or windowpane cookies right on top will be most impressive. If you’re going to ship, line the box with a layer of small bubble wrap first then put that in a slightly larger box, well cushioned. You want as little movement as possible. And think about your recipes – no matter how carefully you pack, really delicate cookies will be crumbs after shipping. If you have too, save those for local deliveries and pack the sturdy ones in the shippers.
Timesavers are invaluable – here’s some things to think about:
- KEEP YOUR SANITY: Do not, whatever you do, make all your cookies of the cut-out variety if you want to maintain your sanity. These take time – a lot of time – in rolling and re-rolling and will make you crabby. Rather, make the majority of your cookies delicious slice & bake and/or bar cookies. Remember slice & bake logs can be formed into other shapes like squares and triangles. Coat the outside in finely chopped nuts or colored sugars or glaze them once cooled for different looks and added flavor.
- ROLL WARM, CUT COLD: for cut outs, and you probably should do one or two, roll portions of the dough between two sheets of plastic wrap while it’s at room temperature then refrigerate or freeze. The dough rolls much easier when it’s freshly made and warm but cuts much, much better and neater when it’s cold. The dough sheets, tightly wrapped, freeze beautifully so absolutely do this ahead.
- BREAK UP TASKS: you don’t have to do one batch at a time, start to finish. Make a bunch of doughs one day and stash them in the freezer to bake off later. Do all the rolling, shaping, cutting on dough day then on baking day, you can bake off 6 or 7 batches in no time, right from the freezer. For cut outs, if you cut the shapes then freeze, it’s like dealing a deck of cards with none of the rolling frustrations in a hot kitchen. For round cookies, roll the dough into small balls and freeze on a sheet pan, transfer to a Ziploc once frozen, then bake right from the freezer adding a minute or two to the baking time.
- CONSIDER WHAT HOLDS WELL: crisp cookies like biscotti and amaretti are great because they hold well. They’re perfect to throw in the box because if you do them right – with good fresh flavors – everyone loves them, they don’t take up any fridge or freezer space, can be baked way ahead of time and are pretty sturdy. Since most cookies are best within a few days of baking, do the freezing step as mentioned above and bake right from the freezer. You can even bake as needed if you like to make sure they’re super fresh.
Most of all, remember they’re just cookies. No one is going to know if you didn’t make that last batch. Seriously, they won’t care in the least. You’re giving them something wonderful, homemade and delicious. Not many people do this kind of thing anymore so whatever you whip up will be appreciated.
I’ve posted a few recipes in the past that would be great – cajun ginger cookies, peanut butter bars, oatmeal jam bars, kolacky, chocolate peanut rice krispie treats. In fact, there’s a few things in the archives that would make great homemade gifts besides cookies – black pepper parmesan crackers, homemade saltines, quick pickles, and blood orange marmalade.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: BIGGEST OF THE YEAR. This is hands down the most stressful thing I do. Every December at some point, I scream at myself “Why? Why?!?” and have fantasies of bailing on the whole thing. But I know I can’t because watching the responses when I walk in with my distinctive white boxes is the single most satisfying feeling of the year. It just tickles me when my favorite bartender, who’s been receiving these for 15 years now, can tell me what cookie is new, year after year. He’s dead on every single time. Watching my friends go through the box and exclaim “Oh! I love this one! And this one! And THIS one!” or “Oh my god! Your checkerboards are perfect this year!” or just “Yeah! Cookies!” with a happy little dance, well it just warms the jaded cockles of my cold black bah-humbug heart. Just like the grinch, my heart grows three sizes every year and makes all the aggravation well worth it. Then I promptly forget all about it for 10 whole months.