Hassle-Free Holiday Baking: 6 Easy Days to Perfect Christmas Cookies
Like many people, I love the idea of making a large assortment of Christmas cookies during the holidays, but I find it difficult to find the time to get it done. As a working mother, cookbook author and webmaster of Christmas-Cookies.com ( http://www.christmas-cookies.com ), I am a very busy woman, but baking Christmas cookies every year is a must. Over the past few years, out of frustration and necessity, I have developed a system for organizing my Christmas baking. This system allows me to make a large variety of holiday treats without taking too much time out of my busy schedule. By dividing the tasks up into 6 days, I can spend a couple hours each day getting this done, and on the 7th day, relax and enjoy giving and eating some delicious Christmas cookies. After all, God rested on the 7th day! You don't even have to do this on 6 consecutive days. Most of the steps can be done days and even weeks in advance, giving you a great head start on your holidays.
Search your books, recipe cards, and favorite Web sites and decide what recipes to make this year. I usually mix my traditional family recipes with a few new recipes for variety. 6 to 12 different recipes makes a nice assortment, depending on how many people you have to feed and how much time you have to spend baking. Write down the name of each recipe on a piece of paper, as well as the source of the recipe so that you can look it up later, such as the Web site URL or page number in a cookbook. Print out the recipes that you find online, and set aside the books or recipe cards you'll need so that you can access them easily on Day 2. Things you may want to consider when making your selection are:
-difficulty of the recipe if you are a novice cook or will be baking with children,
-cost of special ingredients such as chocolate or nuts, if you are on a budget,
-whether the cookies keep well or can they be frozen, if you'd like to do your baking ahead of time.
Consulting your list of recipes, create your shopping list. Calculate roughly how much of each ingredient you'll need in total by adding up cups of butter, number of eggs, and other common ingredients. Include in your list:
-All of the ingredients for the cookies. Check what you have at home for freshness. Nuts and shortening will go rancid after a few months, and baking powder and baking soda lose their effectiveness, so keep this in mind: out with the old, in with the new! Fresh ingredients are the key to good tasting cookies.
-Any baking tools you may need. Consider replacing old worn out tools or adding a new tool to your collection each year.
-Anything you may need for decorating such as food coloring, colored sugars and jimmies, or pastry bags for piping frosting.
-Containers like plastic tubs, cookie tins, or even cardboard boxes to store your cookies in. Make sure you have containers that are large enough to hold a complete batch of each cookie (look at the yield of your recipe if you're not sure). If you plan to parcel them out for gift-giving, make sure you have enough containers for each recipient.
-Organize your shopping list according to store, such as: grocery store, kitchen or home store, cake decorating supply store, etc.
Go shopping! Lay out your plan of action so that you go to the grocery store last of all, so that you can take your refrigerated ingredients home as soon as possible. Of course, if you live in a very cold climate, this is not too much of a worry. When you get home, wash your new baking tools and put all the non-perishable ingredients in one place so that you can easily get them out on Day 4. At my house, I have a designated baking cupboard that gives me easy access to everything I need on days I decide to bake. You can do Day 3 weeks before you plan to bake as long as you:
-Freeze your butter or shortening, and
-buy the perishables such as eggs and cream cheese just before you plan to bake.
Today you will just make the dough for your cookies, but you will not actually bake them! Most cookie doughs can safely be refrigerated for days or frozen for weeks before you need to make the cookies. The reason for doing it this way is because when making several different kinds of cookies at the same time, it's very efficient to make all your dough at once while you have all your ingredients and baking tools at hand. If you do have a particular recipe that can't be frozen, identify it and plan to make it on Day 5.
Remember to bring refrigerated items like butter, eggs, and cream cheese to room temperature before you start to assemble your recipes. Take them out of the refrigerator at least a couple hours before you plan to bake.
To make this process even easier, I've developed a system for making dough assembly-line style, which you can read more about in my article about the Cookie Assembly Line ( http://www.christmascookiesareforgiving.com/assembly.php ). Wrap each ball of dough in plastic wrap, identify it by writing the name of the recipe on the plastic wrap with a felt-tip marker, and refrigerate it or freeze it. If it is a slice-and-bake refrigerator cookie, form it into a log instead of a ball, according to the directions in your recipe. Make sure to keep your recipes in a handy place so that you don't have to search for them on Day 5.
Today is baking day! Check your recipe: if you have to work with dough at room temperature (as recommended for most cookie press cookies) then take your dough out ahead of time and let it warm up to room temperature before you begin forming the cookies. If you have frozen your dough, allow it to thaw in the plastic wrap and only remove the plastic wrap once it has reached the desired temperature. If you remove the plastic while it is still frozen, then condensation will form on the dough and that will add too much moisture.
Start with the recipes that call for the lowest oven temperature and pre-heat your oven to that temperature. Remove dough from the refrigerator, line your baking sheets with parchment paper (no greasing!) and prepare the dough for baking as called for in your recipe. You may have to roll out the dough and cut it with cookie cutters, or fill it with some kind of filling, or place it in a special pan like a mini-muffin pan or a Madeleine mold, or simply slice and bake the rolls you made on Day 4. Once all the cookies that are baked at the lowest temperature are completed, raise your oven temperature to the next highest to bake those cookies, and so on.
Even if you have some of the handy stackable cooling racks, you will surely run out of space to cool several batches of cookies. Placing a double-thickness of aluminum foil on your countertop is a good substitute for a cooling rack when you run out of space. Once your cookies are completely cooled to room temperature, line your containers with waxed paper and place your cookies in the containers one layer at a time, with another sheet of waxed paper in between each layer. Then return the containers to the refrigerator if they will not be eaten for a day or two, or you can leave them out at room temperature until the next day. If they won't be eaten or shipped for several days, you can wrap the entire container in plastic wrap and freeze your cookies for up to 2 weeks. You can freeze them for longer than this if you wrap the cookies in small stacks of 5 or 6 before placing them in their containers. Defrost the cookies at room temperature, leaving them wrapped until they are thoroughly defrosted.
Many of your recipes may be completed at this point if they don't require decorating.
Day 6 is decorating day. For many of us, this is the most enjoyable step in the cookie-baking process. Decorating should always be done no more than 2 days before the cookies will be eaten, ideally the day or even the morning before. Now you will make your various frostings and icings, or prepare your melted chocolate for drizzling, or dust with powdered sugar to decorate your cookies as directed. If your cookies are not to be eaten immediately, make sure that the icing or melted chocolate has thoroughly set and hardened-a process that may take several hours-before stacking the cookies back in their containers, again separating the layers with sheets of waxed paper. Cookies that have been frosted with a buttercream-type frosting cannot be stacked. They should be stored in a single layer with a loose covering of plastic wrap.
Relax and enjoy your holiday, because your Christmas baking is done!
Copyright 2004 Mimi Cummins. All Rights Reserved.
Mimi Cummins is co-author of the book "Christmas Cookies Are for Giving: Recipes, Stories, and Tips for Making Heartwarming Gifts." This book, "enthusiastically recommended" by Midwest Book Review, is full of baking tips and hints, including nearly 50 recipes each with a full-color photo. For more information visit http://www.christmascookiesareforgiving.com/ or order from your favorite online bookstore.
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