A Little Yule Cheer: Day 16 (Tips and Tricks for the Best Christmas Cookies Ever)


Baking is an exacting process.  It’s one of the reasons I choose it as a way to relax.  It sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but it really isn’t.  Because I have to pay attention to what I am doing and follow all the steps in the recipe, I can’t multi-task and I can’t rush through the process.  Baking forces me to slow down and be mindful.  Plus, it is so sensually satisfying.  The taste of creamed butter and sugar, the smell of vanilla and spices, the silky feel of flour, the riot of sanding sugar colors.  The house smells delicious as the cookies bake and then everyone can enjoy the yummy results.

While I was writing this post, I found myself thinking about some of the cookie baking wisdom I’ve acquired over the years.  My unique arsenal of tips and tricks have come from a wide variety of sources.  Some have been handed down from more experienced bakers in my family (i.e., Nana and Mom, etc.) and some grew out of a desperate need to solve a frustrating baking problem.  Other tips developed from happy accidents or were gleaned from baking blogs and articles.  Taken together, these bits of wisdom have significantly decreased the frustration level and increased the fun factor of cookie baking for me.  Since Christmas time is the zenith of cookie baking activity, I thought I’d share some of my best tips and tricks.  Hopefully, you’ll find something to increase you own cookie baking pleasure or efficiency.


  • Use fresh, best quality ingredients like eggs, butter, baking soda, baking powder, etc.  Quality ingredients increases your chances of producing quality cookies.  At least you are building a solid foundation.  I put dates on my baking soda, baking powder and spices so that I can keep track of freshness.
  • Use unsalted butter.  I used to think that the emphasis on unsalted butter was one of those useless pieces of trendy advice.  Not so.  After reading somewhere that salted butter contains a higher concentration of water which causes cookies to spread more when baked, I switched to unsalted butter for my chocolate chip cookie recipe.  TADA! – plump, perfect cookies.  I’m a convert.  Unless otherwise stated, use unsalted butter.

Favorite Tools

It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway), you can’t bake well if you don’t have the right equipment.  Beyond measuring cups and spoons, spatulas, bowls, a fridge and an oven, there are a few tools that are essential to my success as a cookie baker.

  • Flat cookie sheets without sides.  I’ve tried all kinds of cookie sheets.  Hands down, I get the best results with the flat, sideless variety.  Cookies bake evenly and are so easy to put on and take off the sheets.   (Note: I have no preference for color or surface type because of my next tool.)
  • Parchment paper.  What a miracle worker!  It’s the perfect non-stick surface for any type of cookie (except maybe spritz that need a sticky surface) and can be used on any cookie sheet.  Because of its light color, cookie bottoms don’t brown too much.  And, it can be re-used and makes clean-up a breeze.
  • A variety of scoops.  Drop cookies became infinitely easier to manage when varying sizes of ice cream scoops were introduced.  I bought my scoops from Pampered Chef years ago; I use them all the time because drop cookies are my go-to type of cookie and they are still going strong.  Using scoops increases the efficiency of the cookie baking process and the uniformity of the size of the cookies.  It’s a win-win, really.  I can make the cookies faster and they look better.
  • KitchenAid Mixer. It’s my BFF when I’m baking.  It does the heavy work of creaming the butter and sugars while I combine the dry ingredients and then tirelessly mixes everything together.  I waited a long time to purchase my royal blue powerhouse.  Although my kids missed having two beaters to lick at first, I have never looked back.
  • Large cooling racks.  Cookies need to cool completely before they are stored. They also need to get off the baking sheets so that more cookie dough can fulfill its destiny.   Large cooling racks = more cookies cooling at one time = efficiency.

Best Practices

  • Read the whole recipe before you start and then follow. every. step.  Why?  See below.
  • Measure ingredients exactly.  Although baking seems like magic (and I’d still argue that some magic is involved), it’s really about chemistry.  For the chemistry to do what it’s supposed to do, you need to follow the directions and measure ingredients accurately.  Period.  End of story.  Non-negotiable.
  • Allow butter to soften on the counter.  Yes, it takes time and some planning.  But,  on the counter, butter will soften evenly and to the appropriate temperature  every time.  This is very good for your cookies, so just do it.
  • Bring other ingredients to room temperature, too.  When all the guests at the party are warmed up,  they mingle with ease.  It works the same way with your cookie dough ingredients.  Let them warm up so they have a better chance of getting along.
  • Don’t cream the butter and sugar too long.  When butter is softened correctly, 2 to 2 1/2 minutes of creaming with the sugar should be just about perfect.  If you cream for a shorter time than that, the butter and sugar don’t emulsify properly.  Longer than 3 minutes and too much air is introduced into the dough.  Cookies will then rise extra high as they cook and then deflate when they cool.  Sad, deflated cookies are just… sad.  Do follow the recipe, though.  There may be a very good reason you need to cream the butter and sugar for 7 minutes.
  • When adding dry ingredients, only mix the dough until dry ingredients are completely incorporated, then stop.  Over-beating the dough after the flour has been added can active the gluten in the flour.  Instead of tender cookies that melt in your mouth, you’ll be chewing on hockey pucks.  Also, use the lowest setting on your mixer as you incorporate the dry ingredients for the same reason.  The best policy at this stage in the process is to treat your cookie dough with tender, loving care.
  • Don’t crowd the baking sheet.  Cookies need room to grow.  Make note of the spacing suggested in your recipe and follow it.  If no guidance is offered, 2 inches is usually a pretty safe buffer zone.  If you don’t want your cookies looking like conjoined twins, pay attention to spacing.
  • When making rolled cookies, keep everything as chilled as possible.  Making rolled cookies can quickly turn into a nightmare.  The trick is to keep everything cold so that dough keeps its shape and doesn’t stick to anything.  I divide my dough in half so I always have some dough in the refrigerator chilling while I’m working with the other half.  If you’re like me and don’t have a naturally cool marble surface to work on, keep your counter chilled with a gallon plastic bag full of ice when you aren’t working on it.  It also helps to chill the cookie cut-outs before they go in the oven; they keep their shape better while they bake.  Trust me, chilling reduces the exasperation level exponentially with cut-out cookies.

I’m going to wrap up this long-winded piece of advice now.  I’m always looking for ways to improving my baking skills.  Do you have any suggestions you’d like to add?  Gingerbread and spritz cookies still make me want to curse and pull my hair out in clumps so advice related to those cookies would be especially appreciated.  Happy baking!




A Little Yule Cheer: Day 14 (Sour Cream Sugar Cookies)

There are so many things I could say about sour cream sugar cookies:

  1.  They are the perfect miniature version of the big cakey Pennsylvania Dutch sugar cookies seen around here at farmer’s markets and bakeries – soft and airy with a just-sweet-enough frosting.
  2. They are e-a-s-y to mix up and bake.  If you bake even occasionally, you probably have all the ingredients in your pantry or fridge.
  3. Their potential for decorating possibilities is endless.  For anyone who likes messing with colored frosting, sprinkles, non-pareils, and sanding sugar, these cookies are the bomb.
  4. They are a cornerstone in my husband’s family’s Christmas culinary traditions.  I’m sure there would be grave disappointment if Grandma ever came to Christmas brunch without her anticipated cookies; some might even think the earth would cease rotating on its axis.  The recipe is my mother-in-law’s and I’m grateful she shared it with me.
  5. Even though they make adorable Christmas cookies,  they aren’t just for Christmas.  Seasonal sprinkles make these an adaptable cookie recipe for any time of year.

All of the above statements are true and interesting.  However, the most relevant and compelling thing I will say, as I sit here stuffing yet another sugar cookie in my mouth, is that you need to make these cookies just because they are so. darn. good.  Seriously.


Sour Cream Sugar Cookies (adapted from Arlene Yoder’s recipe)

2 cups sugar

1 cup unsalted butter, softened

4 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

4 1/2 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 cup sour cream

Preheat the oven to 350°.  Cream the sugar, butter, eggs and vanilla for 7 – 8 minutes.  Whisk dry ingredients in a medium bowl.  Add dry ingredients to the creamed mixture, alternating with the sour cream, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients.  Gently fold each addition into the batter.

Place cookie dough (still in mixing bowl) in the refrigerator to chill for at least an hour.  This step is optional but the cookies are plumper and spread less during baking if you do it.  It will not change the flavor or texture of the cookie at all so if you are pressed for time, skip this part with a clear conscience.

Cover cookie sheet with parchment paper.  Drop cookie dough by rounded teaspoons onto the cookie sheet 2 inches apart.  Bake for 10 – 11 minutes or until lightly browned.  Let cookies cool on baking sheet for about 3 minutes and them move to cooling rack.  Allow cookies to cool completely.  Frost cookies with butter frosting.  Makes approximately 4 1/2 dozen cookies.

Butter Frosting

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened

4 cups confectioner’s sugar

4 – 8 Tablespoons milk

2 teaspoons vanilla

Beat butter and sugar in a small bowl with a hand mixer.  Add vanilla and milk.  The amount of milk will depend on the consistency you want.  I prefer a thicker frosting so I usually use about 4 Tablespoons.  Add the milk by tablespoonfuls so that you have better control over the frosting’s consistency.  Beat until smooth and well blended.  Add food coloring now, if desired.  Apply frosting to cookies.  Add any embellishments – sprinkles, jimmies, non-pareils, sanding sugar, etc. – at this time.

Pour yourself a glass of ice cold milk.  Pop a cookie (or two) in your mouth.  Mmmmmm…  See what I mean?  So. Darn. Good.



A Little Yule Cheer: Day 2 (Cream Cheese Cutouts)

I have a thing for sanding sugar and sprinkles.  I also have a thing for baking cookies, especially at Christmas.  Cream cheese cutouts combine my “things” in the best possible way.  The cream cheese adds a more grown-up flavor than regular sugar cookies.  The cookies have a delicate texture and flavor that is enhanced by the citrus zest and juice (I prefer orange for Christmas)  and the sanding sugar doesn’t feel like overload because the cookies aren’t overly sweet.

Beware, though.  Cream cheese cutouts go down easy.  Too easy.  If you aren’t careful, none of your cookies will make it to the cookie jar to fill your kitchen with sparkly Christmas cheer.  The good news: the recipe doubles and even triples well so you can take precautions against too many disappearing cookies by making back-up batches.  The hardest part of the whole process is choosing the color(s) of sugar and the cookie cutter shape(s).  If only all decisions were this much fun!


Cream Cheese Cutouts (barely adapted from the 1989 edition of The Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook)

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened

1  3 ounce package of cream cheese, softened

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup sugar

1 egg

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon finely shredded lemon or orange zest

1 tablespoon lemon or orange juice

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Any sanding sugars or sprinkles your heart desires

  1. Preheat oven to 375°F.
  2. With an electric mixer, beat butter and cream cheese on medium to high speed for 30 seconds.  Add about half of the flour, the sugar , egg, baking powder, orange or lemons zests and juice  and vanilla.  Beat until thoroughly combined.  Beat in remaining flour.  Divide the dough in half, wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least an hour.*
  3. On a cool, lightly floured surface, roll out half the dough 1/8 inch thick.**   Cut into desired shapes with your favorite cookie cutters, dipping the cutter in flour between cuts.  Place same sized shapes one inch apart on a parchment- lined cookie sheet.  Sprinkle any festive decorations over the cutouts with abandon at this time.  Bake at 375° for approximately 8 minutes or until the edges of the cookies are lightly browned.  (Cooking times will vary based on cookie size).  Let cookies cool for five minutes on the baking sheet and then move them to a wire rack to cool completely.
  4. Gather up the scraps and place them back in the fridge to cool down again.  Repeat Step 3 with the second half of the dough.  Only roll out each half of the dough twice.  Beyond that point, too much extra flour is mixed into the dough and you’ll end up with tough cookies.  Tough cookies = no good.
  5. A 2 1/2 inch cookie cutter will yield approximately 60 cookies.  My snowman was about 3 1/2 inches which yielded about 40 cookies.

* Dough should be very cold before you start to work with it.  This will reduce the level of frustration exponentially, trust me.

** I put ice in a ziplock bag and lay it on the counter for several minutes before rolling out any cookie dough.  The dough is easier to work when the counter is cool and the chilly temperature helps the cutouts keep their shape.  This makes very pretty cookies.  Pretty cookies = very good.



Best-Ever Oatmeal Cookies

     There is something wonderful about discovering that someone or something is better than I expected.  To illustrate my point, I’m sharing a cookie recipe that at first glance seems rather ordinary.  When I first discovered it in the May 2003 issue of Parenting magazine, I was underwhelmed.  A plain Jane oatmeal cookie with no spices, fruit, nuts, or chips and only a hint of almond flavoring (which I don’t even like) to jazz things up – why should I even waste my time?  But the cookie’s hefty title kept nagging at me; I couldn’t let it rest until I found out why these particular oatmeal cookies were the “best-ever”.  After baking the first of many batches, I realized I needed to raise the bar on my idea of simple oatmeal cookies because the goodies coming out of my oven were anything but boring.


     Everything about these mellow morsels is pleasantly surprising.  The dough is ridiculously easy to put together and the ingredients are probably already in your kitchen.  (Unless, of course, you are like me and have to make a special trip to the grocery store to pick up that exotic almond extract).  The cookies bake up really airy, are just sweet enough, and have a wonderful chewy texture.  And the almond extract, which I originally wrinkled my nose at, is the ingredient that I think takes these cookies from ordinary to extraordinary.

     Now, let’s be honest.  Best-Ever Oatmeal Cookies are not showy, frou-frou, center-stage cookies for baby showers and Christmas parties.  They are humble workhorse cookies meant for snacks after naptime and school and for lunch boxes and road trips and days at the beach.  They have no aspirations to be anything but utilitarian and that’s OK.  They can handle the ordinary every day cookie responsibilities – dipping in milk or hot chocolate, sandwiching a scoop of vanilla ice cream, popping in someone’s mouth straight from the oven or later from the cookie jar – and they do it with delicious grace.

    Go on.  Give them a try.  And be prepared to be pleasantly surprised.

Best-Ever Oatmeal Cookies (adapted from Cynthia Philips, Parenting May 2003)

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup white sugar

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

2 eggs

2 cups quick-cooking oatmeal

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 cups flour

1. Preheat your oven to 350°F.  Cream both sugars, butter, vanilla and almond extract in a bowl for 2-3 minutes until pale and fluffy.  Add the eggs, one at a time, and mix well.

2. Mix the oatmeal, baking soda, and flour in a separate bowl; add to the butter and sugar mixture and stir together until everything is incorporated into the dough completely.

3. Drop the dough by teaspoonfuls onto ungreased baking sheets.*  Bake approximately 12 minutes, or until lightly browned around the edges.  Cool cookies slightly before removing them from the cookie sheet.  Cool completely on cooling racks.

Yields approximately 3 1/2 dozen cookies.

*I like to use parchment paper when I’m baking cookies.  It keeps the bottoms of the cookies from getting too dark, they don’t stick to the baking sheet and clean-up is a breeze.


Strawberry and Spinach Salad

I love strawberries.

When ripened by an early summer sun and freshly picked from the patch in my backyard or purchased from a near-by farm stand, they are supremely delicious.  My family and I eat them by the bucketful on an almost daily basis in May and June – sliced in a bowl with a bit of sugar and whipped cream, piled on vanilla ice cream, mixed in cereal, crushed between shortcakes, or simply eaten straight out of the box.  (Now my mouth is watering.)

Even when they aren’t in season, I’m not above buying and eating strawberries grown in faraway places like Florida and California.  (Target, of all places, has quality berries for the best price around.)  While not quite as sublime as the homegrown, in-season berries I prefer, they are usually good enough to quell the symptoms of withdrawal that pop up during those long empty months without the homegrown variety.

A few years ago, my sister-in-law, Rebecca, brought a strawberry and spinach salad to our family Easter dinner that transported me to a whole new level of strawberry enjoyment.  With its juxtaposition of deep red berries and dark green leaves, it was as satisfying to look at as it was to eat.  The humble dressing gently magnified the sweet-tartness of the strawberries.  And the nutritional punch of the spinach alone was enough to cancel out the sugar load in the dressing and inject the eater (namely, me) with a small dose of self-righteousness.

On that spring afternoon, I fell in love.  With strawberry and spinach salad.

Rebecca was gracious enough to share her recipe with me.  And now I’m sharing it here, with you.  It is such a quick and simple dish, and yet, every time I toss it together and serve it up, people rave and compliment – as if I really had anything to do with the perfection they are seeing and tasting.  In this case, the ingredients do all the work.  My only job is to help them find each other.


See what I mean?  It’s gorgeous.

Go ahead.  Give it a try…..

Strawberry and Spinach Salad  (from Rebecca, my sister-in-law)


1 bag of spinach

1 quart of strawberries, washed and sliced but NOT sweetened


1/2 cup oil (I use canola)

1/4 cup cider vinegar

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon paprika

1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 1/2 teaspoon minced onion

2 tablespoons sesame seeds (not necessary but desirable)

Combine spinach and strawberries.  Mix the dressing together and pour over the salad.  Enjoy! 

Note: I only make half a recipe of the dressing.  For me, that is just that right amount of zingy liquid for this salad.  It’s a personal preference – I don’t like my greens to be swimming in dressing.