Oh, sure. Cakes are the showstopper desserts. Pies have a certain vintage cachet. Then there’s the flashy novelty of cupcakes or cake pops or the latest trendy treat.
But nothing beats the enduring appeal of cookies. Modest, hard-working, versatile and just plain tasty, cookies make people happy.
Maybe that’s why cookies are the go-to sweet of holiday baking.
"Cookies are nostalgia. They’re childhood memories. They’re Christmas in a scent," says Belinda Bigold, co-owner of Winnipeg’s High Tea Bakery.
"That aroma from the kitchen, there’s nothing’s better than that," says Bigold. "It makes you feel like a kid again when you start baking."
Cookies are often the first thing we bake with our children, partly because they’re relatively straightforward to make. But a few simple tips and tricks can give you even better, more consistent results. Bigold opened the bakery with her mother, Carol Bigold, in 2003. (Belinda’s sister, Michelle Bigold, is head decorator.) Experience has shown her that, with cookies, accuracy matters. "Baking is a science," she points out. "I mean there is an art to it, but it’s still a science."
"You can’t approach baking like you do a stir-fry."
Be prepared. Make like the cooking shows and measure everything beforehand, says Bigold: "Do not get to Step 9 and realize you don’t have that lemon you thought you had."
Don’t assume you can eyeball sizes, thicknesses or spacing.
People often over- or underestimate what a half-inch looks like, so use a ruler if necessary. And remember that the thickness of the dough will affect baking times.
Cookies are small, so a minute of baking time one way or the other can have a big impact on taste and texture. Check early and check often. Get to know your oven and the signs of cookies being done, which can be different depending on the recipe. Colour isn’t always enough. "Goldenbrown?" says Bigold. "Ask 10 people what golden-brown is and you are going to get 10 different answers."
Be careful with measurement.
Most professional bakers measure flour and sugar by weight, which gives a more accurate result. If you do measure by volume, there are ways to minimize fluctuations. Many cookbooks recommend that you spoon flour into a dry measure and then level with a knife. (Scooping up flour will compact it and result in a "bigger" cup.) "Don’t just assume you can scale up or down," advises Bigold. "You can’t necessarily double or triple a recipe." There are substitutions you can make in a pinch, but sometimes even minor changes have consequences.
Brown sugar has a higher moisture content than white sugar, for example, so swapping can change not just the flavour but the consistency of your dough.
Bigold also counsels patience: "Baking cannot be rushed. If it says you need to let something cool, you need to let it cool. If it says eggs at room temp, your eggs need to be at room temp, or you’re not going to get the same result."
Taking the time to refrigerate the dough or the rolled out cookies can seem like a fussy, Martha Stewart-ish extra step, but it will help cookies keep their shape when baking.
Finally, good cookies come down to good ingredients. "A cookie is only going to be as good as what goes into it," Bigold says.
"Our butter comes straight from Notre Dame Creamery. Our lemons are fresh lemons, not extract.
That makes all the difference."
And after all your work, make sure you store cookies correctly.
Most cookies do not need to be and, in fact, should not be kept in the fridge. "That will kill them," warns Bigold. Place them in an airtight container at room temperature or freeze them for later use. "But don’t thaw them by putting them on a pretty tray," says Bigold. "That will dry them out." Defrost the cookies in their container.
Even though it’s not yet December, the High Tea Bakery already smells like gingerbread, with the ovens turning out perennial holiday favourites, including the bakery’s famous mini imperials.
"Those things have taken over our bakery," jokes Bigold. "They jumped to a whole other level after the Queen." (The bakery provided imperial cookies for the Queen when she visited the city in 2010.) "But even before that, they were well on their way. Winnipeggers are obsessed with imperials, and they’re really loyal to whatever one they like."
There are also cardamom-caramel sandwich cookies, orange cranberry shortbread, chocolate peppermint thumbprints, German lebkuchen and, of course, Christmas-themed decorated cookies.
"Everyone forgets about cookies," says Bigold. "They’re seen as kind of an extra, but they’re what everybody goes for when you have a buffet table going. You can please more people with more items."
"There’s a little something for everybody. When you see that plate of Christmas cookies, there’s lemon, there’s chocolate, there’s cinnamon, there’s a mix of flavours."
To kick-start your own festive baking, this recipe for a much loved (and now retired) High Tea cookie mixes the grown-up tastes of coffee and chocolate in one rich, dark, tender sweet.
Chocolate coffee fingers
125 g (½ cup) butter, room temperature
125 ml (½ cup) light brown sugar
1 egg yolk, room temperature
10 ml (2 tsp) coffee
10 ml (2 tsp) boiling water
310 ml (1¼ cup) all-purpose flour
30 ml (2 tbsp) cocoa
375 ml (1 ½ cup) icing sugar
10 ml (2 tsp) coffee
30 ml (2 tbsp) boiling water
In a small bowl, beat butter, sugar and egg yolk until light and fluffy. Stir in combined coffee and water, then sifted dry ingredients. Mix to a soft dough, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Preheat oven to 175C (350F) and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat mat. Roll dough into log shapes, about 6-7.5 cm (2 ½-3 in) long and 2 cm (¾ in) wide. Place on cookie sheet, about 2.5 cm (1 in) apart, and flatten very slightly.
Mark cookies diagonally with a knife for decoration. Bake for about 8-11 minutes, or until cookies start to brown and the edges crisp up a bit.
(Some crackling in the cookie is normal.) Cool on rack. Prepare icing by sifting icing into a small bowl, stirring in coffee and water and beating until smooth. Gradually add more water if needed to make spreading consistency. Place icing in a small-tipped icing bag and ice cooled cookies in a zigzag pattern.
Tester’s notes: My cookies didn’t look quite as polished as the High Tea version, but they tasted divine. I did refrigerate my dough before rolling, but my first batch "blobbed out" as Bigold says, so I put the second batch in back in the fridge after shaping just to firm them up a bit more.
For the coffee in this recipe, you can use brewed coffee, coffee made with instant coffee crystals — this lets you make it as strong as you like — or Bigold’s choice, a shot of espresso. If you don’t have fancy decorating equipment, you can improvise by placing icing in a small zip-lock plastic bag and cutting a hole in the corner.