While I have been knitting away, I can’t exactly blog about anything I’ve worked on recently or I will spoil some Santa related surprises. So what does that leave me to blog about? Holiday Baking of course! Several years ago I started baking my Christmas presents instead of buying trinkets and nonsense that aren’t necessary. I found my money went a lot further and baked goods were much more appreciated. Really, who doesn’t love home made cookies?
Over the years, the cookie bags have come to have some notoriety among my friends. Around Thanksgiving I start making the “list” as it’s referred to, and people start asking if they’re still on it. Unfortunately this year I am cutting back on the number (I have made as many as 35 bags in previous years) and the variety of baked goods (I had done as many as 15 types of cookies and candies). This year I’m narrowing it down from my top 10 favorite recipes with links below.
1. Chocolate Chip Cookies (via CooksIllustrated.com)
What cookie gift bag is complete without chocolate chip cookies? This recipe is my favorite Chocolate Chip cookie recipe, the cookies are thick and chewy and don’t get crunchy for several days. Cooks Illustrated contributes this to melting the butter (and cooling to room temp) rather than creaming together the butter and sugar. I use the Ghiradelli bitter sweet chips (70% cocoa) for a hearty chocolate flavor without too much additional sweetness.
Tip: If you use a premium vanilla, you may want to cut back the amount by a third or so as this recipe calls for a considerable amount and it can make the vanilla flavor in the dough overwhelming. The cookies still taste good but we all know half the fun of Chocolate Chip cookies is eating the dough.
2. Peanut Butter Cookies (via CooksIllustrated.com)
This Peanut Butter Cookie recipe has both peanut butter and freshly ground roasted peanuts for a rich nutty taste. This cookie is also a thick and chewy cookie. Some years I “hide” a Reeses Peanut Butter Cup on the inside, but even with just with the traditional cross-hatched “fork” pattern they are a crowd favorite.
Tip: If you’re going to include Reeses cups inside the cookies, make sure the dough goes over the top of the cup all the way around, or cover it completely with dough otherwise the cookie dough pulls away from the chocolate in the oven.
3. Cherry Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies (via Epicurious.com)
Every year I look for new recipes to include and I ask everyone if there are any cookies that can come out of the goodie bags to make room. Every year this cookie gets a resounding “NO!” This recipe contains both vanilla extract and almond extract which ads just a touch of complexity to the flavor. I also omit the nuts from the recipe, in this case I don’t think the cookies need them.
Tip: I struggled a bit to perfect this recipe as the bottoms burnt before the middles set using the original instructions. I found that if I lowered the oven temperature by 25 degrees and I cook for 6 minutes on the top rack and 6 minutes on the bottom rack (rotating 180 degrees on the switch) they come out cooked and still chewy.
4. Peaches and Cream Cookies (via FoodNetwork.com)
I wanted something a little different for the gift bags and these delivered and more! They smell like breakfast when they’re in the oven and considering they contain oatmeal, dried apricots and brown sugar, it’s not a stretch to image the ingredients mixed in a bowl instead of on the cookie sheet. The “cream” comes from white chocolate chips.
Tip: Don’t go cheap on the chocolate, especially white chocolate, you really can taste the difference. Some of the super market brands can be waxy. I prefer the Ghiradelli brand but I try to find a good sale before I buy as they’re a bit more money.
5. Gingersnaps (via AllRecipes.com)
These are my sister’s favorite as well as my mom’s. Although this recipe doesn’t “snap” they have amazing ginger flavor. I make mine with unsalted butter rather than shortening as I prefer the flavor. They do tend to spread thin, I’ve read suggestions that to avoid this reduce the butter to one stick per batch rather than a stick and a half. If you make as in the recipe they will be crisp on the edges and chewy in the middles.
Tip: For more ginger bang for your bite, I put a 1 to 1 ratio of crystallized ginger and white sugar in the food processor and grate until fine. Next dip the top of each cookie dough ball in the ginger sugar before baking.
6. Brown Sugar Cookies (via CooksIllustrated.com)
The first time I made these cookies I was a little doubtful. The recipe calls for you to brown the butter in a sauce pan on the stove before using it in the dough. I debated skipping that step but Cooks Illustrated always has a reason for everything they tell you to do and in this case the reason is that the nuttiness of the browned butter flavor highlights the brown sugar to perfection. The result is a much more complex cookie than the standard white sugar variety with caramel tones.
Tip: Use a saute pan to brown the butter if you’re creating a double batch. There is not enough surface area to brown that much butter effectively in a sauce pan and you’ll end up cooking off too much of the liquid which results in a dry cookie.
7. Cookie Dough Truffles (via FoodNetwork.com)
I said above that everyone loves cookie dough, but they’re not always around during baking to enjoy it, so why not make a cookie dough candy instead? This recipe is egg free to make the “dough” safe for consumption. It calls for sweetened condensed milk to provide the flavors usually expressed by creaming the butter and sugar then adding eggs. I also leave the nuts out of this recipe as well because I’m a Chocolate Chip Cookie purist, aka No Nuts Allowed!
Tip: I portion these with a cookie dough scoop and then put them in the freezer to set before I roll them. Once they’ve hardened (about 30 minutes) I take them out and roll them into balls then put them back in for another 30 before dipping them in chocolate. If you skip this step, the heat from your hands softens the dough which then falls apart from the heat of the chocolate. The cold dough balls result in a slightly thicker chocolate shell but the chocolate stays smoother without the impurities.
8. Oreo Bark (via AllRecipes.com)
I have a love/hate relationship with this recipe. I love it because it’s easy and tastes so good. I hate it because it’s constantly remarked as the favorite of my “cookies” and it only has 3 ingredients and takes no effort at all compared to the other recipes.
Tip: I melt the semisweet chocolate first, spread it out on parchment paper lined trays in a 1/4 inch thick layer. I then break Double Stuffed Oreos into quarters and place on top of the chocolate. Next melt and pour the white chocolate on top, to seal everything together. I dip my spatula in the still soft dark chocolate and twist the spatual over the white chocolate to create the swirl patterns. If you stir the cookies in white chocolate as the recipe calls for the crumbs will muddy the appearance and smooth texture of the white chocolate. Also, since white chocolate has less fat content than traditional chocolate it is important not to expose it to too much heat, if you don’t have a double boiler, follow the microwave instructions for melting white chocolate.
9. Peanut Brittle (via BettyCrocker.com)
Growing up in the pre-internet world, most of the things that were cooked in our house come from one of two cook books. My mom had an old Betty Crocker cookbook she got when she was in college and the baking recipe pages were so worn they fell out when you turn the pages. I’ve been making this brittle recipe for my family for more than a decade. When I moved out I was in a panic because I couldn’t find a good Peanut Brittle recipe. Finally I Googled “Betty Crocker Peanut Brittle” and there it was, same recipe as I made in my teens. Personally I like the brittle part more than the peanuts but what can you do.
Tip: Butter the tray while the candy is coming up to temperature. You do not have time to do this after it’s reached the desired temp. Also, sugar is a fickle beast, it will seem to be “stuck” at the same temperature forever but as soon as you turn your back on it, the heat will shoot up and it will be burnt. Make sure you have a good candy thermometer, patience and no distractions.
10. Brown Sugar Fudge (via Epicurious.com)
Last but certainly not least is one of my personal favorites, the Brown Sugar Fudge. This recipe is complex and rich so a little piece goes a long way. This recipe isn’t hard but does require some patience as you’re working with sugar. The end result is well worth it, a silky delicious fudge with with a deep caramel flavor.
Tip: I use dark brown sugar for half of the total brown sugar for a more rich molasses flavor. Also, don’t skip the part in the instructions where it tells you to sift the confectioner’s sugar. This has the same results as dumping flower into gravy, which is to say that if you don’t do it, you’ll end up with a lumpy fudge.
Hope this helps inspire your baking, it certainly helped me decide what I’m putting in this year’s cookie bags. Are you on the list? For more pictures of last year’s baking read my 2010 Holiday Baking post. Happy Holidays! Tell me your favorite cookie in the comments.