No softened butter? Overcooked cookies? Recipes, tips for holiday baking

WASHINGTON It’s that time of year when clean kitchens everywhere become unintentionally dusted with flour, greased up with butter and decorated with icing.

It’s holiday baking season and if your plans this week involve ear-marking recipes and firing up the stand mixer, Meredith Tomason of D.C.’s Rare Sweets has a few tips to get you through the madness.

Check the oven

If you haven’t used your oven in a while, it’s a good idea to turn it on and put a thermometer in there to make sure the temperature is reading correctly.

“You’re going to go to all of this trouble to make cookies and then you think you’re doing everything right, and suddenly you walk away and the oven starts smoking and you’re like, ‘What’s going on?’” Tomason said.

If the temperature isn’t reading true, you can turn it up or down, depending on where you need it to be.

Bring ingredients to room temperature

A lot of recipes call for room-temperature butter, so make sure you take out enough sticks for both the dough and the icing a few hours before you start baking.

“You’re going to get a nice texture with your cookies; they won’t be as crunchy or as hard,” Tomason said.

If you’re in a pinch, you can microwave the butter — Tomason admits she’s done it, which is refreshing to hear — but keep a close eye on it to make sure the butter just softens and doesn’t melt.

“It’s not the end of the word, but if you let your eggs and your butter sit out, they’re going to incorporate a lot better and play nicely in the bowl together if they’re around the same temperature,” she said.

Stick to the classics

Save the other 11 months to test out new recipes. If you’re bringing goodies to a holiday get-together or are gifting them to friends, stick with the more classic confections.

Tomason’s tried-and-true treat is gingerbread — cake, not cookies.

“It’s warm, it’s kind of comforting and the nice thing about gingerbread is that it can last for a long time,” she said.

“So you can make a big batch of it at the beginning of the week and if you have a few different parties that you’re hosting or are going to, you can use the same gingerbread throughout the week.”  

Don’t be thrown off by the long list of spices in the recipe. Thomason says it’s worth it. At the bakery, she tops the cake with a lemon buttercream frosting “to brighten it and bring out the spices,” but she says a thin version of a royal icing does the trick just fine.

“It just adds a little sweetness to the spice,” she said.

Work ahead

If you’re making a large quantity of cookies, you don’t have to do it all in one day. Tomason says you can make your dough ahead of time. Wrap it in plastic and store it in the fridge. Then, when you’re ready, take out the chilled dough, slice it and bake the cookies.

“Especially this time of year — you just never know what you’re in for after work, whether you’re suddenly invited to a party or you have to bring a gift for someone the next day, so I stockpile cookies,” she said.

“It’s an easy way to look like you really know what you’re doing and have fresh cookies any day that you want.”

Don’t cry over burnt cookies

If your tray of treats spent a little too much time in the oven, things aren’t completely ruined. Tomason says you probably shouldn’t attempt to scrape off burned edges and bottoms, but you don’t need to throw them away either.

Crunch them up and toss them into another dessert.

“It’s going to go way above and beyond what you originally planned on doing, but you could make a trifle and add the cookie crumbs to a trifle or a hot-fudge Sundae or something like that,” Tomason said.

Gifting your goodies

Tomason likes seeing the cookies she’s giving someone, so she opts for a clear cellophane bag that has a bottom so that the cookies are supported. Tie it off with a bow and you’re good to go.

“The gift that you’re giving is not just the cookies, but the love and the effort that you put into them, so for me, it’s important for the person that you’re giving them to to see the beautiful cookies that you made,” Tomason said.

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