One of my favorite things to do come holiday time is to bake for friends and family. This usually involves a couple of pies, a rich chocolate torte, a few sweet breads, and always dozens of Christmas cookies. What makes Christmas cookies different from ordinary cookies? I think it’s the extra care put into making them look beautiful. As good as chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies can be, around this time of year you want to make, give, and serve cookies that not only taste fabulous but also look fabulous.
There are many ways to make cookies look beautiful
The first thing that comes to mind is icing them with tinted royal icing. But I draw the line at making really heavily iced cookies—they make lovely decorations but are awful to eat. (I also substitute lemon juice for the water in my royal icing to give it a better flavor.) Another flavorful way I add color to cookies is by using jams and jellies to give them a jewel-like look. I like raspberry jam for my Linzer cookies, but I use all kinds of colorful jams to give sandwiched sugar cookie cut-outs a stained-glass effect.
But pretty doesn’t always mean color. My orange stars look elegant because I pipe the dough. To dress up Florentine cookies—a sugar cookie layer topped with caramel and nuts—I cut them carefully and precisely into diamond shapes and then drizzle them with chocolate. Gilding the lily? Maybe. But you have to admit they’re gorgeous.
Throughout the recipes and in the photos and captions, I offer tips on making Christmas cookies look their best. Here are some other considerations:
• If you’re rolling cookies, be sure to roll them evenly. A larger rolling pin helps keep the pressure even, giving you the same thickness throughout the dough.
• Flour the counter generously when rolling cookies. This will keep the dough from sticking and ripping. Flour the cookie cutters periodically, too, but be sure to dust off excess flour before baking.
• Keep the dough cool to keep the cookies’ shape. Also, use a spatula to lift rolled cookies onto the baking sheet without distorting their shape.
• Let cookies cool on the baking sheet. Hot cookies can bend or warp.
• Use a toothpick or a small paintbrush to add food coloring to small batches of royal icing. A little color goes a long way.
• When piping a design, practice on parchment before moving to the cookies.
• Top icing with sprinkles, candies, or dragées while the icing is still very wet so as not to crack the finished surface.
• Take your time. Haste makes for messy results.
Finally, the right equipment goes a long way toward giving you beautiful results. I already mentioned a large rolling pin. A large offset spatula makes it easier to spread the filling for the Florentines, while a tiny offset spatula can come in handy when icing. It’s convenient to have a lot of pastry bags as well as couplers, which let you change colors and tips easily. Heavy-duty baking sheets—I like double-thick aluminum pans—will bake the cookies evenly. Half sheet pans are what I use at home, and what the Florentines require (for these, you’ll also need a candy thermometer). Cookie cutters are always fun to collect and buy; look for sturdy ones on the larger size without two many narrow points, which tend to break off.