For many of us, this is the only time of year that we get out the cookie cutters, rolling pins, and often tattered and stained recipe cards from Grandma, ready to tackle the great American rolled cookie tradition.
And for many of us, this ends up meaning a mess in the kitchen, shapes that seem almost impossible to get right, and ultimately sometimes tough and not very tasty cookies. To help avoid some of these problems, here are some helpful hints you might want to try.
When you find a recipe that works, KEEP IT! If you do a search, you will find millions upon millions of variations. Some will work well for you; some will be total frustrations.
My cake mix cookie dough recipe (Cake Mix Cookies) is one very easy recipe. It is also acceptable (though not always the most inexpensive way to go) to buy cookie dough for rolling out.
Be aware that butter, margarine, and solid shortening may each require slightly different amounts of flour. If you substitute one for the other, don't be surprised if you need to add a bit more or less flour. When in doubt, start with slightly less flour than called for and then gradually add more until the dough is no longer sticky but also is not too dry. (If you do reach a point where the dough is crumbly and won't form a ball, add a few drops of water at a time, using your hands to mix it in.)
Unless the recipe calls for it, don't melt the fat that you will be using. To do so may mean that you will end up adding more flour than is really desirable. Having the fat at a soft, room temperature stage will make mixing much easier however.
Don't over-mix your dough. This isn't bread dough, so kneading isn't what you want to do!
Almost all rolled cookies will be easier to roll if the dough is chilled for several hours or overnight. It should be wrapped in waxed paper or plastic wrap or stored in a tightly covered bowl to avoid having it dry out. If you make the dough ahead and freeze it (an option with almost all of these recipes), bring it to refrigerator temperature for ease in rolling.
Sift together a mixture of flour and powdered sugar (about 1 or 2 parts flour to each part of powdered sugar). Use this to spread lightly on the area where you will be rolling your cookies. (Some people suggest using some baking cocoa powder added to the flour and powdered sugar for chocolate cookies, to mask the whitish coating flour can leave.) You may need to add more of this mixture as you continue to roll out more cookies.
Rolling and cutting
Roll small amounts of dough at a time. For most recipes, you should divide the dough in two to three parts, shape each lightly into a ball, and place the unused dough balls back in the refrigerator. To keep the thickness as even as possible, roll lightly in one direction at a time, lifting the rolling pin at the end of each stroke to avoid having the edges end up thinner than the rest.
In general, the thicker the dough, the softer the cookie; the thinner the dough, the crispier the cookies are likely to be. Some recipes will specify the preferred thickness, but, to be honest, it may be very difficult to measure whether your dough is a quarter or an eighth of an inch thick. The key, really, is to make sure that all the cookies on an individual cookie sheet are all as close to the same thickness as possible. Sometimes running your hand lightly over the dough will help you to feel spots that are thicker or thinner than others.
Always try to cut your cookies with a minimal amount of space between them. You will want to re-roll the scraps and make more cookies, but the fewer times you re-roll, the less added flour will be incorporated. Too much and those later cookies may become tough and less flavorful.
Check your recipe to see if the cookie sheets should be oiled first. If in doubt, use a little oil or cooking spray--you don't want to make perfect cookies only to have them break because they stick to the sheet when you try to take them off.
Place the cookies on the tray with space to spread. Not sure how much this recipe will "grow" while cooking? Bake a couple of "test cookies" to see how much they spread, and then space the rest of the cookies on sheets as far apart as necessary.
The more basic the shape, the easier the process will be. Again, be aware that many recipes will spread enough that the original shape may be less distinct after baking.
When you have cut as many cookies as possible out of your dough, gather the scraps and lightly shake off as much excess flour as possible. Place the scraps in a small container and refrigerate while rolling the next batch of dough.
When you have finished rolling out all the balls of dough, gather the scraps and gently mold into a ball. Roll again and cut. You can continue to re-roll the scraps until you have almost nothing left. (Challenge yourself to find the cutters that will best fit into the small amounts of remaining dough.) The last little piece can either be eaten (think cookie dough ice cream!) or shaped into a small round shape the same thickness as the other cookies. When that last pan is baked, that little "leftover" circle is a wonderful excuse to do a "taste test"!
Baking and cooling
Unless you are making a test cookie as noted above, I recommend that you roll out and make enough cookies to fill all your available cookie sheets before even turning the oven on. This saves on the cost of having the oven heating while nothing is in it and makes the overall process much more streamlined.
Almost all cookies will take only minutes to bake, and the amount of time needed will be greatly affected by the thickness of the cookies, the kind of pan used, and even the size of each individual cookie. You should plan on checking a minute or two before the earliest recommended time for your first pan or two.
In general, cookies should be taken off the cookie sheets and put on racks to cool almost immediately after removing from the oven. A few very tender varieties might need to be left on the pans for a minute or two--the directions should tell you that. If you wait too long to remove the cookies, you may have more troubles with the cookies sticking.
Until the cookies are thoroughly cool, do not try to stack them or overlap in any way.
When the cookies have been completely cooled, store them as directed in the recipe. If the recipe doesn't tell you what is the best approach, assume they should be kept tightly covered.
Try to avoid stacking cookies of the same shape directly on top of each other--instead, stagger the stacking, as they are less likely to stick to each other when you do this. If you have soft cookies, it will be a good idea to put waxed paper between each layer.
Decorating the cookies
If a simple sugared topping is desired, you can sprinkle the cookies with the decorative sugar of your choice before baking. If you wait until after baking, you may need to brush the cookies lightly with a tiny amount of water or milk, to make sure the sugar adheres to the cookies.
If you choose to frost the cookies, an icing that has less butter or cream cheese than a typical cake frosting will result in a better topping, one that will become, and stay, firm.
After frosting the cookies, allow to sit for an hour or so to thoroughly dry. The cookies should generally be stored in single layers. If space limitations mean you have to stack them, place waxed paper between layers.
Special notes for making cookies with children
If this is going to be a project to do with kids, do allow for creativity. Make a large batch of powdered sugar frosting and then put small amounts in separate bowls. Add food coloring of your choice to each. Gather toppings like colored sugars and sprinkles, red hot candies, chocolate chips, etc. Provide lots of craft sticks for spreading, one per color per kid. Give each child a baking sheet or tray with sides so that sprinkles are corraled more easily. Then, it is creativity time.
One extra hint: You probably will want to set some ground rules at the beginning, such as, only one or two chocolate chips or similar toppings per cookie, no overly thick frosting, etc. As you can see from these three recently decorated cookies, kids love thick frosting and bright and imaginative color schemes.
These may not be the cookies you take to that special office buffet, but they are great gifts for fond relatives--or for the family's own holiday desserts.