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Secrets to making a better holiday cookie

  • Betty Crocker Sugar Cookies

  • PB&J Sandwich Cookie

  • Junk in da Trunk

  • Mexican Wedding Cookies

Betty Crocker bakes with ingredients that most home bakers have. Pastry chef Hedy Goldsmith bakes with ingredients that most home bakers have but would never bake with—potato chips and popcorn, cloves and tarragon.

Whether you go with Team Betty or Team Hedy either way, you’ll give cookie-loving friends and family another reason to love the holidays, and potentially you, even more.

“We bake the way most people bake,” says Grace Wells, Cookbook Editor for The Betty Crocker Kitchens, describing Betty Crocker The Big Book of Cookies (Wiley). Ingredients and equipment are accessible and includes recipes from mixes as well as from scratch. “One isn’t necessarily better than the other,” say Wells. “Mixes have come a long way.”

Recipe: Mexican “Hot Chocolate” Wedding Cookies

Recipe: Junk in da Trunk Cookies

Recipe: Betty Crocker PB&J Sandwich Cookies

Recipe: Betty Crocker Sugar Cookies

In the Holiday Cookies chapter, Wells and her team improve holiday favorites with color and candy. They re-imagine whoopie pies by mixing a red food coloring into white filling then rolling finished cookies in crushed peppermint candies for Pink Peppermint Whoopie Pies. “Very holiday,” says Wells.

New techniques with frosting, food gel and toothpicks update traditional sugar-dusted sugar cookies. Swipe soft vanilla frosting on plain cookies then add a few drops of gel color—the kind from little pots, not from tubes. Drag a toothpick through creating a marbled look.  It’s like “marbling” a cake or brownies only on a small scale. Wells suggests practicing on parchment paper first.

Wells says their PB&J Sandwich Cookie, which uses a mix, could be a welcome addition to traditional jam-filled holiday butter cookies. “It’s an easy way to a peanut butter cookie without making it from scratch,” she says.

Measure out all ingredients beforehand to prevent unpleasant surprises midway through baking to de-stress holiday baking, says Wells. Also, follow pan sizes—a 12 X 8 will change a recipe calling for a 13 X 9-inch. And, always spoon flour into a measuring cup then level off. Because flour compacts in a bag, scooping it out with a measuring cup can add up to an extra quarter-cup to a recipe. Same goes for confectioner’s sugar.

Accomplished Miami-based pastry chef Hedy Goldsmith (part of an Iron Chef team that beat Bobby Flay) loves powerful flavors and lacks pretension. Serious recipes alternate with ones for Pop T’s (Pop Tarts), Red Velvet Twinks (semi-endangered Twinkies), and Overstuffed O’s (Oreos) in her cookbook, Baking Out Loud (Clarkson Potter).

She reinvents Mexican Wedding Cookies—those confectioner’s sugar-coated balls that melt in your mouth that everyone loves and no one knows the name of—with dark cocoa, cinnamon, espresso, cloves and chipotle. For experienced bakers she suggests adding saffron, cracked black pepper, tangerine zest or spice-of-the-moment, cardamom to create unexpected shortbreads.

(Always taste the dough when experimenting with flavors. If you don’t like it raw you won’t like it baked. No magic will happen in the oven to improve the flavor.)

Or simply, says Goldsmith with flavored sugar and store-bought dough. Mix cinnamon, citrus zest, espresso, ground ginger, nutmeg, or pumpkin spice—“it’s already filled with holiday spices so you won’t end up buying stuff you’ll never use again”—with sugar. Start with one-half teaspoon to one-half cup of sugar and work your way up. Roll a cookie log in it then slice and bake. 

Try going “Sour Patch Kids sour,” for kids she says, by rolling dough in sugar mixed with citric acid, a common, natural candy ingredient available on-line.

Finely-chopped candied ginger and espresso perk up readymade gingerbread, says Goldsmith. Then toss in chocolate chunks or Hershey Kisses, as “gooey chocolate goes great with ginger.”

Finally, tips from Marc Haymon, CMB, (Certified Master Baker) and associate dean for baking and pastry at The Culinary Institute of America will help you bake a better cookie.

--Use butter, if possible, for more flavor and better browning. Soften properly by setting it out on the counter the night before. Microwaving to “soften” creates partially-melted, partially-firm butter that actually changes a recipe.

--Baking soda is not baking powder. Never substitute one for the other.

--Always pre-heat the oven.

--Rotate halfway through baking.

--Let cookies sheets cool between baking or cookies will spread too much.

--Follow a recipe exactly the first time you make it. Improvise the second time.

--Ditch high-end non-stick and insulated, cookie sheets. Haymon uses inexpensive Wearever aluminum sheets and covers them with parchment paper for easy clean-up.

--Make all your holiday cookie doughs in early December. Roll into logs, cover with parchment and plastic wrap, and freeze. Slice what you need as you need it.