Every year, I bake a collection of holiday cookies, and I love the entire process. If there is one time when I am glad that I got the baking gene (and its inherent organization skills), its at Christmas time. I thought that I would share some of the tips I've learned over the years to apply to your own baking marathon. The cookies above, from top: Gingerbread People (with cinnamon candy buttons); Chocolate Wafers with Candy Cane Crunch; Rainbow Cookies; Pfefferneusse; Sugar Cookies (stars); Peanut Butter Blossoms; Sugar Cookies (trees); Diane's Walnut Thumbprints (Sonia Henies); center, Ginger Molasses Cookies. I will be posting the recipes that aren't linked.
*When choosing your selection, look for balance in colors, shapes, and sizes. Combine easy drop cookies (such as peanut butter blossoms) with more difficult ones that require rolling, cutting, and decorating.
*Read through the recipe well to understand every step. Many Christmas cookie doughs need to be chilled, so don't be caught off guard.
*Great cookies cannot be baked on flimsy baking sheets. Use sturdy, heavy-gauge half-sheet pans measuring about 18-by-13-inches, which have many advantages over smaller, thinner sheets. First of all, they just hold more cookies, which speeds up the total prep time, especially important when baking many batches.
*Line your baking sheets with parchment paper. Some bakers like silicone baking mats, but they insulate the sheets and can keep cookies from crisping. If you like silicone mats, be sure to wipe them clean with hot water after every use, as they can soak up butter from the cookies, which will eventually go rancid and give the mats an off aroma and flavor. (Am I the only person that this has ever happened to?)
*If at all possible, buy flat parchment paper, and cut them to fit the half-sheet pans. I get my parchment at a local restaurant supplier. As it comes in a 1000-sheet box, I share it with other bakers. As it was, my last box lasted about 15 years! But there are many options and prices online, including half-sheet liners that do not need to be cut, but are somewhat pricier because they aren’t sold in bulk.
*Arm yourself with plenty of half-sheet pans, parchment paper, and cooling racks. You cannot have too many of these when it comes time to bake Christmas cookies.
*If you have an enclosed porch and the weather is cold, use it as a "walk-in refrigerator." This comes in especially handy to cool down hot baking sheets without resorting to rinsing under cold running water, which can warp them. I also chill my cut-out cookies before baking as cold cookies hold their shape better than ones that have been softened in a warm kitchen.
*Drop cookies will bake most evenly if the dough is shaped into equal mounds. Use a food portion scoop with a 1 TBS capacity to portion out the dough, spacing the mounds apart as directed in the recipe. There are many cookie scoops sold online, but I prefer a food-service quality scoop.
*It is a good idea to bake a single sheet of cookies as a test run to establish how much they spread and the exact baking time based on your oven. A minute or two in either direction can make the difference between a soft chewy cookie and a crisp, crumbly one. Both are good, but you may have a preference.
*Cookies really should be baked one sheet at a time on the center rack of the oven to be sure that the baking sheet doesn’t get too close to a heat source and burn. However, it is more practical to bake two sheets of cookies at a time, and it can be done, if the baking sheets’ positions are switched halfway through baking. Position oven racks in the top third and center of the oven and preheat the oven. Bake the cookies for half of their estimated baking time. Switch the positions of the cookies from top to bottom, and also rotate the pans from front to back, and continue baking until they are the required state of doneness.
*I love cookie jars—I have a collection of Christmas ones that I put out as decorations every year. But, the sad truth is that they don’t really keep cookies fresh. Store cookies in metal or plastic airtight containers with the layers separated by waxed or parchment paper. I buy inexpensive plastic containers at the local dollar store, and they work just fine.
*Most cookies (except ones with egg-based fillings, such as lemon squares, which should be refrigerated) can be stored at room temperature. Do not store very different cookies (for example, spicy and plain, or crisp and soft) together in the same container, or they will pick up each other’s characteristics (the crisp cookie could soften, and the vanilla cookie taste like cinnamon). I have a lot of cheap containers to store each cookie separately.