An interesting thing started happening to me this winter, something that hasn’t happened to me before. People started asking me all kinds of questions about holiday baking, from requests for recipe suggestions, to procedural advice, to equipment recommendations. Apparently, I’ve finally acquired a reputation within my circle as the go-to source for all things baking. This is why I’ve decided to compile my best advice for how you too, loyal readers, can undertake a Cookie Bonanza of your own:
- Plan, plan, plan: Allow me to have a do as I say, not as I do moment: do your planning in advance, and stick to it. You don't have to spend all year testing recipes like I do, but come up with a workable, well-balanced list of cookies in advance. Assess what ingredients you'll need. Check the freshness of your spices (if that ground ginger that's been hanging around your spice rack for years smells like nothing, your cookies will taste like nothing too if you go ahead and use it. Figure out what you can do in advance. All of this goes double if this is your first large scale baking endeavor. Once you have a couple years under your belt, then you can go rogue, like me, and try to cram in new stuff at the last minute.
- Become a
crazycompletely rational, well-justified hoarder: There is nothing worse than being midway through a huge baking project and discovering you're about to run out of flour, sugar, eggs, butter, etc. All of these supplies go on sale at the grocery store starting around Thanksgiving, so clip your coupons and load up on all the staples, along with chocolate chips. I like to have about 8 pounds of butter in the freezer, at the ready, 3 bags of unbleached all-purpose flour, and a couple bags each of granulated, brown, and powdered sugar. An extra bottle of vanilla extract on hand never hurts either. If you like to bake, you'll use up these reinforcements sooner rather than later anyway.
- Beg, borrow, or steal Tupperware: You are about to produce a huge volume of cookies. You will need at least one container for each type of cookie that you bake, as you won't want to mix them until you assemble the final boxes. This keeps their aromas and textures discrete as long as possible. This year, I borrowed every single piece of my mother's larger Tupperware containers to add to my own collection, and I still had to resort to using Ziploc freezer bags. Make sure you give all of your cookies a home.
- Acquire some fancy gift boxes: On a related note, your cookies will need a container to make it to their intended recipients. Your friends and coworkers will be far more impressed if you package their gifts in a semi-professional way. I prefer boxes with a clear window on top, so everyone can be wowed by their contents without having to open them. I really like the treat boxes that Martha Stewart sells, and I used them in 2008 and 2009, but they are very pricey. They are available at Michael’s, so if you keep an eye out for coupons, you might be able to get them at a more reasonable rate, but this year I went with some similar cupcake boxes also sold at Michael's, and they were much more cost-effective. I also prefer square boxes, or at the very least boxes that are flat on top, as they stack easier for transportation purposes.
- Empty out your freezer: The secret to mass cookie production is to get as much done in advance as possible. Some people like to actually bake the cookies in advance and freeze them, but I think they taste better (and fresher) if you freeze the unbaked cookies in a single layer on a sheet pan, and bake them at the last minute, within a day or so of delivering them. I did that this year with the speculaas, orange-fig pillows, banana-walnut chocolate chunk cookies, the chocolate base of the thumbprint cookies, and the peanut butter cookies, and all of them baked up perfectly using this method. This tends to work best for hand-formed cookies, drop cookies, and whole, uncut logs of icebox cookie dough, though you could probably do it with cut-out cookies if you really needed to. This will not work with bar cookies.
- Clear your schedule: Let’s face it, a huge baking project is going to take time. Block out a whole weekend to just do this. If you’re really good at budgeting your time, maybe rsvp to someone else’s holiday party one night, but otherwise, stay home and lie low.
- Parchment paper, enough said: This is actually my favorite tip for baking, period. Use parchment paper on your pans. It’s a small additional cost, but it will more than make up for lost time in washing your cookies sheets repeatedly, and possibly getting things stuck. If you don’t already use parchment to line your baking sheets, start now – it will change your life.
- Work clean: Unless you have an endless supply of baking implements (and not even I have that many bowls, mixing cups, and spatulas), you’re going to need to wash everything almost as soon as you need it. Don’t let the sink pile up with dishes – it will just be overwhelming in the end, when you’re exhausted from making so many treats. You’re going to need that teaspoon/liquid measuring cup/paddle attachment for the stand mixer again in thirty minutes, so why not wash up while you’re waiting on a batch of cookies to bake? Also, make sure you keep your counters clean. Between all that measuring and rolling out dough on the counter, you’re going to make a mess. Wash that thing down constantly, and sanitize it too while you’re at it.
- Figure out a delivery method: I like to arrange a ride to work on the day of the Cookie Bonanza. All those little cookies are deceptively heavy when amassed, and if you schlep them on a bus or train, you’ll probably end up with a ton of broken cookie shrapnel, in addition to sore arms.
- Label everything: The last thing you want to do is kill somebody. Seriously. Insert a piece of paper in the box of cookies that lists everything contained within, with notations for which cookies contain nuts. You don’t want to be the cause of anybody’s anaphylactic reaction. Plus, (and this may be the lawyer’s daughter in me,) I figure that people are less enabled to sue you if they do have an allergic reaction to something you fed them if you can prove that you warned them of the contents in advance.
I'm not saying you need to be as obsessive or ambitious as I am. But should you wish to undertake a large-scale baking project of your own, I firmly believe these tips will get you pretty far in achieving your goals, whatever they may be.