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Perfect Christmas cookies: No holiday miracle required

Perfect Christmas cookies: No holiday miracle required

December is cookie season. It seems like everywhere you turn, there is a perfectly decorated cookie beckoning.

I can make a good-tasting cookie, but a good tasting cookie that also is pretty to look at? Not my strong suit. Also, I tend to fall down is consistency from batch to batch, which affects my cookie confidence.

"The Perfect Cookie: Your Ultimate Guide to Foolproof Cookies, Brownies & Bars" (2017, America's Test Kitchen, $35) landed with a 250-recipe, 438-page thud on my desk in August. I glanced through it and thought it looked promising, but I wasn't in cookie mode yet.

Now, I am and I bet you are, too.

When we got that first nip in the air, I dug into the cookbook and discovered that the editors appear to be able to read my mind. I was thinking, I wonder why my cookies do this or that and then as I flipped through, the answers appeared on the pages.

Do you ever make the exact same recipe - or so you think - and your cookies just don't look or taste the same?

It could have to do with the temperature of ingredients, a crowded oven, ingredient mixing order or blending styles and times. 

With so many cookbooks on the market, if a book is on a general topic, I tend to hang onto only ones that offer comprehensive guidance. This one does that.

Some of the tips on measuring, mixing and baking serve as good reminders. For example, accuracy in measuring both wet and dry ingredients is essential for consistent results.

For dry ingredients, you'll notice the selected holiday-flavored recipes below provide weights, which the editors strongly recommend for better accuracy, as well as volume amounts for those who don't have a scale. For volume, dip the measuring up into the dry ingredients and then use a flat blade to even off the top.

For wet ingredients, a liquid measuring cup is essential. It should be placed on a flat surface and the cook should bend down to read it.

Some tips solved long-standing issues I've had: Want a flat-top -- rather than slightly domed -- sugar cookie for decorating? Start by combining the dry ingredients; and then add softened butter and mix; and then add liquid ingredients. Butter coats the flour particles, which keeps the cookies tender; and because the butter and sugar are not creamed - or whipped together - less air is incorporated, so it makes for less of a rise or domed effect.

For more tips pulled from the book - and from my own experience - check out: 8 cookie tips that could change your (baking) life.

And, while the book is filled with cookie tips, if you're looking for cookie packing and shipping tips or for advice on how to keep keep homemade cookies fresh, visit

Because we are in the holiday season, I've include holiday-themed cookie recipes below, but the book includes plenty of other recipes for dropped, rolled, pressed and no-bake cookies as well as ones for bars, brownies and blondies; and even gluten-free sweets.

One recipe that caught my eye: "Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies," which the editors boasted improved on the Tollhouse classic by using, among other things, browned butter and an extra egg yolk.

'Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies' from 'The Perfect Cookie: Your Ultimate Guide to Foolproof Cookies, Brownies & Bars" (2017, America's Test Kitchen, $35). (Photo by Carl Tremblay)

Below is a wonderful truly "foolproof" buttery cookie recipe that makes a great starter cookie for less experienced cooks who want to decorate cut-out confections. Also, you'll find a mold-able almond wreath cookie and a soft gingerbread sweet for those who like their ginger cookies chewy rather than snappy.

This "foolproof" butter cookie recipe for rolled, cut-out and decorated cookies has a rich buttery flavor and tender texture, but is tough enough to decorate.

"Superfine sugar helped to achieve a delicate texture, and using the reverse-creaming method -- beating the butter into the flour-sugar mixture -- prevented the formation of air pockets and produced flat cookies that were easy to decorate," America's Test Kitchen editors noted.

"Looking to make our dough a bit more workable without adding more butter -- at 16 tablespoons, we'd maxed out -- we landed on the addition of a little cream cheese, which made the dough easy to roll but not too soft.

"Baking the butter cookies one sheet at a time ensured that they baked evenly. Do not reroll the scraps more than once; it will cause the cookies to be tough.

Sub out lemon, orange or coconut extract for the vanilla to change up the flavor.

"This recipe can easily be doubled. You can decorate the cooled cookies with Easy All-Purpose Glaze and/or Decorator Icing (see recipes below) for a sweet, festive touch."

Foolproof Holiday Cookies
Makes about 36 cookies

2-1/2 cups (12-1/2 ounces) all-purpose flour

3/4 cup (5-1/4 ounces) superfine sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 sticks unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces and softened

1 ounce cream cheese, softened

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Using stand mixer fitted with paddle, mix flour, sugar and salt on low speed until combined. Add butter, 1 piece at a time, and mix until dough looks crumbly and slightly wet, 1 to 2 minutes.

Add cream cheese and vanilla and beat until dough just begins to form large clumps, about 30 seconds.

Transfer dough to counter; knead just until dough forms cohesive mass. Divide dough in half. Form each half into disk, wrap disks tightly in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or up to two days. (Wrapped dough can be frozen for up to two weeks. Let dough thaw completely in refrigerator before rolling.)

Working with one disk of dough at a time, roll dough 1/8-inch thick between two large sheets of parchment paper. Slide dough, still between parchment, onto baking sheet and refrigerate until firm, about 10 minutes.

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment. Working with one sheet of dough at a time, remove top piece of parchment and cut dough into shapes with cookie cutters. Using thin offset spatula, transfer shapes to prepared baking sheet, spacing them about 1 inch apart.

Bake cookies, one sheet at a time, until light golden brown, about 10 minutes, rotating sheet halfway through baking. Let cookies cool on sheet for 3 minutes, then transfer to wire rack. Let cookies cool completely before serving.


"We decorate our Foolproof Holiday Cookies with this easy-to-make glaze, but feel free to use it, dyed or not, on any flat cookie that could use a festive flourish," America's Test Kitchen editors wrote.

"The cream cheese in the glaze gives it a slightly thicker consistency that's good for spreading, and it cuts the sweetness of the glaze with its tang."

Easy All-Purpose Glaze
Makes about 1 cup

2 cups (8 ounces) confectioners' sugar

3 tablespoons milk

1 ounce cream cheese, softened

Food coloring (optional)

Whisk all ingredients in bowl until smooth.


Citrus glaze: Substitute fresh lemon, lime or orange juice for milk.

Coffee glaze: Add 1-1/4 teaspoons instant espresso powder to glaze ingredients.

Nutty glaze: Add 1/2 teaspoon almond or coconut extract to glaze ingredients.


"If you want to pipe buttons and faces with clearly defined lines on cookies such as our Soft and Chewy Gingerbread People (see recipe below) you'll need something thicker than a glaze, so we made a decorating icing," ATK editors wrote.

"Whipping egg whites with sugar creates a stiffer frosting that's easy to apply and has a beautiful white gloss. This recipe makes bright white icing.

"For colored icing, stir 1 to 2 drops of food coloring into the icing to achieve the desired color before transferring it to a pastry bag."

Decorating Icing
Makes 1-1/3 cups

2 large egg whites

2-2/3 cups (10-2/3 ounces) confectioners' sugar

Using stand mixer fitted with whisk attachment, whip egg whites and sugar on medium-low speed until combined, about 1 minute. Increase speed to medium-high and whip until glossy, soft peaks form, 2 to 3 minutes, scraping down bowl as needed.

Transfer icing to pastry bag fitted with small round pastry tip.

Decorate cookies. Allow icing to harden before serving.

Almond-Spice Christmas Wreaths from 'The Perfect Cookie: Your Ultimate Guide to Foolproof Cookies, Brownies & Bars' (2017, America's Test Kitchen, $35) (Photo by Joe Keller)

This cookie dough can be made a day ahead of time.

"We love to mold butter cookie and gingerbread doughs into fun holiday shapes and decorate them at Christmastime. But we wanted a festive-looking cookie that was a little different -- a different dough, a different texture, a different flavor.

"After some consideration, we had the idea of turning a light, flourless, nut-based cookie into a wreath-shaped Christmas treat. We made a chewy almond macaroon - like dough that, once chilled, was firm and malleable enough to form into ropes and shape into wreaths.

"For a unique flavor of the holidays, we added orange zest, ground coffee, and spices to the dough; we also folded in some marmalade at the end of mixing.

"After shaping the dough, we topped our wreaths with sliced almonds, dipping them in egg whites first so the almonds adhered. For holly-like accents, we pressed pieces of red and green maraschino cherries on top.

"Dusting the cookies with confectioners' sugar before serving gave them a fresh coat of winter snow. You can substitute dried cherries for the maraschino cherries.

Almond-Spice Christmas Wreaths
Makes 40 cookies

4 cups (18 ounces) almond flour

2 tablespoons grated orange zest (2 oranges)

1 tablespoon ground coffee

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 large egg whites

1-1/2 cups (10-1/2 ounces) granulated sugar

2 teaspoons almond extract

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 tablespoons orange marmalade


2 large egg whites

2 cups sliced almonds

40 maraschino cherries (combination of red and green), quartered

Confectioners' sugar

For cookies: Whisk almond flour, orange zest, coffee, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and salt together in bowl. Using stand mixer fitted with whisk attachment, whip egg whites on medium-low speed until foamy, about 1 minute. Increase speed to medium-high and whip whites to soft, billowy mounds, about 1 minute. Gradually add sugar and whip until glossy, soft peaks form, 2 to 3 minutes. Whip in almond extract and vanilla.

Fold almond flour mixture into whipped whites in two additions until few white streaks remain. Fold in marmalade until no white streaks remain. Transfer dough to counter and divide in half. Form each half into disk, wrap disks tightly in plastic wrap, and refrigerate until firm, at least 1 hour or up to 24 hours.

For the topping Adjust oven racks to upper-middle and lower-middle positions and heat oven to 300 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Whisk egg whites in shallow dish until frothy. Spread almonds in second shallow dish.

Divide 1 disk of dough into 20 pieces. Roll each piece into 5-inch rope on lightly floured counter, shape into circle, and press ends together to seal. Dip 1 side of each wreath into egg whites, letting excess drip off, then press gently into almonds. Space, almond side up, evenly on prepared sheets. Press 4 cherry pieces into each wreath.

Bake cookies until firm and golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes, switching and rotating sheets halfway through baking. Let cookies cool on sheets for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire rack. Repeat with remaining dough, egg whites, almonds, and cherries. Let cookies cool completely, then dust with confectioners' sugar before serving.

Soft and Chewy Gingerbread People from 'The Perfect Cookie: Your Ultimate Guide to Foolproof Cookies, Brownies & Bars' (2017, America's Test Kitchen, $35) (Photo by Joe Keller)

"These gingerbread cookies are nothing like the stale versions you punch a hole in and trim the Christmas tree with.

"Our people, while still flat enough to decorate, are soft and chewy and brimming with ginger and molasses flavors, not overwhelmed by dusty spices.

"To put the chew in our gingerbread cookies, we needed more fat than most recipes use: 12 tablespoons of melted butter did the trick.

"For ease, we used a food processor to make our dough, mixing the dry ingredients first before adding the butter, molasses, and a little milk.

"After dozens of rolling tests, we learned that rolling the dough to a 1/4-inch thickness was ideal for the soft and chewy texture we sought. We baked the cookies until they were just set around the edges and slightly puffed in the center. As they cooled, the slightly puffed cookies settled into sublime chewiness.

"Depending on your cookie cutter dimensions, all of the cookies may not fit on the sheets and a second round of baking may be required.

"We like to give our people personality by decorating them with our Decorating Icing (see above)."

Soft and Chewy Gingerbread People
Makes about 20 cookies

3 cups (15 ounces) all-purpose flour

3/4 cup packed (5-1/4 ounces) dark brown sugar

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon ground ginger

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, melted

3/4 cup light molasses

2 tablespoons milk

Process flour, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, baking soda, cloves, and salt in food processor until combined, about 10 seconds. Add melted butter, molasses, and milk and process until soft dough forms and no streaks of flour remain, about 20 seconds, scraping down sides of bowl as needed.

Spray counter lightly with baking spray with flour, transfer dough to counter, and knead until dough forms cohesive ball, about 20 seconds. Divide dough in half. Form each half into 5-inch disk, wrap disks tightly in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to 24 hours.

Adjust oven racks to upper-middle and lower-middle positions and heat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. Working with 1 disk of dough at a time, roll 1/4-inch-thick between 2 large sheets of parchment. (Keep second disk of dough refrigerated while rolling out first.) Remove top piece of parchment. Using 3-1/2-inch cookie cutter, cut dough into shapes. Peel away scraps from around cookies and space shapes 3/4 inch apart on prepared sheets.

Repeat rolling and cutting steps with dough scraps.

Bake cookies until puffy and just set around edges, 9 to 11 minutes, switching and rotating sheets halfway through baking.

Let cookies cool on sheets for 10 minutes, then transfer to wire rack. Let cookies cool completely before serving. (Cookies can be stored in wide, shallow airtight container, with sheet of parchment or waxed paper between each layer, at room temperature for up to 3 days.)

Just want to look at pretty cookies. Check out this this gallery of photos we made for National Cookie Day on Dec. 4.

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