We are all about cookies this season, from our Cookie Central guide to the Cookie of the Day on Taste. Every Saturday until Christmas, we’ll be talking to some top cookie experts for the inside scoop, sharing their best cookie tips and go-to recipes for the holidays. Read on!
Meet Joanne Chang, a Harvard grad and former management consultant who left her career to pursue another passion — as a professional baker. Now, she’s the pastry chef and owner at Flour Bakery and Café in Boston, where she and her team make fresh pastries, breads, cakes, cookies and tarts, along with sandwiches, soups and salads. She is also the author two cookbooks: Flour, Spectacular Recipes from Boston’s Flour Bakery + Cafe and Flour Too, Indispensible Recipes for the Cafe’s Most Loved Sweets and Savories. Here, we ask Joanne all about her holiday cookie traditions — find her tips and a favorite recipe below!
What are some of your favorite holiday baking traditions?
Before I opened Flour I made decorated sugar cookies every holiday. I spread out a few sheets in my living room and baked and decorated for a few nights in a row and then packaged bells, sleighs, Santas, stars and candy canes into little packages with a bow. I made dozens and dozens of cookie bags to hand out to friends and co-workers. It was one of my very favorite traditions! Even after Flour opened, for the first few years I borrowed the commercial ovens and all of the professional equipment and carried all of the baked cookies to my apartment and continued to make my own homemade bags. Now we make so many of these at the bakery that I don’t have time to make them on my own anymore. But I still gather up the ones we make as a team to pass out to friends and family.
What flavors are best for baking this time of year?
Definitely all of the warm fall spices! Nutmeg, allspice, mace, ginger, cinnamon, clove. Oranges and citrus; walnuts and pecans. Lots of maple and molasses. Apples and pear and quince. And cranberries! I love the holidays!
Let’s talk cookies. What are your top 3 tips for making the best batch every time?
- Chill the dough first! So many people make cookie dough and then bake it immediately and I find that most dough needs at least 4 to 6 hours, if not overnight, to fully hydrate and firm up for best baking.
- Don’t scrimp on ingredients. Use grade A butter, the best chocolate you can, superfine sugar, fresh flour (yes I know some of you have flour in bins that has been sitting on your counter for months and months — get fresh flour!), high quality jams, etc.
- Finally, SCRAPE WELL. When making batter be sure to scrape well to thoroughly combine all of the ingredients together so that they bake evenly.
Any creative cookie decorating ideas?
A fun cookie to make and decorate is a big rectangle of gingerbread cookie that you then cut up into various shapes and pieces like a puzzle. Bake the cookies separated, trim them when they come out of the oven so they all fit like a puzzle, decorate the whole puzzle as one thing- santa, candy cane, xmas tree, whatever- and then separate and let dry.
Using colored sugar is quick and easy and very pretty as well — you can either buy it or make it with some sugar and food coloring. It will stick to royal icing when you pipe it and dry up glittery and glimmery. Finally, we love making peppermint kisses: big meringue cookies tinted with a streak of red and pink and piped with a big round tip. They dry out into crispy, light, festive cookies.
When it comes to holiday cookies, do you stick to tradition or go experimental?
I tend to stick with tradition. I didn’t grow up with traditional holiday foods, so what might seem old hat to some is still relatively novel to me. Nothing beats a spicy gingerbread cookie or a peppermint brownie in my book.
Have you had any memorable cookie-baking disasters?
I’ll never forget the year I had all of my cookies laid out on my living room floor and I literally fell onto them. I’m klutzy by nature, and that night my fatigue got the best of me (that’s what staying up three nights in a row will do to you) and I just slipped and landed on a whole slew of cookies. I put them in bags and gave them away anyway …to my closest friends who still loved them!
What’s in your ideal holiday cookie tin?
I like a wrapped Pringles tin! It keeps cookies fresh, and you can decorate with ribbon and bows and markers.
What fun presentation/wrapping ideas have you seen or tried for gifting cookies?
We have traditional take out Chinese food containers that make nifty and fun containers for wrapping up cookies. I love the idea of a stack of cookies in a large mug with some teabags as a set.
Holiday Sugar Cookies
Makes about twenty-four 2 1/2-inch cookies
I’ve been baking holiday cookies since long before I became a pastry chef. I found a simple recipe for sugar cookies during my first year in college, and I’ve been using it—gradually improving it as my baking career progressed—ever since. Some years I’ve made so many cookies for so many people that the dough takes up an entire shelf of my refrigerator. I end up spending long hours, night after night after work, rolling out the dough, chilling it, cutting out shapes, baking the cookies, letting them cool, and decorating them. Decorating is the fun part—I customize them for the recipients, playing with Pollockesque dribbles, carefully drawn faces on gingerbread shapes, and traditional adornments like silver candy balls on Christmas trees. The whole process takes up a lot of time, but it’s part of the joy of the season, and people love getting homemade cookies as a gift.
With holiday baking, always remember to relax and enjoy it. If your decorating doesn’t come out perfectly, it isn’t a calamity. Holiday cookies are meant to look as if they came from your home kitchen and not from some factory that cranks out hundreds of identical Santas every day. Making holiday treats at home each year encapsulates what I love about baking: handmade simple, sweet things that bring joy to others.
1 cup (2 sticks/228 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups (300 grams) granulated sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3 cups (420 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3 1/4 cups (1-pound box/454 grams) confectioners’ sugar
5 to 6 tablespoons (70 to 90 grams) milk
Food coloring, as desired
Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a handheld mixer or a wooden spoon), cream together the butter and granulated sugar on medium speed for about 5 minutes, or until the mixture is light and fluffy. (This step will take about 10 minutes if using a handheld mixer or a spoon.) Stop the mixer a few times and use a rubber spatula to scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl and the paddle to release any clinging butter or sugar. Beat in the eggs and vanilla on medium speed for 2 to 3 minutes, or until thoroughly combined. Scrape the bowl and the paddle again to make sure the eggs are thoroughly incorporated.
In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt until well mixed. On low speed (or with the wooden spoon), slowly blend the flour mixture into the butter-sugar mixture and then mix just until the flour mixture is totally incorporated and the dough is evenly mixed.
Scrape the dough onto a sheet of plastic wrap, and wrap the dough in the plastic wrap, pressing down to form a disk about 8 inches in diameter and 1 inch thick. Refrigerate the dough for about 1 hour, or until it firms up enough to roll out. (At this point, the dough can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 5 days or in the freezer for up to 1 month. If the dough is frozen, thaw it overnight in the refrigerator. Let the dough sit at room temperature for about 1 hour before using, then proceed as directed.)
Position a rack in the center of the oven, and heat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Lightly flour a work surface, place the dough disk on the surface, and lightly flour the dough. Roll out about 1/4 inch thick. Keep both the work surface and the dough floured to prevent sticking. If the dough begins to stick, sprinkle on a little more flour and keep rolling. Using a cookie cutter about 21/2 inches in diameter, cut out as many cookies as possible. Place them on a baking sheet, spacing them about 2 inches apart. Gather up the scraps, reroll, and cut out more cookies. If the dough is soft and warm and difficult to roll, wrap the scraps in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm enough to roll.
Bake for 15 to 17 minutes, or until the cookies are golden brown on the edges and pale to light brown in the centers. Let the cookies cool on the baking sheet on a wire rack for about 30 minutes, or until they are cool enough to remove with a spatula. Then transfer to the wire rack to cool completely.
To make the frosting: While the cookies are cooling, place the confectioners’ sugar in a medium bowl and whisk in enough of the milk to make a stiff, thick icing. (If it is too thin, it will run off of the cookies, so err on the stiffer side. You can always add more milk.) Divide the frosting among as many small bowls as necessary to use the food coloring to tint each batch as you like. (The plain frosting can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 day. Use a spoon to loosen it if it stiffens at the bottom of the container, then color as desired.)
Spoon each colored frosting into a pastry bag fitted with 1/4- to 1/8-inch round tip, or place the frostings in zippered plastic bags, and snip off a tiny corner from each bag. Decorate the cookies as desired. Let the frosting dry completely, about 8 hours, before stacking the cookies for storage.
The cookies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 4 days.
Joanne Chang, Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston’s Flour Bakery and Café, Chronicle Books (2010).
Joanne Chang headshot courtesy of Colin Clark.