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 Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito, owners of the Brooklyn bakery Baked and authors of three Baked cookbooks. The self-proclaimed “dessert archeologists” opened the shop in 2005, focusing on the regional desserts of America and vowing to offer more than just cupcakes. They love experimenting with new ingredients, and their cases are always stuffed with brownies, cookies, scones, layer cakes and countless other sweet treats. You know we’re fans, since we sell Baked mixes for their famous brownies, whoopie pies, loaves and Brookster, a chewy chocolate chip cookie nestled inside a fabulous fudge brownie. We asked Matt and Renato all about baking holiday cookies — find their tips and an ultimate recipe below!
What are some of your favorite holiday baking traditions?
Matt: I am all about holiday cookies…boatloads of Christmas cookies. In high school, my Scottish grandmother taught me how to make her shortbread (not an easy recipe to master). We would eat about half a batch right away, reserve another half for later, and then divide the rest up into individual tins (grandma had soooo many tins) for gifts. I continue the shortbread tradition, but I also like to mix it up with a wide variety of other classic cookies, like chocolate crackles, peppermint brownies and peanut butter blossoms. If I had to guess, I suppose I make about 20+ dozen cookies every December. If we are friends, you are probably getting a tin of cookies from me.
Renato: It’s funny, growing up with a mom who is a fantastic cook, we would always resort to the slice and bake chocolate chip cookie log for the holidays. I really didn’t mind, either. I would devour half of the dough before it could get into the oven. These days however, I am a convert: I bake an assortment of cookies from scratch (including chocolate chip) and share with friends and family throughout the holiday season.
What flavors are best for baking this time of year?
Matt: In all actuality, I stick pretty close to my favorite flavors (peanut butter, chocolate, malt, etc…). But, I try to sneak mint or peppermint into a few items as well. A peppermint hot chocolate is just about as holiday as you can get.
Renato: Cinnamon. I’ll try to sneak cinnamon into anything. I’m also a big fan of almond flour, graham, candied ginger and orange, and of course, chocolate in its myriad forms.
Let’s talk cookies. What are your top 3 tips for making the best batch every time?
Matt and Renato:
1. Use basic light-colored cookie sheets. Nothing too dark and nothing that looks like a NASA scientists made it.
2. If your oven has a setting for convection, use it. Ninety percent of all cookies taste better on the convection setting (the air is circulated over the tops and bottoms of the cookies). Be sure to reduce the temperature by 25 degrees and keep an eye on things – they will most likely bake faster.
3. And finally, pay attention to ingredient temperature. Is your butter sufficiently cold? Are your eggs at room temperature? And for holiday’s sake, DO NOT BAKE on Silpats.
Any creative cookie decorating ideas?
Matt: This is not exactly creative, but I tend to ice my holiday sugar cookies with a mix of chocolate and white royal icing. Too often, we don’t use enough chocolate when decorating our cookies.
Renato: My suggestion is to keep it simple, especially when decorating with royal icing. I like to tint lightly and use sanding sugars in small amounts. For me, simplicity in décor always yields the best results.
When it comes to holiday cookies, do you stick to tradition or go experimental?
Matt: I am a traditional guy. Though I love the idea of attempting traditional cookies from other countries.
Renato: Same. Traditional. However, I sometimes try to “choclify” a recipe that didn’t previously have chocolate in it. Habit, sorry.
What new or unexpected ingredients do you recommend people try baking cookies with?
Matt: I use a lot of different salts to finish the cookies to balance the sweetness. Use a flaky sea salt on chocolate or peanut butter cookies (lightly press into dough before baking) or a chunky sea salt for vanilla-based doughs. (Obviously, if you are baking cookies that will be decorated later, this does not apply).
Renato: I collect little baking seasoning packets when I travel in Europe. I have these little packs of holiday baking spices as well as infused sugars that I’ll toss into cookies, loaves or Bundts that really enhance the flavor.
Have you had any memorable cookie-baking disasters?
Matt: Nothing major. However, one time I baked three trays of cookies without spacing correctly. They came out of the oven like one big bar… each cookie spread into each other. It has ruined me for life. Now, I probably put too much space between cookies – and it takes me FOREVER to bake through a batch of cookies (i.e. I only put 6 or 8 cookies on each sheet).
Renato: Back in the ’90s, I remember making a batch of what I considered my “famous” cookies: I think they were a derivative of the Neiman Marcus cookie with a few of my personal adjustments that I would make for friends. Before I understood that you could overbeat ingredients, I did so with a particular batch, and the end result wasn’t something anyone should be famous for.
What’s in your ideal holiday cookie tin?
Matt: At least one bar type cookie, a few decorated sugar cookies, peanut butter blossoms, chocolate crackles, tons of shortbread, and a few linzers.
Renato: “S” cookies, linzers, sugar cookies, candy bar cookies (from our third book), tri-colors, Viennese crescents, thumbprints, berry crumb bars, some bark, and chocolate chip cookies!
What fun presentation/wrapping ideas have you seen or tried for gifting cookies?
Matt: I’m all about the tins, but I have used Weck jars in a pinch. And I love getting cookies with boxes wrapped in twine.
Renato: I love the idea of cookies in a Chinese takeout box. I also love a little pine box with twine and parchment.
Chocolate Peppermint Thumbprint Cookies
If you want a perfect “thumbprint” in every cookie (and in order to avoid burning yourself), feel free to use a small dowel to make the initial indentation and subsequent one. Incidentally, for me, it makes the whole process slightly faster.
Yield: about 40 cookies
2 ounces dark chocolate (60-70% cacao)
2 ounces of mint chocolate (or 2 ounces of Andes mint chocolate candies)
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup dark unsweetened cocoa powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
8 ounces, 1 cup, 2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
2 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup coarse sugar (for rolling)
Melt the dark chocolate and mint chocolate together in a microwave or over a double boiler. Whisk until smooth, then set aside to cool
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, and salt. Set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter until creamy. Add the granulated sugar and the dark brown sugar and beat on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg yolks and vanilla and beat again until combined. Scrape the chocolate into the mixer and beat just until incorporated. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl and add the flour mixture all at once. Beat on low speed, scraping the side of the bowl occasionally, until the dough is smooth. Transfer the dough to a sheet of plastic wrap and pat into a disk; wrap it up and refrigerate until chilled and firm (at least 30 minutes).
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Spread the coarse sugar in a shallow bowl.
With clean hands, form small even tablespoon sized (no lumps or cracks should appear in the dough ball) dough balls. Roll each dough ball in the coarse sugar and place on the baking sheet. Use your thumb or a small dowel to make an indentation into the center of the cookie. Bake for 10 minutes, remove the sheet from the oven and use your thumb to make the indentation more visible. Place the sheets back in the oven and bake for another 4-5 minutes. (Note: these are the type of cookies that can overbake very quickly, pull them out at the first signs of “cracking”). Transfer cookie sheets to cooling rack and cool completely.
WHITE CHOCOLATE FILLING
3 ounces good quality white chocolate, coarsely chopped
3 tablespoons heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon pure peppermint extract
chopped peppermint candies or Andes mints for decor
Place the white chocolate in a small wide-mouthed cup (with pour spout if available). Put the cream in microwave-safe bowl or cup and microwave on high power until boiling, about 30 seconds. Pour the hot cream over the white chocolate and let stand for 30 seconds, then whisk until smooth. Stir in the peppermint extract. Fill each thumbprint cookie with the white chocolate ganache. Allow the ganache to set for about 5 minutes, then add a few chopped peppermint candies or Andes mints to the center of the white chocolate peppermint ganache. Refrigerate until set, about 30 minutes.
The cookies taste great at room temperature or directly from the refrigerator. They can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.