‘Tis the season for sharing home-baked treats! This year we partnered with some of our favorite bakers to create the ultimate holiday cookie swap. See them all here, then follow along and show us your own holiday cookies on Instagram @williamssonoma with the hashtag #wscookieswap.
David Lebovitz knows desserts. After working as a pastry chef at Chez Panisse and authoring books on everything from chocolate to ice cream, he’s become an authority on authentic, simple, delicious desserts. Who better to inspire our holiday baking? Here, David tells what he’s baking this season, his go-to festive flavors, and why his Coconut Chocolate Macaroons are the best you’ll ever have.
What are some of your favorite holiday baking traditions?
My favorite holiday gifts are homemade jams and jellies. They’re such a personalized gifts, and even people who make their own jams always appreciate a jar of the fruits of someone else’s labor. If I’m low on jam (or can’t bear to part with a flavor I’m particularly fond of), I’ll give a jar of dark chocolate sauce or salted butter caramel.
I have to say, as much as I enjoy traditional American holiday baked goods, I tend to focus on things from Italy and France. I make pan forte (Italian “strong bread,” which has a generous dose of spices, lots of toasted nuts, candied fruits, and dark chocolate), because it keeps for weeks and I can make it ahead and let it mellow in the pantry. (Far from my prying hands. Because otherwise, I’ll go through the whole thing myself!) For the grand feast, I make a Bûche de Noël, the classic French holiday cake in the shape of a log. My version (in My Paris Kitchen) is rolled up with a lightly sweetened ricotta filling with bits of chocolate and candied orange in it, brushed with a orange liqueur syrup, then glazed with shiny bittersweet ganache.
What flavors are best for baking this time of year?
Spices are always appropriate. I think because it’s easy to overdose around the holidays, people appreciate flavors like cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and candied fruit that provide a bit of relief from buttery pies and cakes. Candied ginger is also welcome, since it provides a refreshing “bite” after a meal. And although not everyone thinks of them around the holidays, citrus are often best in the winter, so think lemon, orange, and pink grapefruit when planning holiday desserts.
Let’s talk cookies. What are your top tips for making the best batch every time?
Watch ‘em like a hawk! As a cookbook author, it’s hard to tell people exactly how long to bake cookies, so although I give visual clues as well, it’s best to stand right next to the oven toward the end of baking time, and check them frequently.
Any creative cookie decorating ideas?
Truthfully, I’m not much of a decorator, so like to keep things simple and let the flavor of the cookies speak for themselves.
When it comes to holiday cookies, do you stick to tradition or try to experiment?
I never experiment around the holidays and always use tried-and-true recipes, ones I know like the back of my hand. People like tradition, and everyone is always happy to get a taste (or a gift) of classic favorites.
Any memorable cookie baking disasters?
I have tons of them, some involving using salt instead of sugar when I baked in restaurants. (Due to someone else, not a baker, accidentally refilling the sugar bin with salt.) Probably one of the funniest was when I arrived in France and made my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe, one that I’ve been making for years. When I went to check them in the oven after a few minutes, the entire baking sheet was a flood of bubbling, gooey cookie batter. Because French butter has higher fat and the flour is weaker in protein, I didn’t know that I needed to adjust the quantities for French ingredients. Lesson learned! (After a good scrubbing of the oven floor…)
What’s in your ideal cookie tin?
One that I don’t need to remember, or need, to bring home with me!
Can you share any fun presentation/gift wrapping ideas for cookies?
Like decorating, I don’t really excel at gift-wrapping. (As anyone who has ever received a present from me can attest to.) I prefer to use little cellophane bags with raffia ties for everything. It’s not the most original, but it seems to work. I’ll often buy small decorative bags in shops around the holidays, which are available around the holidays, that I can drop the cello-wrapped treats into, which makes them a little more appropriate for holiday gift-giving.
Tell us about the recipe we’re sharing, Coconut Chocolate Macaroons. What was your inspiration?
I used to live near a bakery in San Francisco that had the most amazing macaroons – moist, intensely coconutty, and dipped in the darkest, bittersweet chocolate imaginable. I discovered that they cooked the batter on the stovetop before baking, and worked a recipe out that used the same technique. They are now my go-to cookie, especially when I have too many egg whites on hand. They’re very simple to make, and the batter can be made in advance and chilled in the refrigerator for about a week, or frozen for a few months. It’s the perfect cookie!
What’s special about the recipe?
I’ve had a lot of coconut macaroons, and these are definitely the best. They’re the essence of coconut, combined with a generous hit of dark chocolate. They’re great anytime of the years, and can accompany anything, from a dish of ice cream to a tropical fruit compote, or even just a cup of tea.
Any tips for people making these cookies? Creative twists or other ideas?
Personally, I like them just as they are. The most important thing is to watch them when baking. Everyone’s oven is different and they should be baked until they are browned along the side of the cookies. People panic because the tops brown first, and take them out. But it’s important to leave them in until the side are baked, so they’re nice and crispy on the outside.
What’s your favorite way to enjoy them?
I just pop ‘em in my mouth!