‘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.
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 a recipe for Classic Shortbread with Fleur de Sel here!
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.
Tell us about the recipe we’re sharing, Classic Shortbread with Fleur de Sel. What was your inspiration? What’s special about the recipe?
Matt: My paternal grandmother was originally from a small town just outside of Edinburgh. She was a big proponent of Scottish cuisine, and shortbread was her specialty. This shortbread is actually an adaptation from a family recipe — a very old family recipe at that. It was, presumably, from her mother’s mother. The original recipe calls for the egg to be cracked directly over a slab of rolled out dough and folded in with a gentle form of kneading. I normally wouldn’t depart from the “old way” and I do love the concept of “slow food,” but a standing mixer does cut down on prep time. And it is easier.
Any tips for people making these cookies? Creative twists or other ideas?
Matt: I find that shortbread — beautifully buttery shortbread — is easily adaptable. A few things of note, though: use really good butter. The butter at the grocery store has improved greatly. I like to use a locally made brand — something that is fresh and rich. In a pinch, a big multinational brand will do, but it might not be as flavorful. Also, feel free to add unique ingredients, like fresh cracked pepper or a little nutmeg (a LITTLE), or even drizzle a few baked shortbreads with a little bit of chocolate.
What’s your favorite way to enjoy them?
Matt: My perfect weekend: shortbread, tea, newspaper.