Haul Out The Holly

What happened to the turtledoves?

What happened to the turtledoves?

We’re in the thick of the holiday rush. That perplexing commercial for Elizabeth Taylor perfume (“…these have always brought me luck”) is on heavy TV rotation, the Food Network is re-running every holiday-related challenge, Iron Chef competition, or Rachael Ray special they ever produced, and I went to sleep last night unable to get the smell of sugar out of my nose.

Not that I mind, because I think all of this frantic activity is fun. However, my tiny kitchen is on the verge of tears. My kitchen need not fret: the bulk of its work is done, and now my attention has moved to my holiday card list. All any of this requires is a little organization and the right tools.

The latter reminds me of my Dad. When I was a little kid, we lived in an old two family house. I doubt that my Dad ever baked a cookie in his life, but off in the corner of the basement of that old house he had a workshop. I remember the basement as being a dark, kind of spooky place (although it couldn’t have been too bad: my Mom went down there every day to do the laundry) but I remember Dad’s workshop as being bright, clean, and well organized. In my memory, he had every tool needed for every “handy” job that might come up around that crumbling old house. No mere dabbler my Dad, no sir! He rebuilt our entire kitchen himself, including tearing out walls with just a hammer and his bare hands (okay, maybe he didn’t have the right tools for every job, but then he didn’t go around tearing down walls that often.) He was a real handyman. My brother and I have inherited those skills, albeit in a very watered-down form. (Very.)

What I got from watching my handyman Dad is a respect for tools, and this has served me well in the kitchen (ah! You were wondering when I would bring this back to cooking, weren’t you?) I think having the right tools in the kitchen is important if you enjoy cooking—and essential if you are a casual, infrequent, or unwilling cook. If this seems a touch counter-intuitive, keep in mind that the unwilling or unskilled cook can accomplish a lot more, and do it easier and faster with the right tool in hand.

I’m not advocating expensive machines or gadgets here, but merely the addition of a few simple implements. Let’s put it this way: if you’ve always been struggling to eat your eggs with a straw, wouldn’t you be happy if one day someone came along and introduced you to a fork?

Since we are on our final approach to Christmas, lets make sure our tray tables are in the upright position and I’ll introduce you to a few items and tips that could make holiday time in the kitchen easier and more fun. (It’s the holiday season, so yes, it’s supposed to be fun.) I’m going to use holiday cookies as my laboratory for this, but truth be told some of these ideas will serve you well in the kitchen at any time of the year.

The Butter Flour Eggs Cookies 101 Primer

Cookie sheets. Ideally you should get decent cookie sheets that are heavy enough that you feel some heft when you pick one up. The weight of the cookie sheet usually indicates the thickness of the metal. Too thin and the bottoms of your cookies will burn before the tops finish baking. If you can bend it don’t use it. The cookie sheets with the pocket of air between two pieces of metal are good in gas ovens, iffy in certain electric ovens. You can get decent cookie sheets for twelve to fifteen dollars. Be wary of the ones hanging above the eggs at the grocery store. If you’re sitting there thinking, “Hey, I promised to bake cookies for my kid’s class. I’ll do that and then never bake again—ever. I don’t want to spend that much money on cookie sheets.” Fair enough. Buy the disposable aluminum cookie sheets, but stack three together to get approximately the thickness you need to avoid bottom burn. I make no promises for this technique.

Non Stick Finish. Unnecessary. Walk over to the foil and plastic wrap department and buy parchment paper to line your cookie sheets. One roll will set you back less than five dollars and will likely last you a couple of Christmases or more. If you’re more committed to being a baker (in for the long run, eh?) you can invest in a Silpat. Silpats are reusable silicone liners that will last through hundreds of batches of cookies. They usually cost about fifteen dollars. I’ve used both and prefer the parchment paper. It is less friendly to the environment, yes, but I can cut parchment to fit any pan (including cake pans), and I never worry that the flavor of the spice cookies I made yesterday will somehow find its way into the chocolate chip cookies I’m baking today.

Frenchie and pin bands

Frenchie and pin bands

Rolling pin. Optional. But again if you’re in for the long run, check out the different kinds before you buy. Go to Williams-Sonoma and take them for a test drive. I use what is called a French rolling pin: a simple straight cylinder of ash wood, I find that I have more control with this kind of pin. And it’ll make a good weapon if someone ever tries to attack me while I’m baking. If you don’t want to invest in a rolling pin, make slice and bake cookies, and using small cookie cutters (or freehand with a knife), cut the shapes out of the slices. (I’ll go into more detail about this with the recipe linked at the bottom of this posting.)

My dirty little secret about rolling out cookie dough is that I cheat and use rolling pin bands. These are color-coded elastic bands of varying thicknesses that slip onto each end of the rolling pin and limit how thin I can roll the dough, i.e., yellow equals ¼-inch. I use an Offset Spatula to transfer the cut out cookies to the cookie sheet. This tool’s angled blade lets you slide it under the cookies.

Offset Spatula

Offset Spatula

Space.Hey, I have a small kitchen too. But if you’re going to bake cookies you need to make a trade off: either lower your expectations about how many cookies you can make, and how fast, or clear the decks to make room for this project.

Stand mixer or bowls. I use a Kitchen-Aid, and am very spoiled by it. But a lot of cookies (and some cakes) can be made with a big bowl and a wooden spoon. Use a bigger bowl than you think you’ll need. You’ll go out of your mind trying to keep all of the batter in your cereal bowl.

Timer. C’mon. You know you’ll use this. Or you can use the clock on your cable box and burn your cookies. I have.

Organization. This is the biggie, the crucible, the scripture. Even if you have every piece of equipment and a gigantic kitchen, you need a game plan. Here’s what I do: I read the recipe through a couple of times to make sure I have all of the ingredients. Then I break the project into three milestones:

ONE: Mise en place: This is a term the pros use that I will translate as: pre-measure all of your ingredients before you start mixing. Pre-chop the walnuts, pre-grate the orange zest, and let the butter and eggs come up to room temperature. Cardinal rule: liquids are measured in a liquid measuring cup (usually made of glass by Pyrex) and dry ingredients are measured in a dry measuring cup (usually metal or plastic.)

TWO: Mix. Whether you use a wooden spoon or a Kitchen-Aid stand mixer, make your cookie dough, wrap it tightly and store it in the refrigerator. Then clean up. You’re done for the day.

THREE: Bake. The next day, bake your cookies, and you won’t have to worry about the space or time for cleaning dirty mixers, bowls, and counter tops while you bake. You’ll be much more relaxed, and most cookies taste better and the dough is easier to handle when it has been allowed to chill for at least a few hours.

Wet measuring cups

Wet measuring cups

Dry measuring cups

Dry measuring cups

My last piece of advice is to start small. Roll out just a little bit of dough until you get used to the feel of the dough, how much flour you need to use to keep the cookies from sticking to the board, and how cold the dough should be when you handle it.

Have fun. Remember no one expects you to be a pro; your family and friends will be delighted by your efforts. This is a great messy project to do with your kids. Mind my pearl of wisdom for baking with kids: keep them away from the hot stove, sharp knives, and whatever they do is the most beautiful and delicious cookie you’ve ever seen and tasted. Ever.

This is the stuff of which happy memories are made.

Click here for my Chocolate Pepper Cookie recipe (pictured above) and more holiday cookie baking suggestions.

Holiday cookie questions? Feel free to drop me an email at the address below. I’ll try to help.

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to michael@butterfloureggs.com

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