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Good tidings come when bakers get together
On Baking
By Annie Overboe | Daily Herald Columnist

Wow friends and family at your holiday cookie swap with these stunning Red Velvest Shortbread cookies and festive Cocoa Crescents.

 

GEORGE LECLAIRE/gleclaire@dailyherald.com

Wow friends and family at your holiday cookie swap with these stunning Red Velvet Shortbread cookies and festive Cocoa Crescents.

 

GEORGE LECLAIRE/gleclaire@dailyherald.com

GEORGE LECLAIRE/gleclaire@dailyherald.com Wow friends and family at your holiday cookie swap with these stunning Red Velvest Shortbread cookies and festive Cocoa Crescents.

 

George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

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Published: 12/2/2009 12:00 AM

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I love holiday cookie exchanges.

These informal gatherings bring together good tidings and the opportunity to share your signature cookies with friends and fellow bakers. As a bonus, you walk home with a variety cookies boasting diverse flavors, textures and culinary concepts.

If that's not enough to tempt you to participate, cookie swaps offer some needed relief for your holiday food budget. Here's where baking like a professional saves money: Each baker shops in bulk for the special ingredients in their recipe so the group as a whole spends less for a delicious array of homemade goods.

Before you get starting organizing a cookie party, consider these points.

• Keep the group realistic, fun and manageable. Less than four participants and interest wanes, while more than 12 presents a baking chore.

• Build culinary diversity into your plan. No one wants to take home three versions of the same sugar cookie. Ask participants in advance for their recipe that can be shared with the group.

And herein is the rub. Secret recipes can be guarded like Fort Knox. I understand how these bakers feel. Over time a special recipe for Grandma's gingerbread of Aunt Annie's pecan crescents melds with our culinary persona. We bake something of ourselves into these holiday treats and we don't want to just give that away.

Yet looking at the larger picture, people need to know all the ingredients for each recipe. Serious food allergies such as peanuts and hazelnuts pose potential health issues if not disclosed. At the least, provide a list of ingredients for each cookie. It's all about sharing and caring.

With the organizing complete, it's time to turn our attention to crafting incredible treats. Let me share with you my recipe for successful holiday baking:

Start with great ingredients: Select unsalted butter in lieu of margarine or shortening for best flavor and texture. Unsalted butter freezes well.

Look for freshness: Check dates on egg cartons and all dairy ingredients.

Check for power: Purchase new yeast, baking powder and soda. It's the cheapest and best baking insurance you can buy.

Spice just right: Spices lose potency over time. Buy smaller amounts of spices seldom used or share with another baker to cut costs, etc.

Perk up the flavor: Use real flavors and extracts. For holiday baking, I like pure Madagascar Bourbon vanilla. The authentic taste will speak for you.

Test the heat: Get a thermometer and test your oven temperature. If your oven runs hot, bake one sheet at a time on center rack and use parchment paper. Don't trust your signature recipes to flimsy dark pans that burn cookie bottoms. Heavy duty baking pans go the distance and make you and your cookies look great.

Today I share with you two holiday cookies from my collection. Red Velvet Shortbread offers buttery flavor in a festive hue. Cocoa Crescents take my signature Pecan Crescents out for a chocolate spin. Happy baking and happy holidays!

• Annie Overboe, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, lives in Villa Park. Write her at food@dailyherald.com.