Nothing says happy holidays more than a beautiful collection of delicious cookies. I dream that one year I’ll be the one with countless sparkly tins filled with ten types of glazed shortbreads, chocolate-dipped wafers, and perfectly shaped cutouts. Needless to say, it hasn’t happened yet! But I have figured out a few ways to reverse-engineer holiday cookies that aren’t as much back-breaking work and can be done (mostly) in advance.
It starts by lowering your expectations (I’m talking to myself here, but it’s worth mentioning). My cookies are going to be flat-out delicious, but they’re not likely to be beautiful enough for a magazine cover, and that’s okay. I also accept that I can make three or four different types of cookies, but certainly not eight or more. Once we’re all on board with these expectations, let’s talk about the six best ways to make unforgettably tasty holiday cookies.
1. Start by using reliable recipes. There’s a lot of stuff on the Internet, but only use recipes from trusted sources—think Martha Stewart, Chatelaine, or Canadian Living (or any big magazine), or else any website that you’ve baked from before with good results. Ask neighbours and friends for their faves, too — I tend to use my mom’s and grandmother’s recipes (because they’re the best, right?).
2. Doubling or quadrupling a recipe is smarter than tripling it (the math is easier; again, I’m talking to myself here!). Plus, making a quadruple batch of a recipe you know and love is easier and faster than making four separate batches of different cookies.
3. I am a big fan of icebox cookies and bars. With both, you get a lot of tasty cookies without much work, and icebox cookie dough can be made and kept in the freezer until you need it (say, when your sister-in-law calls to say she’ll be dropping by in an hour!). Bars like brownies, Hello Dollies, lemon squares, and date squares are perfect for this time of year. Everyone loves these old-fashioned flavours, and you can cut them into little one-bite pieces to maximize your effort.
4. If you’d like to make cutouts, simplify them. Use just two or three different shapes (such as bell, star, or tree) and you’ll get more cookies out of each piece of dough. You can certainly leave them plain, but a generous sprinkle of clear sanding sugar (available at the bulk store) pressed into the raw cutouts gives cookies a lovely sparkle and doesn’t take much effort. If you have little people who want to “help” decorate, buy a bag of just-add-water royal icing at the bulk store and use pastry brushes to paint it on rather than using a complicated piping bag method. Kids can then cover the freshly painted cookies with sprinkles.
5. When it comes to any kind of baking, there are three ingredients worth a splurge: butter (any brand, but not margarine), pure vanilla, and the best quality chocolate you can afford. These ingredients can be the difference between decent cookies and unforgettable ones. Otherwise, buy whatever’s on sale. Butter usually goes on sale at some point during the lead-up to the holidays, so that’s when I buy about ten pounds and stuff them in the freezer.
6. Dollar stores usually have a great selection of pretty seasonal tins, as long as you get there sometime before December 20th. I tend to choose tins on the smaller side; they still make lovely gifts, but again, I can maximize my efforts. I’d rather have a small collection of extraordinary homemade shortbreads than a big box of store-bought chocolates any day.
And remember that if you really don’t like baking, then just skip it! There are plenty of other ways to spread holiday cheer without adding stress to your life.
Claire Tansey is an author and cooking teacher by day and a home cook by night. She’s been in the food business for over 20 years as a restaurant cook, night baker, test kitchen manager and restaurant critic. Along the way she sang lead in an all-female rock band and got a master’s degree in literature. In 2010 she was named Food Director for Chatelaine. Originally from Montreal, Claire lives in Toronto with her partner, Michael, who eats everything and their son, Thomas, who does not.