Pro Tips for Cookies

Pro Tips for Cookies

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{ Photo by Galie Photography }

People sometimes ask: How can I make my cookies as perfect as the ones from your bakery? I’m using your recipe, but I can’t replicate the taste I remember from Lola’s — or the appearance in your photos.

My answer is that baking cookies is an exacting science; small things make a big difference. Over the years I’ve learned this the hard way. Here are my top eight tips, so you can skip the learning curve and go straight to the awesome.

1.Baking Is Not Like Cooking!
When you cook you can add in “some” of this and “a bit” of that. Even if you change direction halfway through a dish, it still may turn out great. This seldom works in baking.

Professional bakers sometimes call recipes “formulas,” and for good reason. Baking is all about the chemical reactions that take place once your concoction is in the oven. You must set things up right or things won’t work the way you want.

Whenever you get a new recipe, follow it exactly the first time. Don’t substitute, don’t modify the instructions, don’t omit anything. You need to establish a “control” so you can decide what — if anything — you should tweak.

Then, when you start changing things, write down your adjustments and note the results. After experimenting a bit, you will see what direction to go.

If you’re used to the more improvisational style in cooking, you may not like baking at first. I’ve come to love the structure, and I like knowing where it’s OK to adapt and where I must toe the line.

2.Measure by Weight
Many home bakers measure dry ingredients by volume — in cups and tablespoons. But I urge you to  measure by weight. A good kitchen scale will make you a better baker.

Baking is all about precision. The same amount of flour or sugar may have a different volume on different days, depending on the humidity and your method of scooping. Besides, weighing is faster: No need to pack brown sugar or to level each cup as you scoop if you are weighing it, just dump it in a bowl in the scale until it reaches weight and you’re set.

My recipes list the major dry ingredients by weight. (I still do spices and the like by teaspoons and tablespoons because it’s not practical to weigh them for home-baking batch sizes.) I usually supply a volume equivalent; many Web sites have weight-to-volume converters, too. But using a scale is best.

3.Can I Use This Other Flour?
You have flour in your cupboard — just not the exact type called for in the recipe. You don’t want to go shopping. Tempting, right? Please resist.

Remember, baking is science. Different flours have different amounts of gluten, plus other qualities that can change the texture and structure of your finished baked goods. Maybe you’ll get lucky, but more likely you’ll be unhappy with the results.

4.Know Your Oven
The temperature in many ovens is 10-25 degrees different than the oven’s readout. Use a cheap oven thermometer (available in most grocery stores) to check your own oven; you may be surprised by the results.

Also, each oven simply performs differently. All my recipes used to be calibrated for my bakery oven; now that I’m baking at home, I’ve needed to re-calibrate temperature and time slightly. I’ve published the times that work for my particular home oven, but your results may be different — so check your baked goods toward the end, and see how they’re doing. If they take a slightly longer or shorter time, make a note on the recipe.

(Remember that item size affects times, too. If you scoop your cookies bigger or smaller, they may take more or less time to bake.)

Finally, does your oven have “hot spots”? In many ovens, the bottom rack of cookies may brown faster than than the middle or top rack. Or maybe the cookies at the back of the oven will brown faster than those at the front. What to do? Just rotate the trays during baking.

5.Convection? Probably Not
Should you use the convection feature on your oven? In my experience, I do not trust this feature on home ovens for cookie baking.

At the bakery I had a beautiful convection oven; I miss it terribly. But commercial ovens are bigger, and the air flow is nice and even. Home ovens don’t seem to work as well.

My recipes here all assume non-convection baking. If you do use the convection feature on your oven, set the temperature 25 degrees lower than my recipe says.

6.Scoop Like a Pro
For consistent results, bake a consistently sized, consistently shaped cookie. The easiest way to do this is to use an affordable standard-sized scoop.

Did you know that professional scoops come in industry-standard sizes with different color handles? Three sizes cover all the cookies I make: The yellow-handled #20, the red-handled #24, and the purple-handled #40.

7.Use The Right Baking Trays
What kind? Heavy aluminum baking pans with rolled edges are the best, in my opinion, and they are generally what the pros use. They heat evenly and last forever, all for a reasonable price. I have two sets at home: One set exclusively for baking, and another for everything else (roasting vegetables or broiling fish, for example).

If your oven has three shelves, I recommend buying four cookie baking trays. That way the next pan is always ready to go when you remove one from the oven. Efficiency!

Does anyone “grease” baking trays any more? Seems like everyone I know uses silicone mats or parchment. Either is fine; I prefer parchment because it leaves no residue on the baked goods and it’s easier to clean up.

8.Chill The Dough
This is indispensable advice for sugar cookies: Chilling the dough is the only way to get nice sharp edges on your cut-out shapes, rather than the more amorphous, spread-out look that comes from warm dough.

Many bakers also believe that chilling the dough overnight will improve flavor for chocolate chip cookies and other “drop” cookies. I chill these doughs mostly for convenience. It makes the job easier the next day if I’ve already made and scooped the dough and stored it in a container.

After removing the dough from the fridge, I put the pre-scooped balls on a baking tray to soften for about 20 minutes while the oven warms up, then I bake them off.

Does this improve flavor? Do your own taste-testing experiment and tell me what you conclude: That’s science at its tastiest!

Sugar Cookies

Sugar Cookies

{ Photos by Galie Photography }

Easter is a great excuse for making sugar cookies — but really, who even needs an excuse? They make any day a special occasion.

Here’s what’s great about sugar cookies:

  1. They’re simple in taste and texture: Everyone likes them.
  2. With the right cookie cutter, they work for any occasion, interest, or party theme. (Zombie apocalypse? There’s a cookie cutter for that. Jane Austen Day? Yup.)
  3. With even the most basic cookie cutter, the decoration possibilities are endless.
  4. Plus decorating is a great group activity — a bonding experience for family and friends that often turns into a tradition.

Sugar Cookies

For Easter cookies, an egg-shaped cookie cutter is really all you need. (Other options: Flowers, carrots, bunnies, chicks.) Our photo shoot included two sizes of egg cookie, but otherwise the cutter shapes were generic — it’s all in the decoration. To inspire you I asked Lola’s former head decorator, Jillian Cimino, to share some of her favorite Easter designs.

Sugar Cookies

Jillian has been honing her skills for years, of course, but cookie decorating is fun for anyone. Even small kids can use royal icing to decorate sugar cookies: I’ve found that anyone over 10 years old can handle a pastry bag with a little instruction, and younger kids can apply icing with a butter knife, embellishing with sprinkles. After some practice — remember, you don’t need a special day to make these cookies — everyone will start to push their own artistic envelope, which is great to see.

By the way, Jillian sometimes takes orders for special occasions. You can reach her here.

[ As with all my cookie recipes, please read these baking tips before you start. ]

Sugar CookiesSugar CookiesSugar Cookies

Sugar Cookies
Author: 
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: varies
 
This recipe is tasty and easy to work with. The resulting cookies are not as hard as some other recipes: I recommend limiting shapes to about 3.5" across, or they'll get too fragile.
Ingredients
  • 1½ sticks butter, cut up into chunks
  • ½ cup shortening (such as Crisco)
  • 8 oz granulated sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • ½ tsp almond extract
  • 13 oz all-purpose flour
  • 2½ oz corn starch
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • ¼ tsp salt
Instructions
  1. Put the butter, shortening, and granulated sugar into the bowl of a stand mixer. Set the mixer on low speed and mix until the butter chunks are broken down, then increase the speed and beat until it is light and fluffy.
  2. Scrape down the bowl, then beat in the egg and extracts.
  3. Stir the flour, corn starch, baking powder and salt together in a separate bowl, then add them to the mixer on low speed and stir until well combined.
  4. Remove the dough from the mixer and pat it into two slabs; wrap each slab in plastic wrap. Put the dough in the refrigerator and chill for about an hour.
  5. After the dough has chilled, take it out and roll it thin (but not too thin!) on a lightly floured surface.
  6. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
  7. Use a cookie cutter to cut your cookies.
  8. Bake the cookies on prepared trays (silpats, parchment or greased) for 10-14 minutes depending on the size and shape of your cookies. The cookies should be just starting to brown on the bottoms when you take them out.
  9. Let the cookies cool completely before decorating with royal icing
Notes
Before you start, be sure to read my Cookie Baking Tips!

Used in this recipe: Royal Icing


 

Chocolate Guinness Cupcakes

Chocolate Guinness Cupcakes

{ Baking photos by Galie Photography }

Kiss me — I’m Irish.

No, really: I have the papers to prove it. My own Irish blood is just one part of an all-American mix, but my husband Laurence was born and raised in Dublin. We’re both dual citizens now. Our kids have thousands of freckles and almost as many cousins; they’re unfazed when elders refer to the “boot” of a car, or when their father asks for a “sweeping brush.”

Images of Ireland(They’re still a bit puzzled by the concept of a “hot press,” however.)

We went to Ireland a few years ago for a big family reunion: Nearly 100 relatives gathered from all over Ireland, from the U.S., from England and elsewhere. We converged on a small town in County Clare — in the West, barren but scenic — and our gang stayed in these thatch-roofed cottages.

The kids had a blast feeding the donkeys, sharing meals with cousins, and exploring the countryside. We hope to go back soon, but in the meantime we keep up with our culture as much as possible, reading Irish legends, watching Irish movies (can’t wait to get this one), and boasting of great Irish achievements.

Speaking of which: Guinness, am I right? A drink, but also a technological marvel (read all about it) and even a wonder drug.

Yep, turns out there’s science behind the 1920s advertising slogan, “Guinness is good for you.” More than a decade ago, a team of researchers found that old-time doctors weren’t crazy to prescribe a daily pint of the black stuff: Guinness works as well as aspirin to prevent blood clots.

And what happens when you bake it into a cupcake, you ask? I have done this research myself and, as I hope Lola’s customers remember, the result is wonderfully smooth: Baking removes the stout’s bitter edge, leaving a mellow taste that’s the perfect complement in a rich chocolate cake. Top it with cream cheese icing — to evoke the creamy head on your “pint” — and a dusting of cocoa, and it’s just grand.

Guinness Cupcakes: IngredientsGuinness Cupcakes: Sugar, butter, eggs, vanilla in mixerGuinness Cupcakes: SiftingGuinness Cupcakes: Guinness in measureGuinness Cupcakes: ScoopingGuinness Cupcakes: Icing in mixerGuinness Cupcakes: Icing bagGuinness Cupcakes: IcingGuinness Cupcakes: Dusting with cocoaGuinness Cupcakes: Dusting with cocoaGuinness Cupcakes: On plate

Chocolate Guinness Cupcakes
Author: 
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 21
 
Ingredients
  • 10½ oz granulated sugar (~1½ cups plus 1 Tablespoon)
  • 5⅓ Tablespoons butter
  • 2 eggs, room temperature
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • ½ cup sour cream
  • 7 oz flour
  • ½ cup American process cocoa
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¾ teaspoon baking soda
  • 8 oz (=1 cup) Guinness stout
  • Extra cocoa powder for dusting
Instructions
  1. Preheat your over to 350 degrees.
  2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream together the butter and sugar for about 3 minutes until light and fluffy.
  3. Scrape down the bowl, then add the eggs and vanilla and beat again on medium speed for about 1 minute.
  4. Stir in the sour cream on low speed.
  5. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa, baking soda, and salt.
  6. Add about a third of this flour mixture to the mixer and stir it in on low speed.
  7. Add half of the Guinness and stir it in.
  8. Repeat with another third of the flour mixture, followed by the rest of the Guinness, and finish with last third of the flour mixture, stirring at low speed after each addition.
  9. Scrape down the bowl when everything is mixed, then run the mixer once more.
  10. Scrape the bowl down a last time and scoop the cupcakes into pans. I use a yellow-handled #20 scoop for standard-size cupcakes.
  11. Bake for 23-25 minutes at 350 degrees until a cake tester comes out clean.
  12. Once they are fully cool, ice with softened Cream Cheese Icing (I use a pastry bag with a big round tip) and dust with cocoa powder.
Notes
Used in this recipe: Cream Cheese Icing

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