It’s the most wonderful time of the year: Cookie season. So preheat the oven, warm up the stand mixer and let the flour fly.
Fortunately, cookies—unlike many other desserts—are delightfully unfussy and fairly easy to throw together, even at the last minute. But to help you take your treats to the next level and really stand out in a cookie swap, we got Dorie Greenspan, author of Dorie’s Cookies, a James Beard Award-winning collection of more than 300 recipes, to share her best holiday baking hacks and the recipe for her delicious Ginger Molasses cookies.
Keep It Simple & Consider a Bar Cookie
First thing’s first: There’s no need to make the most complicated, ingredient-packed recipe you can find for your office cookie swap as long as you deliver on flavor. Greenspan recommends choosing an easy option, like a drop cookie or a classic holiday spice cookie that requires minimal effort. “Even the plainest cookie is pretty and appealing,” says Greenspan.
If you must try out something new, you could make a bar cookie. “For people who want to make lots and lots of cookies for cookie swaps or for house parties, bar cookies are a terrific way to go,” she says. “I think of them as bang-for-the-buck cookies. You can make so many of them so quickly and you can cut them into small, bite-size pieces, so you can stretch it for a crowd.”
Know Which Corners to Cut
While it may be tempting to save some time by skipping a cookie recipe’s recommended chilling period, don’t. All you’ll do is cut down on the time the flavors of each ingredient have to meld together. It also prevents molded and cut-out cookies from keeping their shape. Instead, cut time off your cookie prep earlier in the process: “Most cookie recipes call for room temp butter,” says Greenspan. “You can take off the 20 minutes that [it] could take to let the butter come to room temperature if you just cut the butter into small pieces or grate the frozen butter. I’d rather you save 20 minutes there than in the chilling.”
Splurge on Vanilla & Chocolate
Of all the ingredients used to make cookies, Greenspan says, there are two that are worth splurging on: vanilla and chocolate. For many years, she says, vanilla was used simply “to round out the other ingredients and tamp down the egg flavor...but once I started buying really good vanilla extract—always pure vanilla extract that smells so good you want to use it as perfume—I started using more of it and really allowing the flavor of the vanilla to be caught.” Her favorites are Vanilla Bean Extract “Crush” from Sonoma Syrup Co., a combination of extract and vanilla pulp, and Nielsen Massey’s Pure Vanilla Extract.
As for chocolate, the reason for splurging is simple: Well-made chocolate just tastes better, and your friends and family will notice the difference between store-brand semi-sweet chocolate chips and shavings off of a bar of fancy baking chocolate. Greenspan says she uses a variety of brands, but usually has Guittard, Valrhona, and Callebaut on hand.
Tools at the Ready
It sounds simple but make sure you’ve got the right tools on hand. Greenspan is a staunch proponent of cookie scoops, a tool very similar to an ice cream scoop, which cuts down on cookie shaping time and keeps your hands clean. Simply fill the scoop with dough, scrape off excess on the side of the bowl and release the dough onto the baking sheet. “I actually have some already wrapped that I keep all the time, so when people come to visit and they say they love to bake cookies, I give them a cookie scoop as a gift,” she says.
Eliminate Unnecessary Cleanup
When working on a recipe that requires rolling dough out to chill, Greenspan has a wonderfully simple hack to eliminate countertop cleanup (seriously). “I roll everything out between sheets of parchment paper,” reveals Greenspan. “That way I’m not adding more flour to the dough, and I don’t have to clean my counter or the rolling pin afterwards.” The dough doesn’t stick to the paper, so all you have to do is peel the parchment off after it’s finished chilling and proceed with baking.
The Freezer Is Your Friend
Nobody wants to be stuck in the kitchen on Christmas Eve baking cookies. To avoid that situation, Greenspan recommends making the dough in advance and popping it in the freezer until it’s go time: “All bets are off at Christmas when we have to make so many cookies,” Greenspan says. “I like to freeze the dough and then bake the cookies as close to the time as I’m going to be serving them as possible.” She adds that the cookie dough will last in the freezer for up to two months. You can even freeze rolled-out cookies, like ginger snaps. When you’re ready for a gooey, warm treats just “put them on your baking sheet while you’re preheating the oven and then just pop them into the oven,” she says. “They might need a minute more baking time or so but that way you’ve got fresh cookies all the time.”
Pack With Care—and Popcorn
If you’re planning to send your baked goods to family and friends in far-flung locales, Greenspan has a few tips to keep in mind so that everything arrives intact. First of all, pack similar cookies together. “As cute as it might look to have your gingerbread man right next to your chocolate snap, don’t do it,” says Greenspan. “Everything will smell and taste like the gingerbread man by the time the package arrives.” Instead, put crispy cookies with crispy cookies, soft cookies with soft cookies, and spice cookies with spice cookies. When they’re in the box and ready to go, Greenspan has one last nugget of wisdom: “Use popcorn—real edible popcorn for the packing material,” she says. “It’s protective and nibbleable—like sending a double treat.”
Double-Ginger Molasses Cookies
From Dorie’s Cookies by Dorie Greenspan
*This recipe makes about 36 cookies
2.25 cups (306 grams) All-purpose flour
2 TBSP Unsweetened cocoa powder
1 to 2 tsp Instant espresso, to taste (optional)
1.5 tsp Ground ginger
1 tsp Ground cinnamon
.25 tsp Ground cloves
.5 tsp Baking soda
.5 tsp Fine sea salt
1.5 sticks (12 TBSP; 6 oz; 170 grams) Unsalted butter, cut into chunks, at room temperature
.33 cup (67 grams) Sugar
.33 cup (67 grams) Packed light brown sugar
1 large Egg yolk, at room temperature
.5 cup (120 ml) Unsulfured molasses
1.5 tsp Pure vanilla extract
.33 cup (55 grams) Chopped crystallized ginger or 2 TBSP minced fresh ginger mixed with 2 tsp sugar (see note below)
7 oz (200 grams) Semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped chip-size
Sugar, for rolling
Crystallized & Candied, Ginger:
A word on crystallized ginger: Crystallized, or candied, ginger is sliced fresh ginger that is cooked in syrup, dredged in sugar and dried. You can usually find it in the supermarket alongside other dried fruits or in the spice section. If the ginger isn’t moist and pliable, steam it before using: Put it in a strainer over a saucepan of simmering water, cover and let warm and soften for about 5 minutes; pat dry, chop and use. If you can’t find crystallized ginger, you can omit it or mix 2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger with 2 teaspoons sugar and let stand for about 10 minutes, until the ginger is syrupy.
Whisk the flour, cocoa, espresso (if using), spices, baking soda and salt together. Working with a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or in a large bowl with a hand mixer, beat the butter and both sugars together on medium-low speed for about 3 minutes, scraping the bowl as needed, until fully blended. Add the yolk and beat for 1 minute, then add the molasses and vanilla, beating until smooth. Turn off the mixer, add the dry ingredients all at once and pulse the mixer until the risk of flying flour passes. Working on low speed, mix the dough until the flour is almost but not completely incorporated. Add the crystallized ginger (or the sugared fresh ginger) and chocolate and mix until the dry ingredients disappear into the dough and the ginger and chocolate are evenly distributed. If you’ve got bits of dry ingredients on the bottom of the bowl, mix them in with a flexible spatula.
Gather the dough into a ball, flatten it and wrap it in plastic. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
Getting ready to bake: Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat it to 350 degrees F. Butter or spray regular muffin tins or, if making free-form cookies, line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.
Have a medium cookie scoop at hand. Alternatively, you can use a rounded tablespoonful of dough for each cookie. If you’re using tins, find a jar or glass that fits into them and can be used to flatten the dough; cover the bottom in plastic wrap. Spoon some sugar into a wide shallow bowl.
For each cookie, mold a scoop or spoonful of dough into a ball between your palms, then turn it in the sugar to coat and put in a muffin cup or on a baking sheet, leaving 2 inches between each ball of dough. If using tins, use the jar or glass to flatten each ball until it almost reaches the sides of the cup. If it’s free- form, press to flatten to about half-inch thick.
Bake the cookies for about 13 minutes, rotating the tins or sheets top to bottom and front to back after 7 minutes. The cookies should be lightly set around the edges and softer in the center. Transfer the tins or sheets to racks and let the cookies rest for 15 minutes before unmolding them and/or placing them on racks to cool completely.
If you’re baking in batches, make certain to start with cool tins or baking sheets.
Ginger-Chocolate Ganache: To make a ganache that you can use to finish the cookies, bring two-thirds of a cup heavy cream and four quarter-inch-thick slices of fresh ginger to a boil in a small saucepan. Turn off the heat, cover the pan and allow the cream to infuse for 20 minutes. Return the cream to the boil, then remove the ginger and pour half of the cream over 6 ounces finely chopped bittersweet chocolate. Wait for 30 seconds, stir gently and then stir in the remainder of the cream. Dip the top or one side of each cookie into the chocolate and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Chill for 20 minutes to set the chocolate. Bring the cookies to room temperature before serving.
Storing: You can refrigerate the dough for up to 3 days. You can also scoop out the dough, shape into balls and freeze the balls on baking sheets; when they’re firm, pack them airtight and keep frozen for up to 2 months. Remove the dough from the freezer and let the balls sit at room temperature for at least 15 minutes, then roll in sugar and bake. The baked cookies can be kept in a sealed container at room temperature for up to 4 days. They’ll get a little drier and a little less chewy, but that will make them even better for dunking into milk, hot chocolate, coffee or Eggnog.