A great cookie is made from fresh, quality ingredients, if you think of the little rounds and bars as just compact carriers of flavor, you'll see how important every stick of butter, ounce of chocolate, teaspoon of spice, and cup of nuts is to the end result. What you mix in is what you'll taste, so keep the phrase "quality in quality out" foremost in your mind as you shop for ingredients.
Making cookies also requires a heaping spoonful of patience. Chocolate must be melted slowly so it doesn't burn, butter and sugar must be beaten sufficiently until creamy, and, in many recipes, the dough must be chilled to provide the best rolling and baking results. It's important not to take shortcuts or else the taste and texture of the cookies will suffer.
There are two shortcuts, however, that you're free to take. Both of these, in a small but significant way, forever changed my cookie-baking routine for the better, allowing me to be more spontaneous and efficient.
1 Butter must be soft and pliable and properly creamed, but how often do we forget to take the sticks out of the refrigerator ahead of time? If you're very careful, butter can be softened in the microwave without affecting its usability. Here's how: Place one stick, still in its paper wrapping (or unwrap it and place it on a microwave-safe plate or a sheet of wax paper), in the microwave. Turn the machine on high for ten or eleven seconds. No more! You don't want to melt the butter, which would change the consistency of the dough and the cookies. When you lightly squeeze a stick of softened butter it should leave impressions of your fingers, but it shouldn't feel mushy. With this little trick, there's no more waiting for butter to soften before you can bake.
2 Try to be one step ahead of your oven. Have the next batch of cookies ready to go on a clean sheet of parchment paper. When a cookie sheet comes out of the oven, slide the parchment with the baked cookies onto a rack, and then slide the parchment with the formed dough onto the sheet and immediately place it in the oven. (Do this quickly because dough should never sit on a hot sheet for more than a few seconds.) Now there's no more waiting for hot cookie sheets to cool before they can be used again.
Otherwise, a cookie recipe, like all baking recipes, is a formula. Yes, that bowl full of yummy ingredients is bound up in the science of chemistry. So read through the recipe carefully, follow it precisely, and measure accurately; your cookie baking will not only be loads of fun but successful!
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From Christmas Cookies: 50 Recipes to Treasure for the Holiday Season. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. Copyright © 2008 by Lisa B. Zwirn. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.