Sure, decorating your holiday cookies with a flurry of powdered sugar is easy. And it hides a multitude of flaws—not that your cookies would ever have any flaws. The downside is that powdered sugar doesn’t bring much flavor to your cookie game.
This year, though, we’ve learned a few tricks from recent cookbooks that are just as easy and give cookies a flavor boost. And these holiday baking techniques extend beyond just the decoration, because sometimes it’s what’s inside the cookie that makes all the difference. The best part: each of these tricks can be deployed with practically any cookie you plan to make, as long as in you’re generally working in the same family of sweets. Just know this: you’re going to want to start one of them at least 2 weeks in advance, so….better get baking!
1. Age the Dough
Aging cookie dough is not a new technique. You’ve probably heard about resting your chocolate chip cookie dough overnight, and it’s true that the flavor of practically any cookie can be improved with a 24 hour rest in the fridge before baking. But in the case of Lebkuchen, a German spice cookie with many iterations, 24 hours is the minimum. Some recipes are aged, before baking, for up to 4 weeks (and some are aged even further after baking).
Why? The spice seems to mellow over time, which is not to say the flavor dissipates. Rather, by aging over a long hydration period, the spices become “more harmonious than when the dough is baked right away,” according to co-author of the newly revised Joy of Cooking, Megan Scott. Aging makes the spices taste full flavored but less harsh, and more evenly spread throughout each bite. A similar thing happens to the citrus in Scott’s recipe. The recipe calls for candied orange and citron. (I like to make mine with candied lemon peel instead, since it can be tricky to find high-quality citron.) The resting time allows the peel to soften, and the flavor of the peel infuses into the dough, which allows the bars to “develop some complexity beyond just the spices,” Scott notes.
Whether you choose to refrigerate the dough for 24 hours or several weeks, there’s one more thing you’ll notice here. When first made, the dough for this torte-like bar cookie is much looser than the cookie doughs you may be used to—more like a thick, stirrable batter. The resting time firms it up significantly, so that’s why you’ll need to press the dough into the prepared pan when it’s ready to bake.
2. Press—But Not With a Cookie Press
Last year, my mother and I got very into holiday cookie decorating with stamps. Nordic Ware makes a lot of them, and tbh, we bought too many.
In the end, the cookie stamps we liked best were the geometric ones that could really be used in any season. But here’s the real tip: you don’t need any of those stamps to imprint cool shapes in your cookies. To achieve the look above, Martha Stewart’s Cookie Perfection suggests you just break out the old meat mallet—excuse me, kitchen mallet.
The technique works best with a chilled mallet and chilled dough, so place your clean mallet in the fridge or freezer a few hours before you plan to stamp the cookies. I find it works best to take a ball of dough, place it on your counter or directly on the cookie sheet, and press the mallet right into it to spread it out—just as you might use a fork to make hatch marks on a ball of peanut-butter-cookie dough (except with just one press instead of two). Once the design is set, it doesn’t hurt to chill the pressed cookies again so that they retain the imprint while baking.
3. Switch Out the Butter
If you’ve been watching baking trends over the past few years, you’ve probably seen folks making cookies with salted butter—though, again, it really isn’t anything new. But you can add another element of flavor to your cookies by swapping in salted goat’s milk butter instead of the usual cow’s milk-based stuff, as Mindy Segal does in two of the recipes in Cookie Love.
This shortbread recipe calls for goat butter exclusively, but you can really swap goat butter one-for-one in any butter cookie recipe, since the two products have similar fat content. You’ll notice when you open a package of goat butter that it’s bright white—the color of shortening. Don’t be alarmed, the color is because goats process the grass they eat in a different way than cows process grass—and it’s that grass that makes cow’s butter yellow.
The benefit of using goat butter (besides the salty punch, since most of the goat butter you’ll find in America is salted) is that it adds subtle tang. It’s a nice counterpoint to a cookie’s sweetness, but it’s nowhere near as pronounced as the tang of goat cheese. It won’t give your cookies any gamey or barnyardy flavors; it’ll just lend a hint of something that’ll take your shortbread one notch above the rest.
4. Add Flavor With the Other Dried Fruit
Raisins in oatmeal cookies? Of course. Dried cranberries in shortbread? Absolutely. But I’m not talking about that kind of dried fruit. Instead, I’m asking you to veer left into the snack aisle, toward the freeze-dried fruit. When ground into a powder, these stiff, crumbly snacks become natural food dyes and tasty holiday cookie decorating agents.
We’ve used freeze dried-raspberries to make Valentine’s sprinkles and to rim last-year’s Pistachio-Rose squares, but this recipe, also from Martha Stewart’s Cookie Perfection, does those one better. These almond and cinnamon clouds, which are reminiscent of a Mexican wedding cookie, are totally ensconced in a pastel powdered sugar coating. The color in the coating comes from—you guessed it—pulverized freeze-dried fruit. The recipe suggests blueberries, raspberries, and mangoes, which are all very good, though the mango was an Epi office favorite. For a Christmas-themed plate, go for green kiwi and ruby pomegranate, or whatever other fruit sparks holiday nostalgia for you.
5. Skip the Kisses
Everybody loves a button cookie, but all too often the chocolate kiss in the center falls off and separates from the cookie. That’s why Shauna Sever’s recipe for peanut butter blossoms—or, rather Peanut Better Blossoms, as she calls them in Midwest Made—is filled instead with a chocolate ganache. That’s it! That’s the technique.
The benefits of using ganache are more than just about cookie and filling separation. By making a simple microwave ganache with a mixture of butter and chocolate, you get to control the quality of the chocolate filling—and use whatever type of chocolate you like: milk, dark, white, blond, pink. Also, though the ganache stiffens as it cools, it’s softer than a hard chunk of candy, so it dissolves in your mouth at the same pace as the cookie around it. It’s an altogether more enjoyable cookie blossoming.
6. Give Them a Sour Punch
It isn’t easy to get sour flavor into cookies. Lemon juice throws off the liquid ratio, and citrus zest is more floral than tart. Enter sumac, which provides bright, tart flavor to sweet and savory dishes across the Middle East. While this cookie recipe from Honey & Co. at Home incorporates the spice by blending it with sugar for a brightly flavored rim around shortbread squares, it could just as easily be added to the cinnamon, allspice, and cloves in any spice cookie recipe. Start by adding about 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon to whatever recipe you love and scale up from there, depending on how puckering you want your cookies to be.