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D.C.’s top pastry chefs share Christmas cookie secrets and recipes

Do your idealized fantasies of baking Christmas cookies (inviting aromas wafting from a cozy kitchen while carols play joyously in the background, and Pinterest-worthy, whimsically decorated gingerbread people) not live up to the reality? A batter that spreads too much, burnt edges and cookies that stubbornly stick to the pan are enough to make any home baker grinch out.

D.C.’s top toques in all things sweet are here to save the day and give you some of their dough know-how.

Tiffany MacIsaac, Owner, Buttercream Bakeshop

  • Advice for making better Christmas cookies at home: “Every home oven is different, so going strictly by the time and temperature on a recipe might not work out well,” she cautions. “Watch your cookies closely and trust your instincts; also, for chewy cookies, pull them out a little before you think they are done, [as] they will continue to cook for a minute or so on the hot sheet.”
  • Favorite cookie pan: Light metal, aluminum baking pan lined parchment paper for cleaner baking and easy clean up. “I’m a 100% believer [in parchment paper.]”
  • Best way to store cookies: An airtight container will keep cookies freshest.
  • Favorite Christmas cookie: “My business partner, Alex, makes these amazing tri-color cookies. They are the best I’ve ever had and I used to look forward to them every year.” MacIsaac converted the recipe into a cake that’s on the menu at All Purpose next door, so she can indulge year-round.
  • Holiday baking memory: “Growing up we always made cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve; it was something I really looked forward to.”

Oatmeal Cream Pie (Recipe courtesy of Tiffany MacIsaac, Owner, Buttercream Bakeshop)

Yield: About 24 sandwiches, depending on size

  • 2 sticks butter, at room temperature
  • 13 tbsp. light brown sugar (or 1/2 cup + 1 tbsp)
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 3/4 cups rolled oats
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 1/4 tsp. baking powder
  • ? tsp. Kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 cups raisins
  • Whipped cream cheese, for filling (see recipe)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees (convection) or 350 degrees (still). Place butter and sugars in a bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, or a bowl large enough to fit a handheld mixer. Mix 2-3 minutes or until smooth and creamy. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing to fully combine before adding the next egg. (Scrape the bowl between additions to make sure they are fully incorporated.) Place the flour, oats, baking soda and baking powder into a bowl, and mix to combine. Add the mixture to the mixer and stir to combine; scrape bowl and mix 30 seconds longer. Add raisins and mix to combine.

Divide the dough into two pieces, and chill for at least an hour. On a lightly floured surface, roll the pieces into 2 logs that are about 3 inches in diameter. Line a cookie sheet with parchment or wax paper, and slice logs into slices that are just under 1/2 inch thick. Bake for 9-12 minutes in the preheated oven, or until set but still soft in the center. Cool to room temperature before filling with whipped cream cheese. (Cookies are best filled the day before serving so the cream cheese can soften up the cookies.) Once filled, store covered in the refrigerator for up to 3 days, or in the freezer up to a month. If frozen, defrost at room temperature until soft.

For the whipped cream cheese:

Place 1 stick butter (at room temperature) and 1 8-oz. box of cream cheese (at room temperature) into a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, or in a bowl large enough to accommodate a handheld mixer. Stir or mix to combine. Add 3/4 cup sifted powdered sugar and 1 pinch Kosher salt, and cream on medium speed for 1-2 minutes, scraping once with a rubber spatula to combine evenly. Add 1 tsp. vanilla extract and stir to combine.

Caitlin Dysart, Pastry Chef, 2941 Restaurant

  • Advice for making better Christmas cookies at home: “Plan ahead--most cookie doughs can be prepped ahead of time and stored in the freezer,” she says. “By making the dough ahead of time, you can alleviate some of the stress of holiday baking and cooking.” Also, making sure butter and eggs are room temperature before you cream them.
  • Favorite cookie pan: Stainless steel baking trays, either a half sheet or quarter sheet, lined with parchment paper. “Silicone baking mats are [also] very handy when you have a dough or batter you want to carefully peel from the cooking tray.”
  • Best way to store cookies: “I love a classic glass cookie jar on the kitchen counter; just make sure to use a container with a nice airtight seal.”
  • Favorite Christmas cookie: “My mother is very talented and even has her own baking company (A Bit More); growing up, she was always baking for meetings, volunteer groups, school, etc.,” Dysart recalls. “So she made Austrian Almond Squares all the time but us kids were never allowed to eat them (well maybe just the scraps.) So I loved eating them when she made them for the family at Christmas time.”
  • Holiday baking memory: “Growing up we used to have a party every year and invite our friends over to make gingerbread houses with all sorts of different candies.”

Austrian Almond Squares (Recipe adapted from the Farm Journal Christmas Idea Book, 1972)

  • 1 cup butter, at room temperature
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg, separated
  • 1 cup sifted all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 cup sliced almonds

Preheat oven to 275 degrees. In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy; add the egg yolk and scrape the bowl. Add the flour and nutmeg, and mix on low speed until just combined. Cut two sheets of parchment paper to fit a cookie tray; place the dough on top of one sheet of parchment, then place the other sheet on top. Use a rolling pin to spread the dough evenly into a rectangle the same size as the parchment. Place the rolled dough on the baking sheet and set in the refrigerator to cool for 15 minutes. Remove the dough, peel off the top sheet of parchment paper, and brush half of the egg white onto the surface of the dough. Sprinkle the sliced almonds on top, then brush with the remaining egg white.

Bake at 275 degrees for 15-20 minutes then turn down the oven to 250 degrees and bake until golden, rotating the pan as needed for even cooking. Remove it from the oven and all it to cool to warm. Carefully remove the baked dough from the baking tray and place on a cutting board. Cut into 2-inch diamond shapes while still warm. Cool completely before serving or storing.

Fabrice Bendano, Pastry Chef, Le Diplomate

  • Advice for making better Christmas cookies at home: Mix ingredients slowly. “The faster the ingredients are incorporated the more air is introduced into the batter which is not what you want.”
  • Favorite cookie pan: “Personally I prefer my blue steel sheet pans, but they are quite challenging to find in the U.S.; I’ve had to have mine shipped directly from France in the past,” he says. “A traditional aluminum sheet tray will work well at home, It's very important that the sheet tray is flat.” When baking in a convection oven, he prefers to use a Silpat over parchment so the paper doesn’t blow around.
  • Best way to store cookies: An airtight container; not in the refrigerator as the humidity will make them soft.
  • Holiday baking memory: “Baking holiday cookies with my grandmother and mother as a child.

Christmas Sugar Cookies (Recipe courtesy of Fabrice Bendano, Pastry Chef, Le Diplomate)

  • 1.3 lbs. butter, at room temperature
  • 13.4 oz. confectioner’s sugar
  • 5 eggs, at room temperature
  • .2 oz. fine Kosher salt
  • 5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • Decorating icing (see recipe)

In a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing until incorporated, then add the vanilla extract and mix again. Add the flour and salt and mix until incorporated. Wrap the dough and chill it in the refrigerator at least 4 hours. Roll it out to 1/4 inch thick and use desired cookie cutters to shape the dough, and bake cookies at 300 degrees until golden.

Decorating Icing:

Mix 3 1/2 oz. of egg whites with 17 oz. of confectioner’s sugar and 2 tsp. white vinegar. Add food coloring if desired.

Meagan Tighe, Pastry Chef, Trummer’s on Main

  • Advice for making better Christmas cookies at home: “Don’t over bake your cookies--I know because my mom always does,” she says. “The cookies still set up when you take them out of the oven when the edges are just light brown.”
  • Favorite cookie pan: “I like to use light metal because dark metal gets the bottoms of the cookies done too quickly and gives them too much color.” And, parchment paper prevents sticking and makes clean-up a breeze.
  • Best way to store cookies: “I'll put all the cookies I've baked in Tupperware but give them away as gifts in cookie tins.”
  • Favorite Christmas cookie: Grandma’s Christmas Cookies...have all these amazing spices that only work in the winter, so I get really excited to have them this one time of the year,” she notes. “Plus, they always remind me of my grandmother, so they have a special meaning for me.”
  • Holiday baking memory: “The time spent baking together in the kitchen during the holidays [with my family] are memories I will always cherish.”

Grandma’s Christmas Cookies (Recipe courtesy of Meagan Tighe, Pastry Chef, Trummer’s on Main)

  • 1 stick butter, at room temperature
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1 cup pitted dates
  • 1 cup seedless raisins
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cream together, butter, sugar and vanilla; add eggs and beat well. Sift together the dry ingredients, and add to creamed mixture. Add dates, raisins and nuts. Divide batter into 3 portions, and spoon into 3 lines on parchment paper-lined sheet trays. Bake for 15-20 minutes until light brown. Cut within 10 minutes of removing cookies from the oven.

Meredith Tomason, Pastry Chef & Owner, RareSweets

  • Advice for making better Christmas cookies at home: “Cookie dough does best when it rests--let your dough sit in the fridge for at least 1-2 hours, overnight if possible, before baking,” Tomason suggests. “This will help create a tender texture. No one likes tough cookies!”
  • Favorite cookie pan: Most are baked on light metal pans lined with parchment paper. “However, we use Silpat's on our light metal sheet trays for our chocolate chip and macaroons. These help the cookies gain a nice thin crunch on the outside while maintaining a chewy texture on the inside.”
  • Best way to store cookies: “I prefer Tupperware that has latches that lock on the sides,” she says. “Cookie tins are adorable and great for gift giving, but I do not think they keep things as airtight as I would like for cookie storage.”
  • Favorite Christmas cookie: “I truly have a soft spot for my Grandma Ruth's sour cream cookies; she was an avid baker, and certainly influential in me getting where I am today in the baking world.”
  • Holiday baking memory: “ I am not sure if my mother realizes I have associations with certain bowls and spatulas of hers, but I'm keeping an eye out for when she wants to pass them on to my sister and me,” Tomason recalls. “Similar to how people pass along recipes through the generations, I love the idea of passing on vessels and utensils with history and love in them!”

Chocolate Shortbread with Royal Icing (Recipe courtesy of Meredith Tomason, Pastry Chef & Owner, RareSweets)

  • 12 oz. unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 16 oz. all-purpose flour
  • 7 1/2 oz. Dutch-process cocoa powder, sifted
  • 1/4 tsp. Kosher salt
  • Royal icing (see recipe)

In a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs and mix another minute on medium speed; scrape the side of the bowl and mix for another 30 seconds. Combine all dry ingredients and then add to creamed mixture, mixing just until combined. Roll dough to ? inch thick and chill for at least an hour in the refrigerator.

Cut the dough into shapes using cookie cutters; the dough can be re-rolled once. Chill cookies, and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake on parchment paper-lined pans in the preheated oven 8-10 minutes, depending on thickness. (They should develop a slight crust on top and no longer look wet.) Let cookies cool until room temperature, and then transfer to a cooling rack. Use royal icing to decorate.

For the royal icing:

Using a whisk or a whip attachment on a stand mixer, mix 2 1/4. oz. pasteurized egg whites with 3 cups of sifted confectioner’s sugar and a pinch of salt until there are no lumps. Color icing with powdered or gel coloring, if desired. Decorate cookies with icing, and let set for at least an hour.

Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits, food and lifestyle writer in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.

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