Cookies ready for a cookie exchange. Photo credit: Taken by Stephen Moyer and used with permission from The Hershey …The first time a neighbor invited us to her annual Christmas party, I arrived with a plate of sugar cookies in hand. As soon as I walked into her dining room and saw hundreds and hundreds of cookies -- ranging from linzer tarts and gingerbread men to cocoa-dusted truffles, I wanted to melt away faster than a stick of butter in a saucepan. This is a woman who takes baking seriously. She begins in October and doesn't stop until the New Year.
So when I found myself in the Hershey Test Kitchen with Hershey's Baking Expert Linda Stahl and a group of bloggers , including some who only blog about cookies, I decided it was an opportunity to pick up a few tips.
1. You don't need a fancy stand mixer. Being of the generation of brides who dutifully added KitchenAid stand mixers to their bridal registries (I didn't receive one), I, along with the other bloggers, gasped when we were informed that the majority of home bakers use handheld mixers instead. This came as a surprise to the experts in the Hershey Test Kitchen as well, but once the data was in, they quickly stowed the stand mixers and brought hand mixers into the kitchen. That's because the test kitchen is focused on creating and testing recipes to be successful in the home kitchen -- and if their ultimate customer uses hand mixers, then they needed to as well.
2. Better butter for your batter. Though not all the cooks at Hershey agreed on whether butter should be set out to soften at room temperature or put into the bowl straight from the fridge, they did agree that zapping it in the microwave is a no-no. The resulting melted butter is too much of a consistency change to cream well and will result in flatter cookies. One of the valuable functions of the creaming process is to introduce air, which helps the cookies rise. Experiment with your ability to cream sugar and butter together with chilled versus room temperature butter and see which you prefer.
3. Don't overbake. Cookies can continue to bake for up to 10 minutes after they are pulled from the oven, so don't judge your cookie as much by the middle as by the edges. You will want the edges of your cookie to be a light golden color when you pull them out. Naturally the size and shape of your cookies will impact how the middles cook, but one of the most common baking mistakes is overbaking. Ensuring that your cookies are uniform in size will also help in the baking process - you don't want your cookies baking at different rates.
4. Ingredients matter. The Hershey Test Kitchen staff uses and write recipes that call for nationally-available ingredients. The reason is that slight formulaic changes by manufacturers can affect the outcome of a recipe, so they try to ensure the highest level of success by listing brands or types of ingredients that can be easily found throughout the U.S. in order to best predict the results. Additionally, we learned that not all cocoa powders are the same -- for example there is a difference between natural and Dutch-processed cocoa powders and using the wrong one could make your final product taste or look different. There are even blends of natural and Dutch-processed cocoa powders such as the Hershey's Special Dark Cocoa Powder , so be certain you are using exactly what your recipe calls for.
5. Your cookie sheet makes a difference. There are countless kinds of cookie sheets available on the market, but two of the most important qualities are even heating and a flat surface. I know from my own experience that the thin, flat cookie sheets without rolled edges tend to become warped over time. However, cookie sheets do not have to be expensive in order to be of good quality. Alumunium sheets with rolled edges -- available at restaurant supply stores as well as in the baking section of most big box stores -- often retain their shape better than their flatter counterparts, and distribute the heat nicely. You can simplify clean-up (and cookie removal) by lining them with parchment paper.
For more cookie baking tips, links to recipes, and details about a Hershey's Cookie Exchange kit giveaway, read more at my blog, Caffeine and a Prayer.