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December 04, 2015

How to bake holiday cookies without going crazy

The Little Bird's Jessica Nolen shares her top tips

Everyone loves eating holiday cookies, but, for many, baking the cookies is just as much fun. This time of year, it's hard to resist the temptation of a perfectly decorated sugar cookie or the smell of baked goods wafting through the house.

But for those of us who are inept in the kitchen, the holiday season is a painful mix of Pinterest fails and dashed dreams of Martha Stewart-like stardom. Luckily for Philadelphia, local bastions of baking are willing to share some of their secrets to creating the perfect holiday cookie. 

We sat down with Jessica Nolen, the brains behind the desserts of Brauhaus Schmitz and Whetstone Tavern and the owner of new Society Hill spot The Little Bird Bakery & Cafe, for some troubleshooting tips. Follow her advice and your friends and family will be requesting your sweet treats for years to come. 

Always Be Prepared

When the holidays get hectic, the best recipe for success when you're making big batches of cookies is to plan, plan, plan. 

"I say prep ahead, prep ahead!" Nolen said. "It is so important, especially during the holidays. Just make your doughs ahead of time. And use a portion scoop! It will help your cooking times be even." 

After using a scoop to evenly distribute your dough into cookies, make sure to give them enough room to bake. Two fingers between each cookie on the sheet should do it, Nolen said, depending on the type of recipe. Sugar cookies, for instance, tend to spread out wider than oatmeal cookies. 

Temperature Is Everything

We tend to think that anything "from frozen" is inherently bad, because frozen goods are often associated with convenience cooking or processed foods. But with baking, freezing your dough before baking is essential.

"It gives the perfect texture because when you put it in the oven the inside cooks slower than the outside so it begins to spread and you get that crispy outside and the inside just cooks, so the outside is ready and the inside is just right," Nolen said. 

If you portion out your cookies and wrap them up well, then freeze them, you can bake them right from frozen, she added.

Temperature is important when building your dough, too. Nolen suggests making sure all of your ingredients, like butter and eggs, are up to room temperature before you begin mixing. 

"Everything you put in there should be room temperature. It helps create even emulsification so the dough comes together. That’s for cakes, cookies – anything! "

Mess With the Recipe

Amateur cooks and bakers are often afraid to change the recipes they use, whether they're handed down from grandma or dug up online. But for Nolen, messing with a recipe is just as important as following it. 

"I always adjust every single recipe," she said. "I think it’s good to get a basis of a recipe and do it the way it says the first time and then change it from there."

If you're trying to make those classic holiday cookie cutter shapes and they turn into blobs, for instance, your dough might be too warm or it might not have enough flour. Don't be afraid to experiment. 

Nolen's favorite seasonal cookie is a take on the classic German Elisen gingerbread. She got the recipe from a visiting German chef who wanted her pretzel recipe, so they made a swap – but things got lost in translation

"I had to find my own method to make it work but now it works and I love it. It has toasted hazelnuts and spices, candied orange. I’m obsessed with candied orange, I put it in everything!" she said.  

Get Insta-Worthy Icing

"Disposable piping bags are your best friend," Nolen said. Fill them all at once, add piping bag tips that can be swapped out with a coupler and buy twice as many tips as you think you'll need. 

If you're using royal icing -- the most common kind, made with egg whites and powdered sugar -- you'll want to cover your piping bag tips with a wet paper towel to keep them moist. Royal icing tends to dry very hard, which will slow you down. 

Of course, there's also a special technique to get that nice, smooth coating of icing on all your treats.

"If you want a flat surface, you have a thicker icing, outline the whole thing and let that dry. Then you’re going to take that icing again and thin it down so it’s a liquid and then you just pour it with a spoon or a piping bag and it creates this smooth layer of frosting," Nolen said. 

When you're all done, let them dry and then store them at room temperature (popping them in the fridge will just dry them out). Jessica also uses her mom's trusted technique for keeping cookies soft: storing them with some slices of white bread!

"If you lay it directly on the cookie it makes it soggy, so I would lay it on paper towel or wax paper or whatever, but the bread gives a couple extra days shelf like to cookies."