Kitchen Call: Cookies of the year

Linda Bassett

In cooler weather, nothing welcomes family and friends as nicely as a front door opening to the aroma of cookies warm from the oven. A thoughtful gift for neighbors and officemates, an addition to holiday tables or a special after-school treat, cookies are favored for their homespun simplicity.

If you, like me, are “a cook, not a baker,” you might romanticize cookies, as I did above. We non-bakers tend to do that. You might even welcome a new book that carefully walks you through the secrets of producing cookies. Creating that balance between moist and crunchy or dense and light is not an issue for me. I’m grateful for instructions that help me turn out cookies that don’t burn to charcoal on the bottom while the top is still raw.

Baker Linda J. Amendt, winner of more than 600 blue ribbons in baking competitions around the U.S., has written that book. “400 Sensational Cookies” provides clear instructions and tried and true expertise. Besides sharing her baking abilities, the author provides a variety of insider tips on how to win those coveted blue ribbons in baked goods competitions — in case you’re willing to attempt this at the next country fair.

Amendt includes recipes from traditional favorites and modern classics to original delicacies. Yummy raspberry cream sandwiches and coconut macaroons go with pitchers of lemonade under the shade of a backyard tree. For autumn and winter, you might turn to recipes for pumpkin spice cookies; cranberry orange spirals; ginger cookies; or maple pecan biscotti.

The beginning of the book provides information needed to get started baking, from basic equipment and tools to pantry ingredients and baking techniques. Sections on supply sources, packaging and shipping cookies and problem solving are helpful. Chapters are organized by technique and outcome — Drop Cookies, Hand-Shaped Cookies, Dream Cookies, Rolled Cutout Cookies, Refrigerator Slice-and-Bake Cookies, Bars and Squares, Biscotti, Brownies, Shortbreads, Chocolate Chip Heaven.

Since I rarely devote time — or patience — to baking, I immediately flip through the pages in search of anything quick and easy for last-minute emergencies, like at bedtime on a weeknight when the kids suddenly unearth a long-lost notice from the bottom of their backpacks about the school bake sale taking place tomorrow morning.

According to the writer, “with the right recipes, clear instructions and essential baking information, anyone can … become a great cookie baker.” I doubt that “great” part, but maybe this will help fake it through a couple of occasions.

Cookie recipes following adapted from "400 Sensational Cookies" by Linda J. Amendt:

PUMPKIN SPICE COOKIES

Makes about 4 dozen cookies

These slightly spicy, soft, chewy, cake-like cookies are a perfect fall treat.

2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened

3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract  

1 can pumpkin puree

1 cup chopped pecans

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cookie sheets, lined with parchment paper.

2. Whisk together flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

3. In a separate bowl, cream together butter, brown sugar and granulated sugar until light and fluffy, with an electric mixer on medium speed, about 3 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in vanilla. Add pumpkin; stir until well combined. Scrape down sides of bowl. On low speed or using a wooden spoon, gradually add flour mixture, beating just until blended. Fold in pecans with a spatula.

4. Using a cookie scoop or spoons, drop tablespoonfuls of dough about 2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets. Bake one sheet at a time, in preheated oven for 12 to 15 minutes or until edges start to turn lightly golden.

5. Immediately slide parchment paper onto a wire cooling rack. Cool cookies for 5 minutes. Transfer from parchment paper to cooling rack. Cool completely.

For the icing:

1 cup confectioner’s sugar

1 to 2 tablespoon half-and-half cream or milk

1/2 teaspoon maple flavoring

In a small bowl, combine confectioner’s sugar, 1 tablespoon of the cream and maple flavoring. With a small whisk or fork, blend until icing is smooth and thin enough to drizzle. Add more cream, as needed, to achieve the right consistency. Drizzle icing over cooled cookies.

DARK CHOCOLATE ESPRESSO COOKIES

Makes about 5 dozen cookies

This dough is very sticky, so it is important to lightly spray hands with nonstick cooking spray to keep dough from sticking while shaping cookies.

10 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped

2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted

2-1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

2/3 cup unsalted butter, softened

1-1/2 cups packed dark brown sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

2-1/2 teaspoons instant espresso powder

4 eggs

2-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.

2. In a microwave-safe bowl, heat chopped chocolate in microwave at medium-high power for 1 minute. Stir chocolate until smooth. If necessary, heat at medium power for 10 seconds at a time, stirring between each heating, just until chocolate is melted. Set aside to cool.

3. In a bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt until combined. Set aside.

4. In a large bowl, cream butter, brown sugar, granulated sugar and espresso powder until light and fluffy, with an electric mixer on medium speed, about 3 minutes. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla. Scrape down sides of bowl. Add melted chocolate and stir until thoroughly combined. On low speed, or using a wooden spoon, gradually add flour mixture, beating just until blended. Cover dough with plastic wrap and chill for at least 1 hour.

5. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease hands with nonstick cooking spray. Roll pieces of dough into 1-inch balls. Place about 2 inches apart on prepared cookie sheets. Bake one sheet at a time in preheated oven for 10 to 12 minutes or until set around the edges but slightly soft in the center.

6. Immediately slide parchment paper onto a wire cooling rack. Cool cookies for 5 minutes, then transfer from parchment paper to cooling rack and cool completely.

Linda Bassett, author of “From Apple Pie to Pad Thai,” teaches American regional cooking and international cuisine at Massachusetts' North Shore Community College. Reach her by e-mail at KitchenCall@aol.com.