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Pull great cookies from bag of tricks, tips

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You've seen it.

The look of someone who has just bitten into a cookie they thought was ordinary but found it extraordinary. The eyes widen, the brows go up and then you hear, "Oh dear, how did you make these?"

There are baking secrets to be kept or shared, depending upon your generosity of spirit. Fortunately, people such as cookbook authors Rose Levy Beranbaum and Wayne Glissen are generous souls who have written volumes on baking cookies. There's also a trick or two gleaned from generation after generation of baking, recipes altered along the way until they achieved perfection.

Here are some of those tricks and tips, and recipes for classic Christmas cookies. But before you begin baking, check your refrigerator and your pantry.

Sure, you may have a pound of confectioners' sugar on hand, but is it all clumpy from people spooning into it all year for their pancakes? Is the butter in the fridge whipped? If so, don't use it in these recipes; buy regular, unsalted butter for best results. And if you haven't used your baking soda since last Christmas, odds are, you'll need to buy a fresh box.

Once you've got all your ingredients and equipment in hand, put the carols on the stereo and make your cookie better.


GINGERBREAD PEOPLE

(Makes 40 big cookies)

3 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 teaspoons ginger

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

3/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar

1/2 cup unsulfured molasses

1 large egg

Royal icing (see recipe) or prepared decorator icing

In a small bowl, sift together the flour, salt, baking soda and spices. Whisk to mix evenly.

In a mixing bowl, cream the butter and brown sugar until fluffy. Add the molasses and egg and beat until blended. On low speed, gradually beat in the flour mixture.

Scrape the dough onto plastic wrap and use the wrap to press the dough into a thick, flat disk. Wrap well and refrigerate for 2 hours.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Place 2 oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of oven.

On a floured pastry cloth, roll out dough to a 1/8-inch-thickness. Use cookie cutters to cut out the dough. With a spatula, lift the cut dough onto baking sheets about 1 inch apart. If desired, make holes for hanging the cookies with wooden skewer at tops of heads or in hands.

Bake 8 to 12 minutes depending on the size of the cookies. Cool on baking pan 1 minute and then transfer to wire racks to cool completely. Decorate as desired.

Cookies will keep for several months stored in airtight containers at room temperature.

Success tip: To handle molasses with ease, use a greased liquid measuring cup. From "Rose's Christmas Cookies" by Rose Levy Beranbaum (Morrow, 1990)


ROYAL ICING

3 large egg whites or 3 tablespoons meringue powder (see note) and 6 tablespoons water

4 cups confectioners' sugar

Place the ingredients in a large mixing bowl and beat with a whip at low speed until sugar is moistened. Beat at high speed until very glossy and stiff peaks form when beater is lifted. More confectioners' sugar may be added if needed for piping. Thin with water for painting. Paste food colors may be added.

NOTE: Meringue powder may be found at craft and confectionery stores. From "Rose's Christmas Cookies" by Rose Levy Beranbaum (Morrow, 1990)


MERINGUE KISSES

Makes about 48 cookies

1 1/2 cups plus 1 tablespoon confectioners' sugar

2 ounces unsweetened chocolate

4 large egg whites at room temperature

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

Measure out 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar and set aside.

Line baking pans with parchment paper.

In a food processor, process the chocolate and the 1 cup confectioners' sugar until the chocolate is fine powder. Refrigerate until ready to use.

In a mixing bowl, beat the egg whites until frothy. Add the cream of tartar and beat at medium speed, gradually adding 2 tablespoons of the reserved sugar until soft peaks form when the beater is raised slowly. Add another tablespoon of the sugar and increase speed to high. When stiff peaks form when the beater is raised slowly, add the remaining sugar and beat until meringue is stiff and glossy. Using a large spatula, fold in the chocolate mixture.

Scoop the mixture into a pastry bag and hold so the tube is pointing straight down and pipe out mounds resembling kisses onto the parchment. Allow to dry for 30 minutes or until you can touch the cookie and the meringue will stay intact.

Heat oven to 200 degrees. Bake cookies for 1 hour or until crisp throughout.

Will keep many months stored in airtight containers at room temperature. Adapted from "Rose's Christmas Cookies" by Rose Levy Beranbaum (Morrow, 1990)


CHOCOLATE CHUNK COOKIES

(Makes about 60 cookies)

2 1/4 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

8 tablespoons butter, softened

1/2 cup shortening

1 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 eggs

1 (12-ounce) bag semisweet chocolate chunks

1 cup walnuts or pecans, chopped

Heat oven to 375 degrees.

In a small bowl, combine flour, baking soda and salt.

In a large mixing bowl, cream butter, shortening, sugars and vanilla until creamy. Beat in eggs. Gradually add in flour mixture, beating well. Add chocolate chunks and nuts and blend. (Dough may be divided in half at this point, wrapped in plastic and refrigerated until ready to use.)

For cookies that look homemade, drop by rounded teaspoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheets (or pans lined with parchment). For professional looking cookies, roll dough into 1-inch balls before baking.

Bake 9 to 11 minutes until edges are golden brown. Let stand on cookie sheets about 2 minutes then remove to wire racks to cool.

Keep 1 month in an airtight container at room temperature. Based on the original Toll House recipe, this version will not spread as much during baking.


SPRITZ

(Makes about 48 cookies)

2 1/2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup butter

1 1/4 cups sifted, confectioners' sugar

2 egg yolks or 1 whole egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Candied cherries, jam or chopped nuts for garnish

Sift flour and salt into a small bowl, set aside.

Cream butter. Gradually add confectioners' sugar, beating well. Blend in egg yolks or egg and vanilla. Add flour mixture gradually, mixing well.

Heat oven to 400 degrees.

Force dough through a cookie press making decorative shapes onto an ungreased cookie sheet or parchment-lined pans. Top with candied cherry, or 1/2 teaspoonful of jam, and then sprinkle with finely chopped nuts. Bake 6 to 8 minutes. Do not brown.

Note: Using egg yolks instead of a whole egg makes the cookies more tender but more difficult to handle.

Keep 1 month stored at room temperature in an airtight container.


SUGAR COOKIES

(Makes about 80 cookies)

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

1 1/2 cups butter, softened

2 eggs

2 tablespoons vanilla extract

4 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

Royal icing, colored sugar, nonpareils, chocolate jimmies and such for decorating

Combine sugar and butter in a large mixing bowl and beat until creamy. Add eggs and vanilla, beating well.

Stir together dry ingredients and add to creamed mixture, beating until blended.

Divide dough in half. Wrap halves in plastic and refrigerate at least 30 minutes.

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Roll out dough on floured pastry cloth to a 1/8-inch-thickness. Use cookie cutters to cut out the dough. With a spatula, lift the cut dough onto baking sheets, placing about 1 inch apart. If desired, make holes for hanging the cookies with wooden skewer at tops of heads or in hands.

Bake 10 to 12 minutes. Cool on pans 1 minute then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

Keep for several months in an airtight container at room temperature.