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Making the perfect cookie

Cookies never go out of style, especially during the holidays. They are a sweet tradition, whether they're warm from the oven with a glass of milk, displayed decadently on party platters, or packed into tins and sent halfway across the globe.

They also offer historical perspective, from great-grandma's gingerbread cookies, to modern-day recipes that can be vegan, sugar-free or gluten-free.

Wendy Paul of West Jordan took these dietary restrictions to heart with her new book "101 Gourmet Cookies for Everyone." She has plenty of decadent, "forget the calories" cookies, but she also has recipes for "Watching Your Waistline," "Gluten-Free and Flavorful" and "Surprisingly Vegan."

"When I did my last cookbook, '101 Cupcakes,' the number one question I got was about whether you could make them gluten-free," Paul said. "So for my follow-up book, I wanted to include gluten-free recipes."

After baking thousands of cookies, Paul has the following tips for cookie-bakers:

1. To make a really good cookie taste even better, chill the dough in the refrigerator for at least an hour, or overnight. "The cookies will stay plump and fluffy when the butter is more solidified," Paul said. "You'll have to plan ahead for that hour's time."

2. If the recipe calls for butter, use real butter, not a low-calorie margarine or spread. They contain water and additives, so you won't get the same results. "There's something about butter than makes it bake better," said Paul. "I know people want to be health conscious, but if you limit yourself to just a few cookies, it's not that bad."

3. Use a cookie scoop (or an ice cream scoop) so the cookies are uniform in size and bake evenly.

4. To keep your cookies from going rock-hard, pull them out of the oven when they're slightly underdone, and the center is still soft. "Then let them sit on the cookie sheet for two or three minutes to finish cooking without the high heat."

5. Frozen assets. Most cookie dough freezes well for up to three months. Just thaw the dough in the refrigerator until it's soft enough to use; then follow the recipe directions for baking.

6. If the recipe calls for seven to 10 minutes of baking time, set your timer for seven minutes. Then check your cookies every minute after that until the edges are lightly golden. Cookies can go from underdone to done in less than one minute.

7. If you'll be transporting them, choose cookies that can sustain the trip. "Key lime bars and lemon bars, or gooey brownies, or anything with a glaze or frosting are harder to transport, but they're so pretty and they taste fantastic. You can do a single layer of them rather than loading up the plate."

8. Pay attention to presentation with fun packaging. "You can find fun food boxes everywhere, often at craft stores," said Paul. "I bought some Chinese take-out boxes that were Christmas-themed at Xpedx. I lined them with tissue paper and stuck the cookies inside. Roberts Crafts has clear cellophane bags that you can put cookies in; you can even wrap them individually. I've also used cupcake boxes. When you see something pretty and cute, and there's wonderful goodies inside, that's one of the best presents you can get — home-baked with love."

9. Paul advises plating a variety of cookies, "So that people can find a cookie they love. Maybe have Christmas Cherry Cookies, maybe a ginger cookie, a sugar cookie or two, maybe peanut butter cookies."

10. To get a variety of cookies without as much labor, Paul suggests doing a cookie exchange or cookie swap. She's hosting one for the first time this year. Each guest brings a batch of a different type of cookie, and then these are traded so that everyone takes home a variety of cookies.

"I'm having everyone bring the recipe for the cookie, too, so you can go home and make them as well."

Lauren Chattman joined a mom's group when she first moved to a small town, and was invited to the group's holiday exchange. That eventually led to her writing a cookbook, "Cookie Swap!" (Workman Publishing, $14.95), filled with recipes and tips for hosting your own exchange.

She writes about her first cookie exchange, "It not only helped me make new friends, it also opened my eyes to all the wonderful baking going on around me."

According to Chattman, cookie swaps originated in the early 1900s as a way for women to cut down on their holiday baking load. Today, cookies are still "the most perfectly portable of desserts," she added.

After Gourmet magazine folded last year, the magazine's chef, Sara Moulton, searched its recipe archives and compiled the cookies that defined each year, from the magazine's beginning in 1941 to its end in 2009.

It's a walk through memory lane that includes Honey Refrigerator Cookies from 1942, when World War II rationing made sugar scarce.

"Cookies turn out to be an excellent indicator of what we have been eating," write the Gourmet editors. "An ingredient must have a solid place at America's table before it makes its way into the cookie cupboard. So when pistachios start showing up in cookies in the '80s, you know that the luxurious nut has finally become part of the American food landscape."

But while new cookies keep being invented, old cookies never fade from memory. We've collected a mix of old and new recipes to keep you busy baking this holiday season, including gluten-free and sugar-free options.

GLUTEN-FREE CHOCOLATE CHUNKY COOKIES

½ cup almond oil

½ cup agave nectar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/3 cup unsweetened applesauce

Dash of salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

1½ cups almond flour

1½ cups rice flour

3 teaspoons xanthan gum

2 teaspoons cream of tartar

1 cup gluten-free chocolate chunks

With a whisk, stir together almond oil and agave nectar. Add vanilla, applesauce, salt and baking soda. Gently fold in almond flour, rice flour, xanthan gum, cream of tartar and chocolate chunks.

Drop by small cookie scoop onto parchment paper and bake at 350 degrees for 8-10 minutes, or until edges are slightly golden. Remove from the oven and cool completely.

Makes 24-30 cookies.

— "101 Gourmet Cookies for Everyone," by Wendy Paul

CANDY CANE BROWNIES

½ cup butter

1 12-ounce bag dark chocolate (or semi-sweet) chips

1 cup brown sugar

3 eggs

½ cup flour

Pinch of salt

1 bag white chocolate chips

1 cup crushed candy canes

In a large saucepan, melt butter and chocolate chips on low, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and stir in sugar until well combined. Add eggs, one at a time, stirring in between. Add flour and salt, and mix until no flour is seen.

Pour batter into a greased 9-by-9-inch baking pan dusted with cocoa. Bake at 350 degrees 25-28 minutes, until middle is set. Remove from oven.

Sprinkle white chocolate chips on top of hot brownies. Allow chips to melt 2 minutes. Spread chocolate chips evenly for frosting. Sprinkle with crushed candy canes. Cool completely and cut into squares. Makes 16 brownies.

— "101 Gourmet Cookies for Everyone," by Wendy Paul

CHRISTMAS CHERRY BARS

1 cup butter, softened

1 cup sugar

2 eggs

1½ teaspoon almond extract, divided

2½ cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 jar maraschino cherries, cut in half and stems removed

1 tablespoon milk

2 cups powdered sugar

Cream together butter, sugar and eggs. Add 1 teaspoon almond extract. Slowly beat in flour and salt. Spread batter over a greased cookie sheet or smaller jelly roll pan. Sprinkle batter with cherries.

Bake at 350 degrees for 15-18 minutes until lightly golden but soft. Remove from oven and cool.

Mix together milk, ½ teaspoon of the almond extract and powdered sugar. Whisk together until there are no more lumps. Drizzle over cooled cookie bars. Cut into 1½-inch squares and serve. Makes 30-32 cookies.

— "101 Gourmet Cookies for Everyone," by Wendy Paul

SALTINE TOFFEE BARK

These easy-to-assemble treats start out with saltine crackers.

Nonstick cooking spray

48 saltine crackers (1 sleeve)

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter

1 cup packed brown sugar

1 12-ounce bag semisweet chocolate chips

1 cup unsweetened coconut

2/3 cup finely chopped pecans, almonds, or walnuts

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a rimmed 15-by-10-by-1-inch baking sheet (jelly roll pan) with heavy-duty aluminum foil and lightly spray the foil with nonstick cooking spray. Arrange the crackers on top of the foil in a single layer, so they are touching each other at the edges.

Combine butter and sugar in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Turn heat to low; simmer until the mixture is thick, 3 minutes. Pour the mixture over the crackers and spread it to the edges of the pan with a rubber spatula.

Place the baking sheet in the oven and bake until the toffee is bubbling, 5 minutes. Transfer the baking sheet to a wire rack and sprinkle the chocolate chips over the toffee-covered crackers. Use the spatula to spread the melted chips in an even layer. Sprinkle coconut and nuts over the chocolate. When cookies cool completely, break them into 48 pieces.

— "Cookie Swap," by Lauren Chattman

SUGAR-FREE MONKEY COOKIES

Bananas lend a natural sweetness to this dough, so no refined sugar is required. Look for carob chips sweetened with barley syrup at the natural foods store, or replace them with raisins if you prefer.

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

2/3 cup unsweetened coconut

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

2 cups mashed, very ripe bananas (about 4 large bananas)

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

4 cups rolled oats (not instant)

1½ cups carob chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper. Combine the flour, coconut, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Place the mashed bananas and butter in a large bowl and blend with an electric mixer on medium until smooth, 2-3 minutes. Add eggs and vanilla and beat until smooth. Mix in the flour mixture on low. Stir in the oats and carob chips.

Drop the dough by heaping tablespoons onto the prepared baking sheets, leaving about 3 inches between each cookie. Flatten each one slightly with the palm of your hand. (The dough can be frozen at this point for later use.)

Bake the cookies until they are golden around the edges, but still soft on top, about 12 minutes. Let the cookies stand on the baking sheets for 5 minutes, then carefully slide the parchment sheets with the cookies to wire racks and let them cool completely.

— "Cookie Swap," by Lauren Chattman

GINGERBREAD MEN

These buttery gingerbread men are meant to be eaten. If you want to use them as tree decorations, substitute ½ cup of vegetable shortening for the butter, to give them a longer shelf life.

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

½ cup sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon ground ginger

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

½ cup dark (not light or blackstrap) molasses

1 large egg

1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar

2½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra for rolling the dough

Chocolate chips, cinnamon Red Hots candy, or raisins, for eyes and buttons

Decorating icing, optional

Place the butter and sugar in a large bowl and beat together with an electric mixer on medium-high until well combined, 2-3 minutes. Add the baking powder, ginger, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and cloves, and beat until incorporated. Add the molasses, egg and vinegar, and beat until smooth, scraping down the sides of the bowl once or twice as necessary. Stir in the flour, 1 cup at a time, until incorporated.

Scrape the dough onto a sheet of plastic wrap and press it into a rough square. Wrap it tightly and refrigerate it for at least 3 hours or up to 3 days. (The dough can be frozen at this point for future use.)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper.

On a lightly floured work surface, using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll out the dough to a thickness of ¼ inch. Use a gingerbread man cookie cutter to cut the dough, rerolling and cutting the scraps. Place the cut cookies on the prepared baking sheets. Make eyes, nose, mouth and buttons by pressing chocolate chips, Red Hots and/or raisins, into the cookies (or use decorating icing after the cookies are baked).

Cut a hole at the top of each cookie with a drinking straw if you want to hang them after baking.

Bake the cookies until they are firm, 8-12 minutes. Slide the parchment sheets with the cookies onto a wire rack for cooling.

Decorate the cooled cookies with icing, if desired.

— "Cookie Swap," by Lauren Chattman

SPECULAAS (St. Nicholas Cookies)

Published in Gourmet in 1971, these cookies have been baked in the Netherlands for centuries.

3 cups flour

4 teaspoons baking powder

1 tablespoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon cloves

1 teaspoon nutmeg

½ teaspoon ground aniseed

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon ginger or white pepper

2 stick (1 cup) butter, softened

1½ cups firmly packed dark brown sugar

3 tablespoons milk

¼ cup flour (for rolling the dough)

2-3 cups blanched almonds

2-3 lightly beaten egg whites

Into a bowl, sift together 3 cups flour, baking powder, spices and salt. In a bowl of an electric mixer, beat butter with brown sugar until the mixture is light and fluffy. Stir in milk. Gradually add the flour mixture, stirring until it is well combined and form the dough into a ball. Knead the dough on a board sprinkled with flour. Roll it into a rectangle ¼-inch thick. With a sharp knife or cutter, cut the dough into rectangles 2½ inches by 1½ inches. Put the rectangles on a buttered cookie sheet. Decorate them with blanched almonds by gently pushing the nuts into the dough. Brush cookies with lightly beaten egg white. Bake the cookies at 375 degrees 12-15 minutes, or until they are firm. Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

— "The Gourmet Cookie Book"

HONEY REFRIGERATOR COOKIES

Sugar was rationed during World War II, and this 1942 recipe showed readers how to use honey in its place.

1/2 cup honey

½ cup brown sugar

½ cup shortening

1 egg

2½ cups sifted flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon soda

½ teaspoon salt

1/2 cup walnuts

Cream together honey, brown sugar and shortening. Beat in egg; then add flour, sifted with baking powder, soda and salt. Add walnuts. Shape the dough into 2-inch diameter rectangular logs. Allow dough to ripen for a day or two in the refrigerator. Slice and bake in at 400 degrees for 10-12 minutes. Makes about 80 cookies.

— "The Gourmet Cookie Book"

TRIOS

The classic thumbprint cookie got a modern makeover in a 2007 issue of Gourmet. Three flavors of jam offer a variety of tastes, and create a cookie that looks like a holiday ornament.

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

2 sticks (1/2 pound) unsalted butter, softened

1 cup sugar

1 large egg

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

About 2 tablespoons seedless raspberry jam

About 2 tablespoons apricot preserves

About 2 tablespoons strawberry preserves

Special equipment: A 1/2-inch-thick wooden spoon handle or dowel

Whisk together flour and salt. In a separate bowl, beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer until very pale and fluffy, about 4 minutes, then beat in egg and vanilla.

At low speed, mix in flour mixture in three batches just until a dough forms. Divide dough in half and form each piece into a 6-inch disk, then chill, wrapped in plastic wrap, until firm, about 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees with rack in middle. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.

Roll each of 3 separate level teaspoons of dough into a ball, then flatten each ball slightly (to 1 inch wide and less than 1/2 inch thick). Arrange them in a triangle on baking sheet, with edges touching in center, then make a deep indentation in center of each round with wooden spoon handle. Make more cookies, arranging them 1 inch apart on baking sheets. Chill the cookies for an hour or more so cookies will hold their shape when baked.

Fill indentation in each cookie with about 1?8 teaspoon jam (each cookie should have 3 different fillings), avoiding any large pieces of fruit.

Bake until cookies are baked through and golden brown on edges, 15 to 20 minutes. Cool on baking sheets 5 minutes, then transfer to racks to cool completely.

Makes about 31/2 dozen cookies.

— "The Gourmet Cookie Book"

e-mail: vphillips@desnews.com