Saturday, December 13, 2008

Hosting a Holiday Cookie Making Party

Every other year in December we throw a cram-the-house-full, pull-out-all-the-stops cookie making party. Going over the top is one of our fun things, but rest assured that it is also possible to hold a most excellent party in a much more low-key fashion. (Apparently it is also possible to go even further over the top - why on earth would you make fudge to send home with people after a cookie making party?)

This has turned into a really long post, so here is an index (as always, you can skip the blather and go straight to the recipes at the end of the post):

Picture Gallery
Venue
Hosts
Guests
Refreshments
Cookie Dough
Frosting
Decorations
Supplies
Cookie Boxes
Cookie Recipes

Picture Gallery


This is the best adaptive re-use of the creepy hunchback Santa that I have ever seen.






The temptation to mix the two cookie doughs is well-nigh irresistible. Fortunately they bake for the same time at the same temperature. I think spritz disk impressions on rolled cookies were an innovation this year.


This chessboard was the most time intensive project of the evening. It survived baking reasonably well, although some of the chess pieces fell over.






The frog seems to have been particularly inspiring this year (in previous years it's been the orca or the coyote).


The letters are always popular. We scored a full alphabet from the thrift store.

Venue

We use our teeny-tiny house which is poorly laid out for the endeavor, but the crowding adds conviviality. At a minimum you need some room for seating, some room for circulation, a lot of decorating area, a place to lay out the beverages, and an oven.

We advise that your work space be free of carpets or rugs of any kind, but work with what you have.

With 15-20 guests, baking two sheets of cookies at a time will just about keep up. With more guests, an oven with three racks would be a big help.

Hosts

This party really requires more than one host, unless you bake the cookies beforehand, because one of you will be in the kitchen pretty much full time until late in the party.

Guests

As many as you can reasonably cram into your venue, and then one or two more for the pot. Most of our guests are adults. I'm sure there's a whole other batch of considerations if your party is mostly populated with small ones. I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to consider them.

Refreshments

These can be minimal. Milk always goes over well. If you put it out on the counter in a thermos, it will stay reasonably cold. Coffee is also well received.

Some light snacks are nice to blunt the sugar high. This year we put out chex mix for people to munch on while decorating and, inevitably, some of the mix made its way onto some of the cookies. Once people start thinking, there's no stopping them.



Cookie Dough

Several days before the party, we make two kinds of rolled cookie dough (sugar and gingerbread) and spritz butter cookie dough. We use the spritz recipe from Cooks Illustrated (Issue 71, Nov 2004).

[HUZZAH! We think we have an ID on the mystery sugar cookie dough from the grand cookie tea cup experiment. You'll find the recipe at the end of the post.]

It is helpful to test the properties of the cookie dough before the party. Is it sturdy enough to be moved from rolling surface to cookie sheet, or does it need to be rolled out directly onto parchment paper? Is it sticky enough to need waxed paper between it and the rolling pin? Keep in mind that the dough will get stickier as it warms up.

Spritz cookies pose a bit of a conundrum. They're delicious and people love to play with the cookie press. Just don't expect the finished product to be beautiful. Spritz dough seems to have a working range of about two degrees. Too cold and it breaks off. Too warm and it puddles. We have the old fashioned metal tube presses. I expect you could get more reliable results from the modern "guns," but you'd lose most of the fun. Also, not many people end up getting to play because it's so easy to pump out a lot of cookies quickly that people don't realize how much cookie dough they've gone through before they hand the press off to someone else.

No one should fault you if you make only one kind of dough. Gingerbread is a good choice, because it rolls out so beautifully, transfers to the cookie sheet without distorting, and keeps well.

In fact, if you don't want to hang out in the kitchen during the party, you can even roll, cut and bake the cookies beforehand, and just have a cookie decorating party.

Frosting

For this party, I just grit my teeth and throw Article 5 to the wind. This year I did experiment with natural greens, and found that matcha powder works reasonably well. I will document my search for green in a future post. (Edited to add: see The Quest for Green Frosting)

We make two to three recipes of Quick Icing from the 1997 Joy of Cooking(the standard powdered sugar, butter and milk recipe). I divide it into six or seven batches to color. I make plenty of red, green and white, and smaller quantities of orange, blue and yellow. Don't bother with purple unless you own purple food coloring. Every year I think I'll make purple by mixing red and blue food coloring, and every year I am disappointed. It's just muddy and ugly.

We make an egg white and sugar frosting for piped outlines and writing. We also provide little store-bought tubes of colored icing for the same purpose.

Decorations

Let your imagination run wild here. At a minimum, supply frosting and some things to sprinkle.
  • spreading frosting - you can even buy it from the store
  • piping/writing frosting
  • cinnamon red hots
  • crushed peppermints or Lifesavers
  • sprinkles of all kinds
  • googly eyes (we are blessed to have Cookies nearby, where you can buy hard sugar decorations in just about any shape you can imagine)
  • colored sugars - the huge or medium crystal kind are most festive, but you can't beat good old cinnamon sugar either
  • raisins and other dried fruits
  • nuts
  • toasted coconut
  • licorice whip
  • chocolate chips - regular and tiny
  • we don't really believe in them, but butterscotch or white chocolate chips
We tried to divide the decorations between pre- and post-baking areas, but the people didn't want to be separated (the best kind of party), so everything ended up jumbled together.

Supplies

  • prep bowls - roughly a gazillion, to hold the various decorations; if your house is not as unusually rich in prep bowls as ours is, try cottage cheese tubs or paper cups
  • butter knives - for frosting; as many as you can scramble
  • cookie sheets - about one cookie sheet for every two guests; more is better; borrow if you need to--you don't want to have to be washing cookie sheets during the party
  • cookie cutters
    • we have an eclectic collection, some childhood favorites, a large and random thrift store selection, and some from the aforementioned Cookies (I can't tell you how hard it was to resist buying the buffalo this year, but we have to pace ourselves)
    • if people bring their own cutters, make sure they can identify them so they'll get them back (this year's discovery: a quick cell phone snapshot is a big help for this)
    • plan to wash all of the cookie cutters after the party, because you just can't tell which have been used and which haven't
  • a cookie press or two if you make spritz dough
  • tables - leave room for circulation and then fill the rest of the space up with tables
  • kraft paper - covering your tables with kraft paper makes cleanup much easier
  • parchment paper - for lining the cookie sheets; this way, you can re-use the cookie sheets without washing them and it makes cleanup after the party much easier; people can also roll the cookies out right on the parchment paper and then transfer the paper to the cookie sheets
  • waxed paper - for putting between rolling pin and cookie dough to prevent sticking
  • rolling pins - we've found that three seems to be about right for 15-20 people
  • cooling racks - as many small ones as you can round up, for cooling cookies and ferrying them out to the decorating table; if you find you don't have enough cooling racks, you can put cooled cookies on paper plates or such-like
  • a really good dust mop - I'm planning to make this for next time; even so, resign yourself to picking up those tiny colored balls for weeks to come
  • odd things that guests request and you will have no way of predicting - it's one of the fun parts

Cookie Boxes

We have learned from experience that one must be rigorous about insisting that every guest leave with a plate of cookies. Just imagine the trauma we've suffered in years past after being stuck with all those extra cookies. Now stop laughing.

Matt enjoys grade-school art projects involving tuberous roots, so he decorates plain white pizza boxes with potato prints. He buys the boxes from our local pizza joint (we suspect the counter guy pockets the cash, but we don't inquire too closely). We cut a couple pieces of waxed paper to fit inside each box so that cookies can be stacked in layers.


Yes, those are Christmas bats. Why do you ask?

For the more restrained among you, paper plates small enough to fit into plastic bags work well (if you trust in plastic wrap to keep cookies on a plate, you are a braver cook than I). Another option would be pie or cake boxes.

Cookie Recipes


Roll Cookies
[transcribed from 1974 Joy of Cooking, page 711]
Yield: about forty 2-inch cookies [We generally make 2 1/2 batches for 15-20 people.]

Remarkable for its handling quality, this dough can be shaped into crusts for filled cookies or tarts, as well as cut into intricate patterns.

Cream:

1/2 cup white or brown sugar

with:

1/2 cup butter

Beat in:

1 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs
2 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
[Joy cautions against adding extra flour, but it would make rolling out easier.]
2 teaspoons double-acting baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

Chill the dough 3 to 4 hours before rolling.

[We have found it is most foolproof to roll the cookies out onto parchment paper with waxed or parchment paper between rolling pin and dough. Then transfer parchment paper and cookies to the cookie sheet. If you don't use parchment paper, grease the cookie sheet.]

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Bake 7 to 12 minutes. [We find that 8 to 9 minutes is about right.]


Gingerbread Cookies

[This recipe makes a lot of dough--we generally make a 2/3 recipe. We have added numbers for a 2/3 recipe in parentheses, being a bit generous with the spices.]

Cream at low speed:

1 cup sugar (2/3 cup)
1 cup butter (2/3 cup)


Beat in:

1 1/4 cup molasses (5/6 cup)
3 eggs (2)


Combine dry ingredients:

1 tablespoon baking soda (2 teaspoons)
1 tablespoon salt (2 teaspoons)
1 teaspoon allspice (3/4 teaspoon)
1 teaspoon cinnamon (3/4 teaspoon)
1 teaspoon cloves (3/4 teaspoon)
1 teaspoon ginger (3/4 teaspoon)
3 cups flour (2 cups)


Beat wet and dry ingredients together.

Add 5 to 6 cups (3 1/2 to 4 cups) more flour to make a stiff dough.

Refrigerate before rolling out.

These cookies aren't as sticky as the sugar cookies above, but waxed paper is still helpful for rolling out, and parchment paper for lining the cookie sheet. Otherwise, grease the cookie sheet.

Bake in a 375 degree oven for 8 to 9 minutes.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

What fun to see some of this year's creations. It brings on memories of the Christmas a few years ago when we were in Seattle and got to participate in the event.

December 16, 2008 at 5:45 PM  
Blogger Rachel Scherr said...

the reason you can't make purple is that the primary colors for food coloring aren't the ones they put in the box! how rude is that?! primary colors are those that you can mix together to make the other colors, and as you have found out, the red, blue, and yellow food colorings are just not a good set for mixing. it would be better if they packaged cyan, magenta, and yellow.

so why don't they? my guess is that it's just tradition. i say it's time for change. Yes We Can!

December 16, 2008 at 7:37 PM  
Blogger James Moore said...

I just want to go on record as saying that I wouldn't turn down fudge were it to be offered next year.

December 16, 2008 at 11:35 PM  

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