Holiday cookies: our favorite beauty tips

If ever there’s a month that’s associated with one particular baked good, December is it.

And cookies are its hallmark.

Yes, agreed, we also love our panettone, pie, and popovers (perfect with Christmas Eve’s prime rib).

Fruitcake gives cookies a run for their money. But too many people scoff at this ancient holiday tradition, despite many modern-day makeovers – like my yearly standby, Everyone’s Favorite Fruitcake.

So, with all the people hauling out mixing bowls and old family recipes this month, I guarantee a huge percentage are making cookies.

And these aren’t just cookies for the church bake sale or to bring in and leave in the break room at work. These are GIFT cookies: cookies arrayed on colorful plates, or wrapped in holiday-theme bags and fancy boxes.

When you’re going to all the trouble of actually gift-wrapping your cookies, you’d better make good and sure they’re just as pretty as they can be. Join me as I showcase some of our favorite cookie beauty tips.

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Since many of the cookies we all make for our cookie gift plates are drop cookies, and some can look rather plain – think gingersnaps, or sugar cookies – it helps to do all you can to ensure they’re as handsome as can be.

To me, this means shaping them into perfectly round, same-size balls. A cookie scoop is my tool of choice, since it produces such uniform results. I like using a teaspoon scoop, which will typically produce a cookie about 2 1/4″ to 2 12″ across: the perfect size for a gift plate or tin crowded with an assortment of multiple types and flavors of cookies.

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As you can see, I love rolling my plain drop cookies in coarse white sparkling sugar (even sprinkling a bit extra on top), as it gives them sparkle and shine they otherwise wouldn’t possess.

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Swedish pearl sugar is another decorating sugar you might try; its effect is more pronounced.

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See what I mean? It’s a bit hard to pick up the sparkle of the sugar in the top two pictures, but trust me, it’s very pretty in person. At bottom is the pearl sugar, which looks especially striking on chocolate cookies.

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Like these Chocolate Gingerbread Cookies.

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Here’s another tip: pay attention to the recipe when it tells you how much space to leave between the balls of dough on the pan. This gingersnap recipe calls for 1 1/2″ between the unbaked cookies.

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Which results in perfectly spaced (and thus nicely round) cookies.

What about if you fudge it, trying to crowd more cookies onto the pan?

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Knocking just 1/4″ off that 1 1/2″ minimum results in – well, as you can see, cookies that spread and run up against one another as they bake.

So much for your perfect rounds.

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See what a little careful spacing – and some fancy sugar – can do?

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While making these gingersnaps and sugar cookies, I experienced a light bulb moment: what if I gently squeezed some of each type of dough together before baking?

As you can see, the hybrids turned out pretty nice. Not picture-perfect, but interesting; and they were fun to nibble on, too, with their complementary smooth vanilla and spicy ginger flavors.

Now, I’m not ignoring those of you out there with a desire to make fancy iced and decorated cookies. We have some wonderful online resources for you, including the following:

•Two videos featuring my fellow test-baker, Susan Reid. The first covers a broad range of icing and decorating techniques; the second examines a full range of cookie decorating tools.

•A step-by-step guide with every tip, trick, and technique you need to make professional-style decorated cookies. Plus all of our favorite decorating-friendly cookie recipes.

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Like this!

But whatever kind of decorated cookies you choose to make this season – from the simplest sparkling sugar cookie, to an elaborate family of gingerbread people – remember, beauty is only crust deep.

In the end, the love and time you put into your creations are what make them a true gift from the heart.

Happy holidays – and happy cookie decorating!

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. stevie

    Great ideas/advice. I am all about pretty cookies but don’t like the typical cut out and decorated cookie. Mostly because of the extra calories that well, make the cookie pretty (for kids mostly) but just add unnecessary calories and take away from the cookies basic flavor. So, an extra sparkle of sugar does the trick….of course packaging is the “icing on the cake”!

    Reply
  2. Michael

    I cannot find a recipe that will give a puffier, thicker gingerbread roll-out cookie.

    I have a good recipe for gingerbread “people”, but it is flat and dense. I’ve tried adding more baking powder and/or baking soda, but I’m not getting the result I desire.

    Any advice?

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Michael, usually you get a thicker cookie by rolling the dough thicker. Have you tried our Gingerbread Cookie recipe?Roll the dough 1/4″ to 3/8″ thick, and I think you might find the puffier, thicker gingerbread cookie you’re looking for. Good luck – PJH

    2. Michael

      I’ve tried that, but the issue tends to be over vs. under baking. With a thicker roll out the cookie has to be baked longer in order to keep it from being raw and gooey in the middle. On a thicker cookie, the edges tend to get hard before the middle is done!

      Sometimes I think I’m crazy to be on such a quest, but, hey, it’s how I roll. ; > }

  3. robynnk

    My late mother always baked spritz cookies and I have carried on the tradition, although I am sad to say my children and grown grandchildren show no interest in carrying on with this. I see you only have two recipes for these lovely pressed cookies. I’m wondering why they seem to have “gone out of favor” or maybe “flavor”.

    Reply
  4. Kay

    In your photos of the cookie balls, are you rolling the scooped dough in your hands after you scoop it or is this the result of just using a cookie scoop? I use a scoop but mine tend to have a flat bottom because I even off the scoop on the side of the bowl. I don’t know that it makes a huge difference in the end, but your cookie balls look so uniform and professional.

    K.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      You have our permission to use either method, Kay! While I like the flat bottom method, some like to get larger cookies by scoop – no scrape and a quick roll in your hands to shape the cookie rounds. We bet yours look professional as well using the cookie scoop instead of one or two spoons for shaping. Happy Baking – Irene@KAF

  5. Kim Knemeyer

    For peanut blossom cookies, instead of rolling the dough in regular sugar, I combine red and green sanding sugar to roll them in. Gives them a jewel look. My star sugar cookies, I use white royal icing and when it hardens, I buff pearl luster dust over the top. I also use the luster dust on the main layer of royal icing on my snowflake cookies and then do the accent lines on top. Makes them pop.

    Reply
  6. revson

    Decorating Christmas cookies brings back so many wonderful memories! For over 20 years my family had a Christmas cookie decorating contest with prizes given for the prettiest, most creative (think a cookie shaped like a holly leaf that my father turned into a fish!), and the tastiest (lots of chips and chocolate frosting). It became such a fun tradition (and competitive too) that all of us used to come to the table with our own tools (tweezers) and special edibles to put on our cookies! Thank you for reminding me of how much fun we had.

    Reply
  7. TrishaT

    I am trying to keep my baking under control but I like to try a new kind of cookie each Christmas. Those chocolate gingerbread ones look great!

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Trisha, it’s one of our most popular cookie recipes – try it, I’m sure you’ll like it. Happy baking! PJH

  8. ""Amy

    Oh, but you’ve left out the glorious category of shaped cookies (which I hope are important enough to Christmas to warrant their own post). My family doesn’t do drop cookies for Christmas — just not Christmassy enough in our little worldview — and we don’t care for icing and decorated sugar cookies, but we make a beautiful slew of shaped cookies: nut balls, three-layer log cookies, checkerboards, sometimes biscotti, gingerbread creatures… Some are time-consuming (though that’s why Christmas baking is special, right?), but some are refrigerated logs that make a lot quickly. So, just a note, maybe, to remember not to forget the beauty of shaped cookies?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Amy- Thank you for sharing your Christmas traditions with us and there are many past blogs on shaped cookies which you can read through as well if you are interested by searching “Christmas cookies.” Happy baking and happy holidays! Jocelyn@KAF

  9. meedee

    I miss decorating and making cookies with my grandkids, but they are grown and now she decorates with her boys. Something good to pass on. Thanks KAF for the wonderful memories.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      You are very welcome and we could not be prouder to have such a wonderful baking comrade who has done all they can to pass the joys of baking on to future generation in a way that will continue to bring families closer together. Happy baking and happy holidays! Jocelyn@KAF

  10. Laura Fischer

    Your mention of squeezing two types of dough together reminded me of the time I made checkerboard chocolate/vanilla cookies, MANY years ago. I was very happy with the results, but what to do with the leftover dough scraps??? Aha! Mush ’em together, roll ’em out, and cut with cow and pig cutters…hee~ Holsteins, and Gloucester Old Spots! After working through the very precise making of the checkerboards, these were a LOT of fun, and relaxing, and they were delicious…lol!

    Reply

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