No doubt about it, its cookie time. No matter how much we love them the rest of the year, during the holiday season, we go into an absolute frenzy for cookies. For proof just look at the cover of nearly any December-issue food and family magazine.
There’s no better gift than a tray of assorted cookies from your kitchen. And after you’ve put all that effort into making wonderful cookies, why not make their presentation as good as the flavor? With very little effort, you can make a gorgeous cookie tray to rival one from any patisserie. To truly showcase your handiwork, however, there are a few things to take into consideration. Here are my top 5 tips for the most beautiful presentation.
- Plan an assortment of colors Obviously there will be shades of brown –after all, they’re cookies! But some dramatic differences are more fun to arrange and admire than an assortment that doesn’t offer obvious differences between cookies. For instance, place dark chocolate cookies next to powdered sugar-covered cookies next to chocolate chip next to raspberry jam-filled cookies. When choosing the cookies to prepare, think about how they’ll look next to each other.
- Be sure to create an assortment of shapes Again, a variety of shapes makes the cookie platter pop. Lots of cookies are round, but the holiday season offers other shapes as well. Linzer cookies with little Christmas tree cut-outs in the center offering a glimpse of jam, or squares of caramelized nut bars, sugar cookies cut in the shape of stars, or spritz cookies piped into bars or letters of the alphabet. You can even create a sense of shape by dipping some of the cookies halfway into dark, milk or white chocolate. If the cookies are square and you dip them in chocolate on the diagonal, suddenly you have triangles as part of the picture. Likewise, a drizzle of lines across a round cookie adds additional texture, color, and visual interest.
- All the cookies should be approximately the same size For the prettiest platter, you want all the cookies to be similar in size. Large cookies that dwarf the others, and tiny cookies that get hidden beneath their neighbors make the whole arrangement look haphazard and messy. If all the cookies are similar in size, their different shapes and colors really stand out.
- Arrange them in rows or groups of cookie type Just like a garden, you don’t want a tulip next to a rose next to a daisy. You create drama and a visual impact when you group the same items together. You can either group the same cookies together in a strip or wedge (think spokes of a wheel or slices of pie), or arrange them in straight lines, like the offerings on a buffet table in a hotel. Ten chocolate cookies in a straight or angled line, slightly overlapping, next to ten Russian tea balls next to ten thumbprint cookies is a sight to behold. Line them up precisely, like soldiers in formation, and your platter will look like it came from a patisserie.
- Assemble the cookie trays at the last moment to keep flavors and textures intact Some cookies are crisp and dry, while others are moist and chewy. If you put them all together, wrap tightly and leave for a few hours, not only will the crisp cookies soften as they absorb moisture from the chewy cookies, but the moist cookies will taste stale. Even worse, all the flavors mingle and start to taste like one big and very confused cookie. If you want to bake ahead, be sure to store each cookie type in a separate airtight ziptop bag or container until you are ready to assemble the tray. Once assembled, it’s best to deliver the tray as soon as possible, while all the flavors and textures are at their best.
Please enjoy my version of spritz cookies, offered below, for your cookie selection this holiday season. Simple and buttery, like the best ones, this cookie has almond paste added to the dough for a rich, round almond flavor, and a touch of orange blossom water for a hint of the exotic. Leave them plain, pipe a dot of chocolate into the center, or fill them with jam. Shape them with a cookie press, or pipe them through a star tip in a pastry bag – they’re beautiful any way you make them.More Creating A Gorgeous Cookie Tray ideas and recipes follow after the jump
These are deeply almond due to the inclusion of almond paste, with a lovely tender crumb and enough structure to support a pool of dark chocolate in the center. The orange blossom water, with its delicate perfume of white citrus flowers, lends another subtle layer of flavor. If you can’t find orange blossom water, substitute vanilla extract, which will impart its own unique floral notes to the dough.
Equipment: Stand Mixer Fitted with a Paddle Attachment or a Food Processor Fitted with a Metal Blade, Silicone or Rubber Spatula, Two Baking Sheets, Parchment Paper, Large Pastry Bag Fitted with a ½-inch Open Star Tip or a Cookie Press, Wooden Spoon, Small Microwave-Safe BowlDough
- ½ cup (5 ounces) firmly packed almond paste (do not substitute marzipan)
- ¾ cup (5¼ ounces) sugar
- 1¾ sticks (7 ounces) unsalted butter, softened (65° to 68°F)
- 1 large egg plus 1 yolk
- 1 teaspoon orange blossom water or pure vanilla extract
- 2 cups (10 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
- Pinch of salt
- 2 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate (up to 56 percent cacao), finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon heavy whipping cream
- Mix the dough: Place the almond paste and sugar in the bowl of the stand mixer (or in the food processor). Beat on medium speed for 1½ to 2 minutes (or process for 45 seconds), until the almond paste is broken into tiny pieces. Add the butter and continue to beat for another 2 minutes (or process for 1 minute), until the mixture is well blended and slightly lighter in color. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with the spatula.
- Add the egg and yolk and blend well (or process for 15 seconds). Add the orange blossom water and beat another 15 seconds to blend (or process for 5 seconds). Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the flour and salt. Turn the mixer to the lowest speed and blend slowly (or process for 10 to 15 seconds), just until there are no more patches of flour. Remove the bowl and stir gently a few times with the spatula to make sure there are no patches of unincorporated flour or butter lurking near the bottom of the bowl.
- Shape the dough: Line the baking sheets with parchment paper. Immediately spoon half of the dough into the pastry bag fitted with the star tip. Pipe rosettes (see page 310) on a prepared baking sheet, spacing the cookies about 1 inch apart. (Alternatively, use the cookie press according to the manufacturer’s instructions.) The rosettes should be about ½ inch thick and about 1¾ inches in diameter. Repeat with the remaining dough. Chill the sheets in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F and position two oven racks in the upper and lower thirds.
- Bake the cookies, switching the sheets between the racks and rotating each front to back halfway through, for 15 to 20 minutes, until the cookies are rich, golden brown around the edges and across the bottom. Transfer to a cooling rack.
- Immediately use the rounded handle end of the wooden spoon (or another kitchen utensil) to make a depression in the center of each cookie about ½ inch across. Be careful not to push so hard that you crack the cookie or break through to the baking sheet below. Let the cookies cool completely.
- Fill the cookies: Place the chopped chocolate and cream in the microwavesafe bowl and microwave on low for 30 seconds. Stir the mixture. Heat again for 30 seconds and stir until smooth. If there are still lumps, heat again for 30 seconds. Once smooth, spoon a little chocolate into each depression in the cookies. Allow the filling to cool and set completely.
Storing: These cookies are at their best the first or second day. Keep them in an airtight container, layered between sheets of parchment or waxed paper to keep them from sticking to each other, for up to 4 days.Almond Spritz Cookies with Apricot or Raspberry Jam
Make the cookie dough and bake as directed above, but instead of chocolate for the centers, use good-quality apricot or raspberry jam and fill the cookies while they are still warm. You’ll need about ¼ cup (2¾ ounces) of jam (or a little bit more if there are seeds or chunks of fruit in the jam). Warm the jam in a small saucepan or in the microwave; then, to remove any large lumps or seeds, push it though a medium strainer into a bowl. Spoon the warm jam into the warm cookies and allow them to finish cooling together (this warm jam into warm cookies trick gives the jam a shiny, professional finish). Any leftover jam can be returned to the jar and used another day. For an extra layer of flavor and a beautiful finish, melt an ounce or two of dark chocolate and stripe it over the filled and cooled cookies.
Tools of the Trade:
- Cuisinart ® Mini-Prep Plus Food Processor
- Aluminum Jelly Roll Pans
- Wilton® Cookie Press Pro Ultra 2
- Burnished Bamboo Spoon
Recipes and Photos are reprinted with permission from Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC. The Art and Soul of Baking © copyright 2008 by Sur La Table, Inc.