By Lee Cabot Walker
Most Americans would agree that cookies are to Christmas as hydrogen is to water: essential. But what cookbook do you need? Whether you’re hosting a cookie swap and insist that your cookies be the best, or your mother-in-law is hosting a cookie swap and you must attend (and yes, with cookies), here are some cookbooks that may fit your needs.
I want to make impressive gourmet cookies, and I’m willing to put in the time, but I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. Zilch.
“The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion” (2004, The King Arthur Flour Company, $29.95) offers 509 pages of guidance for people who have never handled a cookie with more skill than it takes to get it from plate to mouth. The cookbook’s “Getting Started” section explains, with meticulous instructions and diagrams, basic baking processes from adding eggs to a batter (“After adding the egg, the mixture in the bowl will look curdled and shiny. Keep mixing and the mixture will smooth out.”) to cutting baked dough into bars (“Bars in nine-by-nine-inch pans are cut four across and four down to yield 16 squares.”) to the act of folding dry ingredients into a liquid mixture (“Draw the whisk down through the bowl and back up in a circular motion.”). You’ve never read such diverse descriptions of “stirring.”
Most of the recipes have long lists of ingredients and equally meticulous method descriptions, which will strike a person as either comforting or scary, depending on confidence level.
Sugar cookies? Bo-ring. Give me big, fat cookies. Most of all, give me calories.
Just reading “Big Fat Cookies” (2005, Elinor Klivans, $17.95, Chronicle Books) might be too much even for the sweetest tooth. Take the Chocolate-Covered Chocolate Chip Cookie Mud Ball, a recipe that begs the question: Is this a cookie? The recipe involves baking chocolate chip cookies, squeezing them into balls while they’re still warm and gooey and dipping the balls in chocolate that will then harden as a shell. The book’s 132 pages are packed with everything-but-the-kitchen-sink recipes such as these. Coconut macaroons are always nice for festive occasions, and Klivans has her own version, the Jumbo Black Bottom Coconut Macaroon.
I got a pastry bag for my wedding, and I have no idea what to do with it.
“The Art of Cookies” (2004, Noga Hitron and Natasha Haimovich, $15.95, Ten Speed Press) will give you use for this fun and, in most kitchens, antiquated tool. Mostly a book for design ideas, nearly every recipe in the cookbook uses the pastry bag to adorn simple butter cookies with eye-poppingly bright frosting, generally layered at a minimum thickness of, say, a foot. The 121 pages includes a cookie pattern index, offering simple outlines like “snowman,” “Santa” and “star” for non-creative types to copy. Frosting methods that use variously shaped caps on the pastry bag teach you how to “draw” an angel’s hair or the puffy white ball on the tip of Santa’s red cap.
I like to torture myself.
“Cookies! Good Housekeeping Favorite Recipes” (2004, Joanne Lamb Hayes, $14.95, Sterling) offers 255 pages of delicious, diverse cookie recipes, each accompanied by an alarm-sounding list of nutrition data. Good Housekeeping’s motto is “All recipes triple tested,” but you might want to leave the triple testing to the pros, at least in the case of the Old Time Spice Cookies, which, though they sound innocent enough, pack in delicious cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and molasses, plus 120 calories and four grams of fat a pop. The book’s broad selection of recipes offers mini history lessons and quirky anecdotes from Good Housekeeping readers. (Old Time Spice Cookies, we’re told, was handed down from the late 1890s by the great-grandmother of Shirley A. Fisher of Bethlehem, Penn.)
Everything I do is fancy-pants, and therefore my cookies must be irritatingly fancy-pants.
“Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book” (1963, Betty Crocker, $24.95, republished in 2002 by Wiley, John & Sons) is only for people who are comfortable with recipes that involve more steps than can be counted on two hands. Ms. Crocker is rather exact about how Christmas cookies should look. The extensive holiday section offers delicious cookie recipes that, once colored dough is formed, call for twisting, twirling, swirling, wrapping or braiding together to make cookies that look like they could battle your tongue. To make Christmas Bells, for example, two colors of dough must be made into a log roll, one color wrapping evenly around the other color. The log must then be shaped into a bell, then refrigerated, then sliced, the product being a bell-shaped, two-toned cookie. Though many of the recipes are this intense, the holiday cookies selection is broad and interesting, offering traditional recipes from Scandinavia, Norway, Sweden Greece and Germany, among others.