by April Lisante
A few years ago, my baker husband had this wacky idea for the Christmas tree.
He suggested we make a cookie-themed tree. All the ornaments would be freshly baked cookies.
I’d seen it before in Martha Stewart Living magazine and a few other places that made the idea highly intimidating.
But this year, I’ve committed to doing this. I’ll be decorating a whole tree, covered in gingerbread and sugar cookies, iced and decorated. The confections will be perched just high enough so that my mini poodle won’t be snacking all night.
It sounds daunting, or at least it sounded daunting, until I spoke with Night Kitchen Bakery owner Amy Edelman. After nearly three decades as a baker and pastry pro, Edelman told me a story that made me feel like I could nail this cookie tree thing.
“Back in the late ’90s, I was working at the Disneyland Hotel in Euro Disney, and we made a cookie mobile hanging from the ceiling of the hotel foyer,” Edelman recalled. “It was monstrous.”
The mobile featured hundreds of cut out, iced and strung holiday cookies.
“It was amazing,” she said.
It seemed I came to the right place. I asked her to share some tips for creating and stringing cookies for a tree.
“First of all, stay away from chocolate on any cookies because of pets,” Edelman said. “We typically would make gingerbread men eyes and buttons with chocolate chips, but I would use nonpareils instead.”
When you’ve created your dough, Edelman suggests making sure it comes to almost room temperature before rolling. Also, she insists on rolling it out between two quarter-inch yardsticks, to assure the dough is a uniform thickness, which will help avoid breakage.
Just place two yardsticks on the counter on either side of the dough ball, and work the rolling pin over the dough until it reaches the height of the yardstick.
Next, when it is time to cut out your cookie shapes, first dip your cutter in a bowl of flour, which will help keep the cutter from sticking to the dough. Dip before each cut.
Then, lift the cookie with a wide spatula to a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.
Now it is time for the critical step – punching the hanging hole.
“The hole should not be too close to the top,” Edelman warned. “It also needs to be big enough in case the dough bakes part of it closed.”
To make the hole, start about one half to three quarters of an inch from the top of the cookie, and use a metal straw, or an item with a similar width.
Once the cookies are completely cool, they can be iced. Edelman suggests using only a royal icing, which is made with three ounces of egg white, four cups of confectioners’ sugar and one teaspoon of vanilla extract. The icing can be dyed with food coloring. This icing dries quickly, stays hard and keeps the cookies from breaking. After the icing dries, cookies can be strung with a thin ribbon, and can even be used next year.
“You can use them again next year,” Edelman said, “As long as they are stored in Tupperware.”
I liked that idea best. It makes for much easier tree decorating in 2020.
Here are two basic recipes from Allrecipes for butter cookies and gingerbread. These are tried and true recipes I have used successfully, and they are easy enough for anyone, even me. They make about three dozen cookies per recipe. Remember to add the critical step, though, by punching your hanging hole in the cookies before placing them in the oven.
2 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. baking powder
1 cup butter, softened
1 ½ cups white sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 375 F. In a small bowl, stir together flour, baking soda and baking powder. Set aside. In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until smooth. Beat in egg and vanilla. Gradually blend in the dry ingredients. Roll rounded teaspoons of dough into balls, and place on ungreased cookie sheets. Poke hole in each cookie about ½-inch from top. Bake 8 to 10 minutes before removing to cool on wire racks.
Gingerbread Men Cookies
3 cups flour
2 tsp. McCormick ginger, ground
1 tsp. McCormick cinnamon, ground
1 tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. McCormick nutmeg, ground
¼ tsp. salt ¾ up butter, softened
¾ cup firmly packed brown sugar
½ cup molasses
1 tsp. McCormick pure vanilla extract
Mix flour, ginger, cinnamon, baking soda, nutmeg and salt in a large bowl. Set aside. Beat butter and brown sugar in a large bowl on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add molasses, egg and vanilla. Mix well. Gradually beat in flour mixture on low speed until well mixed. Press dough into a thick, flat disk. Wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate four hours to overnight.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Roll out dough to ¼-inch thickness on lightly floured work surface. Cut into gingerbread men with 5-inch cutter. Place one inch apart on ungreased baking sheets. Poke hole in each cookie about half-inch from top. Bake 8 to 10 minutes or until edges of cookies are set and just begin to brown. Cool on baking sheets 1 to 2 minutes. Remove to wire racks, cool completely.