Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Bring on quality, easy-to-make cookies

Seasonal Fare

By Karen Feldman
Gannett News Service

Dressed in bright colors and emitting the irresistible scents of the season, home-baked cookies tempt even the most faithful fat-gram and calorie-counter.

Infused with aromatic spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, adorned with red and green cherries, chock-full of chocolate, jam or nuts and brimming with butter, these seasonal temptations are as much a part of the holiday as fresh-cut pine trees, twinkling lights and good will toward man.

Whether the cookie is shortbread or buckeye, gingerbread or rum ball, there is a recipe that's a family favorite, a cherished recipe that passed from generation. Some families make an event out of cookie making, with two or more generations gathering together for baking marathons.

While nothing will replace those beloved traditions, most home cooks like to broaden their repertoire and one of the best ways to do that is to swap time-tested recipes with one another.

A hallmark of all holiday cookie favorites is the ease with which they can be made, a big plus for would-be bakers juggling work, children and shopping.

The secret to good cookies also lies in using fresh ingredients and attending to details.

Mimi Hodge of Fort Myers, Fla., is an accomplished baker whose Candy Apple Pie took top honors in a national contest staged by Good Morning America and judged by chef Emeril Lagasse.

She advises home cooks not to overbeat dough, mixing it only enough to blend the ingredients.

And don't be stingy when dropping spoonfuls of dough onto cookie sheets.

"You have to put a healthy tablespoon of dough on to get a nice cookie," she says.

To avoid ending up with a dry, hard cookie, Ms. Hodge removes them from the oven as soon as they start to brown.

"They might look like they're not quite done but they are," she says.

With the exception of shortbread and similar recipes that require butter, Ms. Hodge uses vegetable shortening, such as Crisco, when baking for a fluffier result.

Even when the recipe doesn't call for it, Ms. Hodge adds a teaspoon of ice cold water to each batch of cookies she makes, although she's not certain what effect it has.

"I learned it from my mother," she says, reason enough to continue the practice.

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Get to it!