Baking is as much chemistry as art. This week's recipe, for the final Cookie Corner column of the year, demonstrates that fact in a test of a very basic cookie.
Spritz cookies are an old-timey Christmas tradition in households with German or Scandinavian ancestry; the name comes from the German for "spray" or "squirt." The buttery little treats are formed using a cookie press.
The press in my childhood home was a metal tube with a dial-like handle on one end. The perforated metal discs that fit in the other end shaped the extruded dough into bits that, when baked, formed Christmas trees and wreaths and other holiday shapes.
I finally bought a modern cookie press, a plastic one with a trigger handle, about a decade ago at a kitchen party. It was Christmastime, and I must have gotten nostalgic for those sprinkle-decorated spritz. By the time the press arrived, however, it was springtime. I put it away, thinking I'd pull it out later.
If this were a screenplay, I'd say: "Insert montage of pictures here to show 10 years going by ..."
I found the cookie press box a few weeks ago, on an upper shelf, stuffed between a cookbook and back copies of Bon Appetít. Time to put it to work.
If you don't have a cookie press, can you still make spritz cookies? That was what I hoped to learn. And to match our Week 4 flavor choice, I added peppermint extract to the dough.
I divided the first batch in half and colored one half pink, the other green. I put the pink dough in a gallon plastic bag, snipped off the corner, and pressed out candy-cane shapes onto my insulated cookie sheets.
The cookies didn't brown, and they also spread out; the taste was light, very like sugar cookies. Hmm.
The last bit of pink dough went onto a regular cookie sheet, and into the oven at the same temperature. These canes didn't spread, baked much more quickly and browned along the edges. But the density was exactly what I remembered as spritz.
Wow, who'd have thought the pans would make that much difference?
I put the green dough in the cookie press which worked just fine and used only regular cookie sheets. I didn't want those cute little trees to spread all over the pans.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 5 to 6 minutes per batch
Makes 6 to 7 dozen cookies
Note: To make vanilla spritz, substitute 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract for the peppermint extract.
Recipe adapted by The Bee's Kathy Morrison from several sources.
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 egg, room temperature
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon peppermint extract
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
Food coloring, optional
Colored sugar, edible glitter or other decors, optional
In a large bowl, mix together the butter and sugar on medium speed for about 3 minutes, until light and fluffy. Blend in the egg, and then the baking powder, salt and peppermint extract, mixing until fully incorporated. Add about half the flour, mixing until combined, then add the rest.
If you want colored dough, divide it among bowls and add several drops of food coloring, blending until color is even.
Don't chill the dough unless the kitchen is very warm, and then only for a short time.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. If using a cookie press, fill it according the manufacturer's instructions, and press out cookies onto an ungreased medium or heavy baking pan.
If using a 1-gallon plastic bag, put about a fourth of the dough in the bag, push it down into one corner, and snip the corner off with scissors. Squeeze the bag to extrude the dough onto ungreased cookie sheets.
Add sprinkles or colored sugar to cookies before baking.
For regular cookie sheets, bake 5 to 6 minutes, or until cookies are firm and just starting to brown along edges. Put sheet on cooling rack for about 5 minutes, then remove cookies to rack to finish cooling
For insulated sheets, bake about 7 minutes until cookies seem firm; they are unlikely to brown. Let cool on sheet only a minute or so these are much more likely to stick to the pan if they cool completely there.
TESTING AND TASTING
You can freeze or chill this dough, but be sure to take it out far enough in advance of baking. It needs to be pliable.
Here's one recipe in which parchment paper is not helpful. The cookie press makes better shapes when the dough sticks to the pan initially. The pans also should be cool. Coloring the dough uses more food coloring than frosting does. I used 5 drops of red for a half batch to get pink and 7 drops to the other half to get the green.
The plastic bag worked much better than I'd imagined. The size of hole you cut determines the cookies' thickness. Canes or circles are easiest, but use your imagination.
When using the bag, if the dough gets very warm from your hands, stick it in the freezer for a few minutes.
A decorating bag with a large tip also would work for extruding the cookies.
Tasters were divided on which style of cookie they preferred. Of the classic spritz, they said: "Loved 'em"; "nice texture but seemingly less flavor than red ones"; "a little denser, more buttery" than others; "yummy"; "nice texture, light mint flavor, very cute." Several people thought these could use more peppermint flavor. Of the insulated-sheet cookies, they said: "Brings back memories of Christmases past simple but good"; "refreshing and light"; "I like the light, crunchy flavor"; "crispy and minty"; "delicately flavored, very delightful."
Maybe next time I'll decorate the cookies with some crushed peppermint candy.