Tracy Mattson of Cookie ... take a bite! has years of experience to help her avoid cookie disasters such as burned bottoms or shaped cookies that look like cow pies.
For those with less experience, Matson shared a few tips on getting the best results, whether you're baking for a cookie exchange party, for gifts or for your own family:
-- Buy fresh baking soda and baking powder. They are cheap and they make a big difference.
-- Use good-quality organic butter, such as Clover or Straus Family Creamery. It has less water content and will give your cookies a richer flavor.
-- Use good-quality chocolate - Valrhona, Cacao Barry or Caillebaut — that is around 64 percent cacao. "I don't use milk chocolate," she said. "The dark chocolate is less sweet so that you can experience the other flavors."
-- If possible, use fresh vanilla beans scraped from a vanilla pod. If you want to add moisture, use vanilla extract.
-- Sift your dry ingredients together, so that you don't have to overmix your dough.
-- Mix the flavorings, such as lemon, ginger and cinnamon, into the butter. That will intensify the flavor. But remember, a little cinnamon goes a long way.
-- Make the dough a day ahead, unless it has peanut butter or egg whites in it. That will intensify the flavors.
-- Refrigerate the dough before and after you cut it into a shape, so the cookies hold their shape.
-- Invest in heavy-duty cookie sheets and cook on parchment paper to avoid sticking or burning.
-- When you preheat the oven, make sure it hits the temperature, and then wait for 15 minutes before baking. And don't forget to set your timer.
-- If you want to bake two cookie sheets at a time, keep them in the middle of the oven (not too close to the bottom) and turn the sheets around halfway through.
-- If the cookies are delicate and have to rise (such as the Lemon Moon), turn them when they are two-thirds done, so they don't fall.
-- If a recipe continues to fail after you've tried it a few times, throw it away and try another one.
Good sources for baking: Sherry Yard's "The Secrets of Baking" walks you through methods; Lisa Yockelson's "Baking by Flavor" is a primer for flavor profiles; Pichet Ong's "The Sweet Spot" offers a wealth of healthy Asian desserts.
— Diane Peterson