The Great Cookie Tin Bake-Off
Two friends and their Christmas quest
There is a quiet but serious hunt for the perfect Christmas cookie going on in some Buzz neighborhoods.
The participants – there are only two – have named their pursuit the Great Cookie Tin Bake-Off. They pit cookie recipe against cookie recipe in search of the best of the best. Only those that have pleased their palettes – and those of their taste-testing husbands – will be deemed worthy to include in the Christmas-cookie tins they give to friends and family.
Friends and pilates buddies Adele Bentsen and Kathryn Wilson are the cookie researchers. “We’re always talking food, even when we’re doing pilates,” Adele says. “We exchange recipes, and Kathryn is serious about it.”
“Adele and I have been on a Christmas-cookie quest,” Kathryn says, explaining that this is yet another baking-project spin-off of the 2020 quarantine. “She and I started [three months] ago and exchanged every one of our cookie cookbooks. We went through them with a fine-toothed comb to see what cookies were going into our tins this year.
“Right now, I’ve got a couple packed up and ready to go over to her, and she has some kind of special rum-glazed gingerbread ready for me.”
Husbands Tom Wilson and Lan Bentsen are the beneficiaries of the duo’s many months of baking. “The husbands have become brutally honest with us,” Kathryn says. “They’ll say, ‘You’ve made better,’ or sometimes they’ll say something is good, ‘If you like that kind of cookie.’”
Kathryn keeps track of the cookies she’s given away in past years. She makes sure not to give the same people the same cookies every year. A Christmas cookie-tin document in her computer holds the data.
Adele explains, “We are different in our approach, but it’s fun to talk about it. Kathryn’s a much more experienced baker and has a large repertoire of cookies. We’ll be talking about looking for the perfect gingersnap, and she had the one she always uses. But then we found a triple-ginger recipe, and we were very excited.”
“Adele is so scientific,” Kathryn says. “She studied and made four different sugar cookie doughs and popped them all in the freezer, and one by one she is baking them and deciding what will be her go-to sugar cookie. I’m not that dedicated, but I’m with her in spirit.”
The appeal for Adele truly is in the science. “I’m very interested in what happens when you use [different kinds] of butter, like the other day I used brown butter and the cookie didn’t crisp up because the browning had taken the water out of the butter.”
Kathryn loves the baking. She is known for her homemade breads, which she has been baking since she was 15. “When I was a teenager,” she says, “I saw a recipe in an old Betty Crocker cookbook with the red-and-white checks. It had pictures of bread, and I thought, ‘I can do that.’”
She was even younger when she began baking Christmas cookies with her grandmother. “We started with slice-and-bake dough that we would put sprinkles on,” she says. “When I was a teenager and my mother let me loose in the kitchen, one of the first things I remember being so proud of – maybe I was 16 – I did stand-up gingerbread trees, where the cookies sat together like puzzle pieces.” To this day, Kathryn cites gingerbread as her favorite holiday cookie. “The roll-out kind, because you can do so much with it.”
Year after year, Kathryn’s family is partial to her Chunk Wild Cookies, with chocolate, white chocolate and peanut butter chips. “It’s a King Arthur recipe,” Kathryn says, “and it’s a win.” She adds, “But this is a wonderful year to focus on some new cookies instead of the same old-same old.”
As for the tins themselves, “Adele is hot on the trail for some kind of beautiful ribbon, and she’s hunting for something more unusual than a tin,” Kathryn says. “I think a tin is a tin. Adele said she couldn’t go to sleep the other night and was lying in bed deciding how she was going to layer the cookies in her cookie tin.”
Christmas cookies are serious business. “I couldn’t begin to count the text messages between us about this Great Cookie Tin Bake-Off. It’s just evolved into a nonstop discussion of cookies that are worthy of going into our cookie tins.”
“We text nonstop,” Adele says. “It’s kind of ridiculous.”
Delicious ridiculousness, nonetheless. “There’s nothing much that gives me more pleasure these days,” Kathryn says. About having all the cookies around to taste-test, she says, “It is just an embarrassment of riches.”
Adele Bentsen loves this recipe, created by Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh. Adele uses walnuts in place of the almonds, and she adds some candied orange to the top of the cookies after icing them. Dried cranberries could be used as a garnish in place of the candied orange.
1 cup whole almonds, skin on
1 cup plus 2 Tablespoons all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
½ cup whole wheat flour
1½ cups old-fashioned rolled oats
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into 1½- inch pieces
½ cup sugar
Finely grated zest of 1 large orange
¾ cup dried cranberries, chopped in half (if they are not already chopped), soaked in 1 Tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons orange juice
9 ounces white chocolate
Candied orange or dried cranberries for garnish (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Spread the almonds out on a baking tray and roast for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and, once cool enough to handle, roughly chop into ⅓-inch pieces. Transfer the nuts to a large bowl and add the flour, oats and salt. Mix together and set aside.
Increase the oven temperature to 375 degrees. Line two or three baking trays with baking parchment and set aside.
Place the butter, sugar and orange zest in the bowl of an electric mixer with the paddle attachment in place. Beat on medium for about 2 minutes, until combined and light. Add the almonds and flour mix to the butter and sugar mix, and continue to mix on low until the dough just comes together. Add the cranberries and orange juice and mix for another few seconds to combine, then tip the dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Knead the dough into a ball, sprinkling over more flour if needed to prevent it getting too sticky.
Cut the dough in half and roll out one half to about ¼-inch thickness. Use a 3-inch cookie cutter to cut the dough into rounds. Transfer these to a lined tray while you continue with the remaining dough. Bake for 18 minutes, until lightly browned all over. Remove from the oven and set aside until completely cool.
Meanwhile, place the white chocolate in a small bowl over a pan of gently simmering water, stirring occasionally, until melted. Do not let the base of the bowl touch the water. To coat the cookies, use the back of a dessert spoon to spread a tablespoon of melted chocolate over each. Set aside on a cooling rack for the chocolate to set, up to an hour, before serving.
An Adele Bentsen favorite: From Epicurious, “Sweet: Desserts from London’s Ottolenghi,” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh
6 Tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
⅓ packed cup plus 2 Tablespoons dark brown sugar
¼ cup blackstrap molasses
1 large egg yolk
1¾ cups plus 2 Tablespoons all-purpose flour, plus extra for pressing
1 Tablespoon Dutch-processed cocoa powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
⅔ cup confectioners' sugar
⅛ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 Tablespoon unsalted butter, melted and warm
1 Tablespoon dark rum (or lemon juice)
1 teaspoon warm water
Note: If you don’t have cookie stamps, the gingerbreads can be made as regular cookies, using round cutters, or cut into squares or rectangles with a knife.
Place the butter, sugar and molasses in the bowl of an electric mixer with the paddle attachment in place. Beat on medium speed until smooth and incorporated. Add the egg yolk and continue to beat until fully combined.
Sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, salt and pepper into a bowl. Turn the speed of the mixer to low, and add the dry ingredients to the butter and molasses. Once the mix comes together, tip the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead gently. Roll out the dough so that it is about ¼-inch thick. If the dough is very soft, you will need to chill it.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
Dip cookie stamps in a small bowl of flour, shake off any excess and then press them firmly into the dough, one at a time, to create a deep imprint. How far you need to press to get an imprint will depend on your stamp; the patterns on some are more deeply cut than others. Bear in mind that the cookies rise a little when cooked, so any soft imprints will disappear. Using a round cookie cutter that is slightly larger than the pattern, cut out the pieces of imprinted gingerbread. Transfer the cookies to the lined baking sheets, spaced about ¾ inch apart. Reroll the dough and continue to stamp and cut cookies until all the dough is used up.
Bake for 9 to 10 minutes, rotating the sheets halfway through, until firm to the touch. They will continue to firm up as they cool, so don’t be tempted to bake them for any longer.
Make the Rum-Butter Glaze while the gingerbreads are in the oven, as the glaze needs to be brushed onto the cookies while they are still warm. Sift the confectioners’ sugar and cinnamon into a small bowl. Add the melted butter, rum (or lemon juice) and water and mix with a spoon until smooth. The glaze will thicken slightly if it sits around, so stir through a little more warm water if you need to – it should be the consistency of runny honey.
Remove the cookies from the oven, leave them to cool for 5 minutes, then brush or dab the glaze all over with a pastry brush. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
Once the dough is made, it can be covered in plastic wrap and kept in the fridge for up to two days before baking. These will keep for up to five days in an airtight container. The glaze will discolor and crack a little, but this will not affect how they taste.
Shared by Kathryn Wilson, this recipe is originally from Dorie’s Cookies, by Dorie Greenspan. Kathryn altered the recipe slightly by creating sandwich cookies with cookie butter filling, which was her friend Adele Bentsen’s idea.
1 pound unsalted butter, cut into chunks, at room temperature
1⅓ cups sugar
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 large egg whites, at room temperature
1 Tablespoon pure vanilla extract
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
Sanding or decorative sugars for sprinkling (optional)
Biscoff Cookie Butter (optional)
Working with a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or in a large bowl with a hand mixer, beat the butter, sugar and salt together on medium until smooth and creamy, about 3 minutes. Reduce the mixer speed to low and blend in the egg whites, followed by the vanilla. The dough might curdle, but it will smooth out with mixing and the addition of the flour.
Measure the flour in a separate bowl and whisk in the cinnamon, ginger, cloves and allspice.
Still working on low speed, add the flour in 3 or 4 additions, beating only until it is almost incorporated each time before adding more; scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl a couple of times as you work and then continue to mix until the flour has disappeared into the dough.
Divide the dough into quarters and shape each piece into a disk. (The dough may be frozen at this point.) Working with one disk at a time, place the dough between pieces of parchment paper and roll it to a thickness of ¼-inch. Slide the dough, still between the paper, onto a baking sheet – you can stack the slabs – and freeze for at least 1 hour, or refrigerate for at least 3 hours.
Peel away the paper on both sides of the dough and return it to one piece of paper. Using a 2-inch-diameter cutter, cut out as many cookies as you can. (You can use any size or shape cutter you like – just know that the yield will be different.) Place them on the lined baking sheet about 1½ inches apart. Gather the scraps together, re-roll them between paper, and chill.
If you’re using sanding sugar, sprinkle the tops of the cookies with it. Bake for 19 to 21 minutes, rotating the sheet after 10 minutes, or until the cookies feel firm to the touch. Transfer the sheet to a rack and let the cookies rest for 5 minutes before lifting them onto the rack to cool to room temperature. Repeat with the rest of the dough, making sure your baking sheet is cool.
Note: To make sandwich cookies instead, use a simple, small cookie cutter such as a round or rectangle to cut the dough, and then use a very small cookie cutter or a knife to cut out a design in the center of half the cookies before baking. Don't use sanding or decorative sugar. After baking, spread cookie butter on half the cookies and immediately top with a cookie with a decorative cut-out. The small cut-out isn't necessary; pairs of small cookies can be used.
The rolled-out dough can be wrapped and refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 2 months. The cookies will keep in a covered container at room temperature for up to 1 week. They can be wrapped airtight and frozen for up to 2 months.
From Kathryn Wilson, adapted from a King Arthur Baking recipe
16 Tablespoons butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1¼ teaspoons salt
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2½ cups old-fashioned rolled oats
2/3 cup white chocolate chunks or chips
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup peanut butter chips
1 cup semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips
1½ cups chopped pecans or walnuts
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease (or line with parchment) four baking sheets, or as many as you have.
Beat together the butter, sugars, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Beat in the eggs and vanilla.
Using a blender or food processor, process the oats with the white chocolate until the oats are finely ground, and the chocolate is mostly ground; a few small chunks are okay.
Add the oats and flour to the butter mixture, then stir in the peanut butter chips, chocolate chips, and chopped walnuts. Drop the dough by tablespoonfuls, 2 inches apart, onto the prepared baking sheets. Bake the cookies for about 12 minutes, until they're just set. They may be barely starting to brown around the edges, but the tops won't be brown at all. Remove the cookies from the oven, and cool.
These are great to make ahead and store in the freezer. Scoop out the dough onto a wax paper-lined cookie sheet, putting them very close together. Wrap well and freeze for up to two months. They can be baked straight from the freezer, or let them sit on the counter for 30 to 45 minutes, well spaced.
Peanut butter chips can be replaced with dried fruit, such as cranberries, or with other flavors of chips such as butterscotch or cinnamon. The nuts are optional.
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