Long time readers know that for decades now I’ve been making at least 10 kinds of cookies for the holiday season. Along the way other goodies have joined them. This year is no different. But how to manage it all?

Systems design and phased planning.

I’m only half kidding. I don’t sit down and do a critical path chart for cookie preparation, but I do put some thought into it. Last week I sat down and composed this year’s list. Over the years the list of must-do kinds has grown, leaving fewer slots for experimentation. This year we hit max do-over – ten kinds now proven and loved. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.

  1. Chocolate chip cookies – The original Tollhouse recipe (minus the nuts because so many other kinds I make have them).
  2. Peanut butter cookies – A family favorite. More or less the one from Joy of Cooking, but using Teddy Superchunk natural peanut butter instead of the more sugary big commercial brands.
  3. Mexican Wedding Cakes – Another gotta-have. Buttery pecan shortbread, rolled in confectioners’ sugar. I don’t stint on the toasted pecans.
  4. Bourbon Balls – Another standard done every year since I began this. A no-bake cookie. But I’ve been disappointed in the old recipe of late, so this year is a change-up. I’m trying out a recent NY Times recipe.
  5. Sugar cookie cut-outs – Another Joy of Cooking standard, but I add lemon zest and extract to the cookie, and made the plain confectioners’ sugar/water icing with lemon juice instead of water. Tons of fun to decorate with the kids when they were small, but a lot of work for one person, now. Some changes to this one, too this year.
  6. Oysters – One of my own invention. Or as they say in knitting – “unvention” (personal discovery replicating something previously done by others, but not known to the unventor at the time). This is a rich hazelnut spritz cookie, served up sandwich style, with chocolate ganache filling between.
  7. Iced Orange Marmalade Cookies – This will be the third year in a row for these. Obviously they’ve made the cut from exotic newcomer to gotta-have.
  8. Triple Ginger White Chocolate – Another successful original. I started with a variation on a light brown sugar drop cookie, made with ginger juice, dry ground ginger, plus minced crystalized ginger, along with white chocolate chips, that act as “internal icing” and counter the ginger’s heat. Love these.
  9. Earthquakes – Most other people call them Chocolate Crinkles. They are the fudgy, brownie like chocolate cookie that is rolled in confectioner’s sugar prior before hitting the oven. During baking they crack and split, making distinctive dark canyons across the white surface. Much loved (and nicknamed) by the kids, long long ago.
  10. Cinnamon Swirls – A specialty of Younger Spawn, who was Padawan, has now eclipsed the master. Spawn’s swirled icebox cookies are food-stylist-perfect, feather light, and intensely tasty.
  11. Jam Thumbprints – Eleven? Yes. Eleven. This was a late addition, by special request. I hope it will be a learning experience. Former Padawan Spawn says that a never-fail recipe for them is in their pocket. To date though, mine have been dismal – with no useful divots to retain the jam. No recipe for this yet – I eagerly await the personal import.

Oh. And Panforte. I make this liquor-soused chocolate/nut fruitcake every other year (one recipe makes two). It sits on the sideboard supping up its nightly drink until the day before it is served, when it gets a chocolate ganache top-icing. My mods to it include using less expensive dried fruit – 40% pitted prunes, 40% apricots, and 20% berries or cherries, and NOT using whole nuts. The thing is dense, and having whole hazelnuts and almonds in there make it quite difficult to cut. Instead I use halved or smashed hazelnuts and slivered almonds.

The secret of this juggling? Spreadsheets.

I have a master workbook. Each year I add a new sheet. I copy the previous year’s cookie row or enter new data. The sheet sums up my major ingredients at the top. It feeds into a shopping list form that I can tick off as have-on-hand or to-buy. There’s also a sheet where links or hard copy references to all the recipes live.

Geeky, yes. But effective.

Most years I’ve had to do these solo, although I was spoiled for a few when Younger Spawn was still living at home and evinced interest and growing skill. And I’ve always held down a full time professional job with an intense end of year activity burst (work has an annoying way of interfering with life.). Therefore I tend to do these as two-night exercises. Make dough on night 1, bake on night two. When I can I double up on baking and making the next night’s dough, but that isn’t always possible, leading to some intense weekend sprints to catch up.

And on preparation order – I group cookies by how far in advance I can make them (without freezing). Some types stay fresh longer than others. Some require time to cure or set properly. And some are truly ephemeral, best consumed on the week that they are made. Sequence runs something like this:

First – Panforte. Lasts forever, is better if it is made early and soused with extra liqueur daily until consumed. Ice with ganache the day before finally serving it. I usually do this the weekend after Thanksgiving weekend.

Second – Bourbon Balls. They are better if they have sat to cure a couple of weeks. Always the first cookie made. Usually the same day as the Panforte.

Third – Peanut butter. The natural oil content of peanut butter keeps these soft for a very long time, they are great keepers, and lead off the baked cookie production line.

Fourth – the sturdy drop cookies. Chocolate chip, triple ginger. Not quite a long lived as peanut butter, but if tightly sealed, better keepers than the more fragile guys.

Fifth – Sugar cut-outs, Iced Orange cookies, and the spritz cookies for the oysters. Both of these can be baked ahead and stored without their respective finishing frosting or filling. Kept tightly covered, they will dry out a bit, but will gain regain moisture from their wetter components when they are finished.

Sixth – This batch are more fragile and shouldn’t be made more than a week ahead of need. Earthquakes, Mexican Wedding Cakes in that order.

The ones that depend on Younger Spawn will of course have to await arrival, but if I were to slot them in regardless of Spawn-presence, the Cinnamon Swirls would go in the Fifth group, and the Jam Thumbprints in Sixth.

The instant icebox fudge comes last. Our old neighbor and adopted family member Ms. Jean taught me how to make it the very first holiday season we celebrated together. It’s a special treat that everyone loves, takes very little time, and that’s handy for using up small amounts of leftover nuts along with the chocolate. Like there would ever be leftover chocolate in this house.

Pix of these as they are finished. Or maybe I’ll wait until the end and post the traditional “family photo.”

5 responses

  1. My husband has started his Christmas baking even though he is borderline diabetic and just recovering from his second open heart surgery. And the cookie shop that opened in October one block from our home! YUM!
    He loves to cook and play with recipes. First batch this year, he added chopped candied orange peel, chopped pecans, and chocolate chips to the classic oatmeal cookie, topped off with a candied cherry.
    Delicious! But they have to sit overnight for the flavors to blend.

  2. That spreadsheet is so smart! One of those “why didn’t I think of that?!!” things! I’m planning to bake quite a few of the same things. So clever you are!

  3. Lots of great information here! Not only the spreadsheet, but the info on how far ahead they can be made. And it looks like a great way to practice fast decimal to fraction conversions as well! Is there a reason you used decimal rather than fractions?

    I gave up on the cookie frenzy years ago – DS helped decorate a few for a half hour then that was enough for him. I had enough on my plate without trying to live up to the cookie and decorating expectations DH grew up with.

    1. I use decimal on the spreadsheet because spreadsheets don’t understand 1 1/2. They’re designed to use standard notation, like 1.5 instead. The sheet dynamically recalculates the total amount of my supplies required on the top line, adding up the quantities below. I then use it to make my shopping list. 6.25 tsp of vanilla? Check the little jar… Hmmm.
      Less than 1/4 full, I’m going to need more. 🙂

      Also, I tend to think in decimal, even when using non-metric measurements. I even have a decimal ruler with markings for tenths of an inch instead of a plain old one that marks off halves, quarters, eighths, and so on.

  4. […] Working it clockwise (recipe links for most of these can be found in my last post. […]

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