As you begin holiday cookie baking, be sure to have 13 ingredients on hand.
Smooth, seductive chocolate comes in many forms.
Butter Bits By law, butter must contain at least 80 percent milk fat (most of the remaining 20 percent is water). The fat gives cookies their distinctive flavor and makes them tender. Products that contain less fat do not give cookies the same texture and flavor as butter; the less fat the products contain, the less satisfactory your baking results will be. That's why many of our recipes call for no substitutes for butter. Unsalted butter is more perishable than regular butter and is stored in supermarket freezer sections.
Plus, the handiest gadget for shredding citrus peel is a long, thin rasplike tool called a Microplane. It's sharp, easy to clean, and quickly produces peel from any type of citrus fruit. The tool, made by Grace Manufacturing (800/555-2767; www.microplane.com) is available in blades ranging from coarse to fine. Look for it in the kitchenware departments.
Honey of a Sweetener The flavor and color of honey depend on the flowers from which it is made. Most honey is made from clover, which gives it a mild flavor and pale color. Store honey in a dry place up to 1 year. If honey crystallizes during storage, it's still usable. Place the jar of honey in a container of warm water, and occasionally stir the honey until the crystals dissolve. Change the warm water as necessary. To use honey in baking, it's best to follow a specially formulated recipe, because substituting honey for part of the sugar requires adjusting the amount of liquid, the leavening, and the baking temperature.
At one time, brown sugar was the result of a step in processing cane or beet sugar from a syrupy liquid to white granulated sugar. Today brown sugar is a combination of granulated sugar and molasses. The darker brown the sugar, the more molasses flavor it contains. Brown sugar keeps indefinitely in an airtight container in a cool dry place. Brown sugar that hardens or forms lumps can be softened in the microwave oven. Microwave 1/2 cup water, uncovered, in a 1-cup microwave-safe measuring cup or bowl on high for 1 to 2 minutes or until boiling. Place the brown sugar in a microwave-safe container near the water. Heat, uncovered, on high until softened. Allow 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 minutes for 1/2 pound brown sugar or 2 to 3 minutes for 1 pound. Our recipes call for packed brown sugar. This means the sugar is pressed firmly enough into a dry measuring cup that it holds the shape of the cup when it is turned out.
Here's a summary of the oat products most often used in baking.
Don't stop with raisins (dried grapes). You can purchase apples, apricots, bananas, carambolas (star fruits), cherries, cranberries, currants, dates, figs, peaches, pears, persimmons, pineapples, plums, mixed fruits, and fruit bits in dried form. They're all intensely sweet, chewy, and great for cookie baking.
Spices have a long, romantic history. Europeans once traveled so far for their spices that the search for a new spice route spurred exploration of the Americas. Today, however, spices are such commonly used ingredients that we take them for granted.
A Popular Butter Today it's the taste of peanut butter that attracts its many fans, but it was touted at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904 as a health food. Today, about half of the United States peanut crop is made into peanut butter, and Americans top the world in peanut butter consumption. By law, peanut butter must be 90 percent peanuts; no artificial flavor, colors, or preservatives are allowed. Peanut butter usually contains stabilizers to keep the oil from separating. Natural peanut butter, made with only peanuts and oil, must be stored in the refrigerator and stirred before use. Either type makes delicious cookies.
During processing, the juices from sugarcane are boiled. Mild light molasses comes from the first boiling. Dark molasses comes from the second boiling; it is less sweet than light molasses and has amore robust flavor. Our cookie recipes generally do not specify light or dark molasses because they react the same in baking, and the choice is a matter of personal preference. The final product created in molasses processing is blackstrap molasses, which is slightly bitter and has almost no sweetness; it's not used in baking. If molasses is labeled "unsulphured," no sulphur was used in the processing. Unsulphured molasses usually is a bit lighter in color and has a cleaner sugarcane flavor. Sorghum is made by boiling down the juices from the grain plant sorghum. It can be substituted for molasses in baking.