Cookie Bakers' Pantry

As you begin holiday cookie baking, be sure to have 13 ingredients on hand.


Smooth, seductive chocolate comes in many forms.

+ enlarge image Chocolate Thumbprints and White Chocolate Cherry Twists
  • Unsweetened chocolate: Sometimes called baking or bitter chocolate, this product is pure chocolate with no added sugar.
  • Semisweet chocolate: Pure chocolate with added cocoa butter and sugar, this versatile product is available in bars, blocks, and pieces.
  • Bittersweet chocolate: There are no legal specifications for this term, but the product is usually darker and less sweet than semisweet chocolate. Some European brands are labeled "dark chocolate."
  • Milk chocolate: Pure chocolate with added cocoa butter, sugar, and milk solids.
  • Sweet baking chocolate: Made of pure chocolate with added cocoa butter and sugar, this chocolate is sweeter than unsweetened chocolate but less sweet than semisweet chocolate.
  • Unsweetened cocoa powder: This product is pure chocolate with most of the cocoa butter removed. Cocoas labeled "Dutch-process" or "European-style" have been treated to neutralize the natural acids, giving them a mellow flavor and reddish color.
  • White chocolate: Made by combining cocoa butter with sugar, milk solids, and flavoring, this product is commonly called a chocolate. It's not a true one because it contains no cocoa solids. Try different brands to find one you like; formulas and flavors vary.

Nuttin' Doing

+ enlarge image Mixed Nut Bars
  • To get even more flavor from nuts and coconut, toast them lightly. Spread the nuts or coconut in a single layer in a shallow baking pan. Bake in a 350 degree F oven for 5 to 10 minutes or until light golden brown. Watch carefully and stir once or twice.
  • Once containers of nuts and coconut have been opened, tightly close the packages and store them in the refrigerator, or for longer storage, in the freezer. This keeps the oils they contain from becoming rancid and developing off flavors.

Butter and Maple

+ enlarge image Browned Butter and Cashew Shortbread

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.

Tapping Into Maple Syrup

+ enlarge image Maple Log Cabins
  • Pure maple syrup is made from maple sap that has been boiled down to thicken it. Maple-flavor syrup is a blend of pure maple syrup and corn syrup.
  • Pure maple syrup is a little thinner, a little less sweet, and has a more subtle flavor than maple-flavored syrup.
  • Opened containers of pure maple syrup should be stored in the refrigerator.
  • You can use maple syrup that has crystallized by pouring the syrup into a saucepan and heating it over low heat until the crystals dissolve.

Citrus by the Numbers

+ enlarge image Orange Snowballs and Lemon Candy Pinwheels
  • 1 medium lemon yields 2 teaspoon shredded peel and 3 tablespoons juice.
  • 1 medium lime yields 1-1/2 teaspoon shredded peel and 2 tablespoons juice.
  • 1 medium orange yields 4 teaspoons shredded peel and 1/4 to 1/3 cup juice.

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 and Brown Sugar

+ enlarge image Honey-Nut Bars

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.

Sugar Meets Molasses

+ enlarge image Brown Sugar Toffee Rounds

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.

Oats Are OK

+ enlarge image Favorite Oatmeal Cookies

Here's a summary of the oat products most often used in baking.

  • Regular rolled oats (or old-fashioned oats): Whole, hulled oats (groats) steamed and flattened by steel rollers into flakes.
  • Quick-cooking rolled oats: Oat groats cut into several pieces before rolling to shorten the cooking time. (Unless a cookie recipe calls specifically for regular or quick-cooking rolled oats, you can use whichever you happen to have on hand.)
  • Instant Oatmeal: Cut groats that have been cooked and dried, then rolled. (Don't use these in baking; they absorb liquid too rapidly and become gluey.)
  • Oat flour: A finely ground grain usually available in health food stores. (Or, make your own by processing rolled oats in a food processor.) Because it contains no gluten, the structure-building protein, oat flour can't be substituted for more than half of the all-purpose flour in a recipe.

Finer Fruit

+ enlarge image Meringue-Topped Fruit Tarts

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.

  • Chop or snip? Either a sharp knife or kitchen shears make quick work of cutting large pieces of dried fruits into bite-size pieces. Dip the knife or shears into hot water frequently to keep the fruit from sticking.
  • If you prefer moister fruit in cookies, plump the dried fruit before adding it to the dough. Cover the fruit with water in a small saucepan and bring to boiling. Remove from the heat, cover, and let stand 5 minutes. Drain fruit well, patting excess moisture with a paper towel.
  • Once a package has been opened, wrap any remaining fruit airtight and store it in a refrigerator or freeze it for up to 6 months.

Spices of Life

+ enlarge image Snickerdoodle Pinwheels

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.

  • Spices are the seeds, bark, roots, fruit, or flowers of plants. Herbs are plant leaves.
  • Nutmeg and mace come from the same seed. When the fruit of the nutmeg tree is ripe it splits open, revealing a seed covered with what looks like red lace. This fragile layer is removed, dried, and ground to make mace. The seed (nutmeg) is dried and may be ground or sold whole for grating. Mace and nutmeg are satisfactory substitutes for each other.
  • Allspice is a single spice, not a combination of spices, as you might think from the name. The flavor of allspice is similar to that of cloves with hints of cinnamon and nutmeg tastes.
  • To guarantee you are using fresh spices, buy them in small quantities and date the containers. Replace spices yearly, regardless of how much is left in the container.
  • To keep spices fresh longer, store them tightly covered in a cool, dry place.

Peanut Butter & Molasses

+ enlarge image Awesome Peanut Butter Cookies

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.

Mo' About Molasses

+ enlarge image Shoofly Bars

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.

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