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Tips for mastering perfect cookies this holiday season

Rick Nelson
Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (TNS)

Amy Carter, a chef instructor at the Art Institutes International Minnesota, isn’t just a cookie-baking authority, she’s an avid enthusiast. “Cookies are one of my all-time favorite things,” she said.

A former bakery owner, now a teacher, Carter estimates that she’s educated 3,000 to 4,000 students during her 17-year tenure at the downtown Minneapolis school.

“I fell into teaching, and I found that it’s even better than being a pastry chef,” she said. “How many are lucky enough to do what they love?”

Carter and a half-dozen AIA students baked the 24 semifinalists in this year’s Taste Holiday Cookie Contest, a herculean task. In late October, she hosted our eight judges in a taste-a-thon at the school’s fascinating, fragrant and well-equipped baking lab. Here’s her take on some key cookie-baking issues.

Flour: When measuring flour, Carter relies upon weight. “But if I have to use measuring cups, I will scoop and level,” she said. “I almost never sift flour, unless I’m making a cake.”

Butter: “Not all butters are the same,” she said. “You can’t buy the cheapest butter when you’re making cookies. Land O’Lakes makes a good butter. Personally, I use Hope Butter.” When baking cookies, it’s unsalted butter, all the way. “That way you can control the amount of salt in the cookie,” she said. “But the trade-off is that unsalted butter has a shorter shelf life.”

Butter, Part 2: Cookie-baking success starts with room-temperature butter, somewhere in the 65- to 75-degree range, “80 degrees, tops,” she said. “You should be able to press into it with your finger without it being hard work, but the butter shouldn’t be so soft that your finger pokes into it.”

Butter, Part 3: “When it comes to creaming butter, I tell students that the mixer should never be on high speed, and it shouldn’t be slow,” she said. “Medium-high is where you want to be, and you’re looking for the butter to lighten up in color, two times lighter. You should always scrape down the bowl, and then give it another minute for good measure.”

Look carefully.

“If you have lumps of butter that aren’t mixed properly at the moment when you add eggs, you’ll have lumps forever,” she said. “They’ll melt, and you’ll have holes in your cookies.”

Parchment paper vs. silicon mats: For cookies, it’s parchment, end of discussion. “Parchment helps cookies spread properly, and it absorbs a little moisture, too” said Carter. She’s also an avid parchment recycler. “I re-use it until it’s falling apart,” she said.

As for silicone mats (such as the Silpat brand), she reserves them for sticky preparations, such as making caramels. Here’s a great tip: Carter saves money by buying Silpat mats secondhand. “No one knows how to use them, so they end up in thrift shops,” she said.

Equipment: When she bakes at home, Carter prefers thin, rimless (but not insulated) baking sheets. The combination makes it easy to slide whole batches of hot-from-the-oven cookies — still on parchment — directly off the baking sheet to a wire rack. That’s replaced with the next ready-to-bake batch, laid out on another sheet of parchment.

This is important: The baking sheet must be cooled in between. “Never put unbaked cookies on a hot tray,” she said. Her process? She gives warm baking sheets a cool-down — during winter months, anyway — by stashing them for a few minutes in the chilly air on the porch that’s adjacent to her home kitchen.

Ovens: “A convection oven is best for cookies,” she said. “Because the heat is circulated, the cookies bake more evenly. It also takes less time.” How much less? “If the recipe calls for 8 to 10 minutes, I’ll check at 6 minutes,” she said. “But every oven is different.”

Another essential tool: “I’ll almost always have a pizza stone on the oven’s lower rack,” she said. “It stabilizes the oven’s temperature. The stone stays hot, so the oven doesn’t have to work hard to keep the heat up.”

Ideal temperature: “I bake cookies at 325 degrees,” she said. “If you bake at a higher temperature, the bottoms start to burn right away, and the cookies don’t have a chance to spread the way they should. I haven’t found a cookie that doesn’t work at 325 degrees.”

Planning ahead: “I’ll make cookie dough and freeze it,” she said, noting that she forms the dough into balls or logs before freezing. “That way, I can bake them fresh when I want them.”

Always allow the dough to come to room temperature before baking, she notes, with one caveat: “Icebox cookies slice better — nice and thin — when they’ve only been out of the freezer for a short time,” she said.

Favorite cookie cookbook: “I probably have 10,000 cookbooks, but I have to give a plug for my absolute favorite,” she said. “It’s by Better Homes and Gardens (the title is “Cookies for Christmas”), and I’ve had it for 30 or 35 years. I’ve made every cookie in it, and every single recipe works. You don’t find that often.” It’s available on eBay; copies start at around $2.