Let me share a not-so-hidden secret: Cookies are my bag. I’m an avid baker and every holiday season with family and friends embark on a daylong blitz to crank out enough rolled, dipped and sprinkled beauties to put the Keebler elves to shame. (This year’s tally: 938 dozen; 18 varieties.) Still, I am always looking for ways to up my game. So with National Cookie Day on Monday in mind, I called Greg Lofts, deputy food editor of Martha Stewart Living, to talk all things cookies — including how one masters the perfect dough.
First, are you celebrating National Cookie Day?
I have to be honest, it is national cookie day every day at Martha Stewart Living! In fact, about half of our website traffic is driven by recipe search — in particular around the holidays for cookies, cakes and pies — because we are known as a trusted brand for cookie recipes that work and are doable.
Why do we love cookies?
Cookie dough, for the most part, can be made ahead and refrigerated for a week or frozen for months at a time. They are really versatile; they can be eaten out of hand. They elicit a lot of emotional and sentimental feelings — we all remember cookies from our childhood; mine were my mom’s Mexican Wedding Rings and, weirdly, Rum Balls. I guess I was a little bit of a boozer even as a kid! And they last.
Martha Stewart Living's Basic Vanilla Cookie Dough is a favorite? Why?
It’s only seven ingredients and they are all pantry staples, including flour, butter, salt, sugar and eggs. And a good classic like a sugar or vanilla cookie dough is a great blank canvas for a lot of different flavors, shapes, colors and textures that you can tease out of the dough — depending on how you use it. Find a PDF of the recipe here.
That dough makes 30 different cookies. Which variety should readers attempt first?
First, I'd make the classic dough that gets rolled out and stamped into different cookie-cutter shapes, particularly if you want to make a tree, a Santa Claus or a wreath for the holidays. You can really go crazy and decorate with glaze and candies, but you don’t have to incorporate any others flavors to the dough. This is what I call an entry-level dough; even a beginner baker can master this the first time out.
Second, I am also a sucker for the thumbprint cookie because it is great fun to get the kids involved — their little fingers can make indentations in the dough balls, and they can help roll the dough. It’s almost like the consistency of Play-Doh, but more delicious. It brings out the kid in me: You get to play with your food a little bit.
What are common cookie mistakes?
There are several. Even with something as simple as a cookie, make sure you are using pure vanilla extract — not artificial vanilla or imitation. Use good-quality butter. Make sure you are using kosher salt, not table salt; kosher salt is about one-half the measurement of table salt because it is a coarser grind. Check your baking powder to make sure it is fresh, and use good, unbleached all-purpose flour. This is not the time to save 20 cents on a two-pound bag of flour! After that I would say people try to overthink and overcomplicate cookies. Don’t overwork the dough; just do as it says.
Any cookie trends that should be on our radar?
One is the use of floral flavors. So whether it is through distillations like with rose water, orange blossom water or putting English Breakfast tea into a shortbread cookie — any way to get floral or botanical notes into cookies is really hot right now. And that can even include adding liqueurs in your dough. Also natural food dyes. More and more people are interested in that.
If you are planning on giving cookies as a gift, what do you suggest?
Make sure that anything you are decorating with — little candies, red hots, nuts or dried fruits — is fresh. One tip: I always keep nuts in the freezer because they are high fat, and with their oil content they can go rancid very easily with any heat or sunlight exposure. One rancid nut or dried fruit can ruin a whole batch of cookies. That’s something that Martha always talks about, too: She can sniff out a rancid nut from a mile away.