As I write this, snow is falling outside our windows, changing the landscape from stark December black, brown, and gray to a softer mixture of white, pewter, and beige. The driving is horrible; for some of us, this morning’s normal 45-minute commute turned into a 3-hour nightmare of skids, slides, and slow progress. Nevertheless: it’s beautiful. Vermont’s snow-covered hills and mountains are just plain postcard-picture pretty.
Snow also makes the kitchen a warm and welcome hideaway, a refuge from the storm outside. Our King Arthur test kitchen has no windows; we can’t cool pies on the windowsill, nor set a loaf of rising bread in the warm sun. But the five of us who work within its cozy confines don’t really have time to worry about the weather; we’re too busy trying new recipes–and often failing.
That’s right, failing. Sourdough doesn’t brown in the oven. Brownies burn around the edges before they’re done in the center. Cookies sppprrreeaaaddd into sugary puddles. And pie crust self-destructs on the way from floured counter to pie pan.
Luckily, it’s our job to fail–and to learn from our kitchen mishaps. By spending our days in the kitchen, we learn the work-arounds and tricks–through sheer repetition–that make baking easier, more fun, and result in better outcomes. In short: we mess up so you don’t have to.
One thing I’ve always struggled with is rolling out cookie dough (or pie crust). Cutout cookies used to be my downfall; I couldn’t stand the dough sticking to the counter and rolling pin, the mess of flour to clean up, and the strangely rhomboid linzer cookies and misshapen gingerbread men I used to make. But I’ve learned–finally!–how to roll out cookie dough and make pretty good looking cookies. I still don’t have that Martha Stewart decorating touch, but at least you can actually tell the cookie is supposed to be a star–not a mistake!
So here we go, 8 tips for foolproof cutout cookies:
1. Make sure your dough is the right consistency. If the dough doesn’t hold together easily–if it seems at all crumbly or dry–add more liquid. For crisper cookies, add water; for softer cookies, add milk. The dough should be the consistency of Play-Doh, or malleable clay.
2. Once the dough is made, shape it into a flat disk, then roll it like a wheel along a floured surface, to smooth the edges. (I always, ALWAYS use a silicone rolling mat when working with dough; I put the mat on the counter when I start, and anytime the dough would otherwise touch the counter, it goes instead onto the mat. That way, when I’m done, there’s no mess – I just pick up the mat, dump the excess flour and dough scraps into the trash, rinse it off, and hang it on the handle of the dishwasher to dry.) When you’re done rolling the dough, it should look like a big hockey puck: perfectly circular, with flat, smooth edges. Smooth edges before rolling = smooth edges (rather than raggedy big cracks) after rolling.
3. Chill the dough for at least 30 minutes, an hour for a bigger batch. Or overnight. This does two important things. It relaxes the gluten, making the cookies more tender or crisp; and it firms up the fat, making the dough less sticky, and easier to roll. If you chill it overnight, you’ll probably need to let it rest at room temperature for 30 minutes or so before rolling. The thing with dough is, you want it cold, but not TOO cold. Remember: Play-Doh.
4. Flour your counter (or silicone mat–trust me, it really helps), and put the dough in the middle of the floured area. Start from the middle and roll outwards; don’t roll back and forth across the dough, as that makes it tough. Fewer vigorous strokes are better than more, gentler strokes. Again, silicone helps prevent sticking, which is why I use a silicone rolling pin. Your grandma’s old one-piece wooden pin is a nice antique, but probably not the most effective rolling tool.
5. IMPORTANT IMPORTANT IMPORTANT: Lift the dough regularly and throw more flour underneath. Have you ever rolled out dough, cut out cookies, and found that they’re cemented to the counter and you need to scrape them off, totally wrecking their shapes? Yeah, so have I. I always use a giant spatula to move cookie and pie dough around the rolling mat. Unfortunately, the manufacturer quit making these (pictured below); if anyone finds a source, snap one up quick!
6. Now, look at your cookie cutter. Does it have a sharp side and a dull side? If so, grab the dull side (comfortable on your fingers!), and cut with the sharp side. I know, this sounds like, DUH. But I’ve cut cookies using the dull side, holding the sharp side, and wondered, “Why isn’t this cutting, and why is it hurting my hands?” As I said–DUH!
Cut one cookie, and lift the cutter; this is a test. Does the cutout cookie stick to the cutter, or stay on the mat? If it stays on the mat, is it easily lifted with a spatula, or is it REALLY stuck? If at any point the dough sticks to the cutter and isn’t easily released, dip the cutter in flour between cuts. My goal is for the cookie to stick in the cutter just enough that I can easily poke it from the cutter onto the baking sheet; saves having to lift fragile cookie dough with a spatula onto the pan.
7. Cut the rest of the cookies, efficiently positioning the cutter each time to cut as many cookies as possible from your rolled-out dough. Take the inevitable scraps, squash them together, and refrigerate for 10 minutes, if you have time; this’ll make them easier to roll. Repeat the process above until you’ve used all the dough.
8. One final hint: If the recipe says roll 1/8” thick, do it. If 1/4” thick, do it. Or suffer the consequences. Baking times/temperatures are based on the thickness of the cookie dough. Feel free to roll thicker or thinner than directed, but adjust your baking time (add time for thicker dough, subtract for thinner) if you do.
I made some really nice cutout stars while I was writing this. Everyone makes gingersnaps so I figured, how about cinnamon snaps? You know how it is with us bakers. “What if…” is our favorite phrase!