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December 11, 2013

Local chefs share trade secrets for creating the perfect holiday cookie

By Tiffany Esshaki
C & G Staff Writer

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Denise Bowers arranges freshly baked Christmas cookies at the Townsend Bakery in downtown Birmingham.

You can be as nice as you want all year long, but everyone knows there’s no surer way to get Santa down your chimney than by tempting him with a plateful of tasty Christmas cookies.

Jenn Tilton is the executive pastry chef at the Grosse Pointe Farms’ bakery Morning Glory. For her, molasses cookies have holiday written all over them.

“For me, my childhood memories are definitely the molasses cookie,” she said, explaining that the rich and slightly spicy flavors of the cookie are indicative of the season for her. “They’re easy to prepare. But, now, I do a lot of the decorated cookies.”

At Morning Glory, customers are already clamoring for sugar cookies, decorated in fun holiday themes. Tilton is also working on other seasonal treats, like peppermint chocolate bark shaped like a snowflake.

But part of the fun of Christmas cookies, Tilton said, is baking and decorating the cookies at home with the little ones. Her best advice for home chefs is to keep it simple when it comes to the ingredients. As far as the decorating: anything goes.

“Just use royal icing,” said Tilton, sharing her recipe of powdered sugar, water and any flavoring, such as almond extract. “It’s a bit thicker, like canned frosting. The runnier it is, you’re not going to be able to control it.”

Tilton said she recommends home chefs looking for decorating inspiration grab a cooking magazine or head online to see what the newest trends in cookie styling are.

At The Townsend Bakery, in downtown Birmingham, executive pastry chef Taylor Brockenshire is already gearing up to get his cookies decked out in a little holiday couture. He and his team of bakers will likely bake and decorate a whopping 2,500 Christmas cookies this season.

“We do a lot of cutout cookies. That seems to be the most popular. And then we decorate them with icing on top as snowmen, candy canes, stockings and other shapes. We have four or five different varieties. We use sprinkled sugar and sugar-water icing,” he said.

Brockenshire said he prefers to use the water-based icing, as opposed to other recipes, as it dries out properly but doesn’t get as hard, like some other icings. That means there won’t be a messy icing “crack” when someone bites through the icing into the cookie.

“You can make the icing very easily. Just start with, like, two cups of sugar in a small bowl, and slowly add a few tablespoons of water at a time until it makes a thick paste,” he said. “You’ll know if you’ve got too much water because it’ll drip all over the cookie. So, then you just adjust it.”

Getting the icing on the cookie should be as easy as making the icing itself. The main layer of icing can be applied simply with a spatula. Then, for details, use a pastry bag to delicately pipe icing onto the cookie in the design of your choosing.

“Pastry bags are always something I think people should have on hand. You can’t just drizzle it on there,” he said.

Tilton agreed that pastry bags are a must for cookie decorating, but added that if you don’t have any on hand, a plastic sandwich bag will do in a pinch. Just cut a small hole in the corner of the bag, fill with icing and start piping away.

As for the cookie itself, Brockenshire said everyone has their own recipe for sugar cookies, many times handed down through generations. No matter the variation, though, he said it’s important to make sure the cookie is cooked through to a nice golden brown. A softer, undercooked cookie will be harder to handle and nearly impossible to frost.

While sugar cookies seem to be the most popular this time of year, other varieties like Tilton’s favorite molasses cookies shouldn’t be discounted. Both chefs agreed that baking cookies is more about the memories they represent, rather than producing picture-perfect treats.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Tiffany Esshaki at tesshaki@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1095.