Baking seemed just the right thing over the weekend, in all the weirdness and sadness and the sense that we should be getting ready for Christmas even when it didn't feel quite right. So I baked. It's a comforting way to spend a few hours, quiet and reassuring and contemplative somehow.
It's not Christmas unless I bake my mother's spritz cookies. Which I probably should call the spritz cookies my mother used to bake, since she is constantly tinkering with new recipes. This is wrong on so many levels. In addition, I have been accused - some years justly, some years not - of being impatient and even unpleasant when I make spritz cookies. Sometimes they just don't want to come out of the press right. Some years I make them late in the evening, and I start cleaning up the kitchen, and I forget there's still a pan in the oven and I burn them. One year I dropped a whole pan of just-baked cookies on the floor. Some years the spritz cookies have made me curse out loud.
My technique has improved over time. Still, the house generally empties out when I mention what cookies I'm about to bake.
In recent years, it has become something of a tradition to make spritz cookies for our friend Bill. He very much looks forward to them. In fact, this year he posted on Facebook that it would be only a few more weeks until he would be getting spritz cookies. The pressure was on.
And - maybe it was dumb luck - but I think I have finally mastered the spritz. I have been making spritz cookies every year for at least the last 20 years, and this was the first that every single cookie came out of the press properly, and none of them burned.
Here is what I have learned:
Do not let the butter get overly soft. It should be just soft enough to cream with the sugar, but not slumpy, and absolutely not melted.
Do not overmix the dough. Stop mixing as soon as the ingredients come together.
Don't re-press the dough. If you have a cookie that doesn't come out of the press right, put the dough aside in a bowl. When you're done pressing the cookies, take any leftover bits and chill them slightly - maybe 15 minutes in the refrigerator - and then press them.
Don't grease the cookie sheet. If you're reusing a cookie sheet for a subsequent batch, make sure it's cooled off. (Either pop it in the refrigerator or run it under some cold water and dry it off.)
It's kind of a science with me at this point.
I don't know if my technique works with other recipes, but here's the recipe I use:
The spritz cookies my mother used to bake
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) of butter, room temperature
2 teaspoons of vanilla
1 cup of sugar
1 well-beaten egg
4 cups of flour
1 teaspoon of baking powder
A pinch of salt
Sugar or sprinkles for decoration
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Cream together the butter, vanilla and sugar. Add the egg and beat well. Add the dry ingredients and mix until just combined. Place dough in cookie press and shape cookies. (I think trees are the most foolproof, not to mention festive.) Decorate with sugar or sprinkles. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, but check them at 7 minutes. Take them out of the oven when they're barely golden on the edge. Let them sit on the cookie sheet for just a minute, then remove and cool on a rack. This recipe makes dozens and dozens of little cookies.