I really enjoy baking. I have a fairly large kitchen, a nice oven, and a stand mixer. Still, I sometimes find holiday cookie season to be a bit of a slog.
There have been December nights when I have stayed up past midnight, running two different oven timers, wondering how I got flour and colored sugar on every surface, dreading washing every sticky, butter-slicked bowl in the cupboard.
Last year I figured out a better way. I was due to give birth in early December, and in a brilliant moment of foresight I realized that 1) there was no way I could stay up until all hours baking cookies once I had a newborn. And 2) cookies would be more important to me than ever. So I pre-made most of my cookie dough and froze it. It changed my entire perspective on how to make holiday cookies.
This year I mixed up three batches of cookies at a time in just over two hours. I drank a glass of wine and listened to a couple podcasts. It was mellow and relaxing.
Here’s the thing: If you delight in spending an entire day in a haze of sugar and flour, more power to you. But for the rest of us, trying to make the dough and bake and decorate cookies all in the same day is a losing proposition. It’s a bigger chunk of time than most people have to spend in the kitchen all in one go, and most cookie doughs benefit from sitting overnight—or longer—in the fridge anyhow.
Make your dough in advance, then bake your cookies and decorate them at a pace that meets your needs—whether that’s all at once as an afternoon project with kids, or just a few at a time, for still-warm cookie plates throughout the season.
You don’t have to limit this to the holidays either: You too can be the kind of person who always shows up with a warm plate of cookies, like it’s no big thing. And there is no greater gift you can give yourself than burying some cookies in your freezer to be forgotten about and then discovered on a cold January night. Here’s how to be that person.
Choose cookies that can be frozen (which is most). I like to make three kinds: a classic sugar cookie that my kids can decorate with sprinkles; Dorie Greenpan’s justly famous World Peace Cookies for a hit of chocolate; and then a wild card.
This year I went for four, adding an excellent ginger cookie from King Arthur Flour (add a half cup of chopped dates, trust me), and a chocolate and vanilla shortbread that looked beautiful in the pages of Bon Appetit, and looked like a B+ junior high home economics project when I tried to replicate.
Having a buttery crisp sugar cookie in the mix is really key. The recipe my family has been using from The Joy of Cooking for at least three generations can be mixed in about 15 minutes and the possibilities for decorating them are endless. They make excellent use of eclectic cookie cutters, and can be topped with sprinkles, those weird silver candy balls, royal icing, egg wash and food coloring, frosting, or crushed up candy canes, among endless other options.
Make a list of all the ingredients you’ll need, all the flours, sugars, cocoa powder, nuts, eggs, and decorations your recipes require. Check your cupboard—do you need baking power, baking soda, or vanilla? Buy one more pound of butter than you think you’ll need. You may want to make a second batch of something and while you are likely to have flour and sugar leftover, cookies require a lot of butter and you will go through it at an alarming pace. Get yourself set up to bake.
Don’t forget parchment paper and freezer bags. Milk Street Radio hosts Christopher Kimball and Sarah Moulton, both passionate advocates for home cooks, agree that parchment paper is better than a Silpat for baking, unless you’re making something exceptionally delicate or sticky.
I also use parchment to wrap dough for chilling in the fridge and to line my sheet pans. I store cookies, in either logs to slice or discs to pop on baking sheets, in freezer bags.
When you get home from the store, put your butter on a plate and put that plate on top of your refrigerator. Unless you live somewhere very hot or you have a mouse problem, this will be just fine even if you don’t start your project for a few hours or even days. The first step in many cookie recipes is to cream butter and sugar together, which is a way to aerate the dough, and make a light, crisp cookie. It might seem like it’s okay to cream cold butter straight from the refrigerator if you’re using a stand mixer, but it’s just not the same.
I started with the sugar cookies, then put the dough in a plastic bag and put it in the fridge, where it’s sitting ready to roll out and decorate, one small batch at a time. Then I made the chocolate and vanilla striped shortbread cookie—without even cleaning the mixing bowl first. I gave it a solid wipe down and rinse after the chocolate part of the second recipe was done, but did not sweat a deep clean before launching in to mix up ginger cookies. For ginger cookies, I let them sit overnight before rolling into balls, flattening those balls into thick disks and freezing. When I was done I had three batches of dough in the fridge, ready to bake at a moment’s notice.
Sugar cookie dough can be frozen, but I usually keep it in the fridge it takes forever for the dough to defrost for rolling out. Either way, flatten the dough into flat discs, like pie crust to refrigerate or freeze.
Cookies you roll into logs and slice, like shortbread or those transcendent World Peace cookies, can be easily frozen or refrigerated, but definitely do not slice them in advance. They can easily crumble and fall apart when cut into individual cookies. They can be sliced and baked straight from frozen.
For chunkier, butter-rich cookies like chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, or those ginger-date cookies, portion them out and freeze them on a flat tray, then put them in a bag. Many guides to freezing cookies will tell you to roll them into balls and freeze. I roll them in balls and then flatten the balls into thick discs. They spread more evenly in the oven that way, and stack nicely in a plastic container.
The beauty of having cookie dough at the ready is that you can make cookies at the drop of a hat. Most cookies bake in under 20 minutes, and freezing might add a minute or two of baking time, but not any more. So you can have fresh-baked cookies in less than half an hour.
I like to make cookie bags for friends and neighbors in December, delivered in wire-closure coffee bags that I have my children decorate. With dough ready to go in the freezer, I can bake a custom pack for whoever I’m going to see.
Another cookie power move is to give a friend a bag of frozen cookie discs, with baking time and temperature written on the outside. Then, they will have the secret power of warm cookies on demand, too.