Saturday, December 3, 2011

Yule Cookie Drop

Each year on the week of the winter solstice, Kevin and I carry out an operation we call the “Yule Cookie Drop.” It’s the culmination of weeks of effort, and looks something like this:

Lemon ginger drop cookies
Decorated gingerbread cookies
We bake hundreds of cookies to give as holiday gifts. It isn’t exactly cheaper than buying presents. These cookies are our calling card. Making them is a labor of love, a way to feed our friends, and create a unique gift. We do it because we love cookies, and our friends, and want to give something from we take great pride in making. Cookies are simple, and always appreciated. Even our friends who don’t eat cookies like to get them, because they inevitably have friends who do eat cookies, and who think our friend is awesome for sharing his treats. I never worry that the recipients of our cookies wish we’d bought them a gift card, instead.

Plan ahead

Start by making a list of recipients in a spreadsheet. Family, friends, co-workers, classmates: everyone you want to give cookies to, individually or as groups. We bring big platters of cookies into our workplaces and to holiday parties, and give little gift bags to friends, the postal carrier, our chiropractor. We mail big tins of them to our friends, and give really big tins to our friends who have big families. You may want to plan enough for party platters, to set out for guests over the holiday season, to serve at your parties and holiday meals, and to enjoy, yourselves. I even have special ice creams that I like to make using homemade cookies as stir-ins, and we plan for those, too. Include all of these in your spreadsheet.

For each recipient in your list, know what size container you want to give them, and whether you’ll have to mail it.

If any of your recipients have allergies that you want to be sensitive to when packing up their cookies, make a note of it.

Buy cookie tins. You can get awesome cookie tins if you order online, or you can go thrifting or discount shopping to find enough containers of the sizes you need. In either case, buy them early while supplies are still good. 
Cookie tins
Cookie gift bags
Gather the mailing addresses of those you plan to mail cookies to, and buy packing materials for any cookie tins you plan to ship.

Once you know how many containers of various sizes you want to give, decide how many cookies will fill each size, and how many varieties of cookies you want to make. Divide the total number of cookies you want to produce by number of varieties you plan to make. Check recipe yields to determine how many batches of each variety of cookie you will need to make in order to reach your target number of cookies.

Get ready

Which items will you be baking? Know your recipes very well. Bake practice batches earlier in the season if you need to, to make sure you like the results.

Create a spreadsheet for cookie ingredients. For each variety, write down where your recipe comes from, so you can find it from year to year. Make a list of the ingredients and quantities for a single batch. Use formula functions to multiply the quantities by the number of batches. Use these numbers to buy fresh ingredients for each recipe or day’s baking.

Additionally, use the spreadsheet to add up the total amounts of ingredients you will need for all of your baking, so you can decide whether to buy certain items in bulk for the whole project.

Each year, we build up stores of specialty ingredients like sanding sugars and exotic flavor extracts. We review our bin of baking materials and decide whether to upgrade to better cookie cutters, or buy more baking sheets this year. For shelf stable items we’ll run through a lot of, like flour, ziplock bags, and parchment paper, we buy in bulk.
Decorated sugar cookies

"Osito" brownies

Baking buddies

The whole project requires both of our efforts, and you should scale your Yule Cookie Drop to however many bakers are committed to your household’s gift-baking effort. Additionally, we each find it useful to have a baking buddy around for much of the time: this is a friend to hang out with, put on music, watch the double boiler, set the timer, order in dinner, and generally keep the baker company. Kevin is going through his first gluten-free Yule baking season, so he hasn’t been able to taste his own work. This is just one more reason to have baking buddies.

Quality testing is job one

A baking tip: Eat a whole, proper sample for quality assessment. Don’t eat the crumbs. You won’t get the true experience from eating crumbs, just a bellyache.
The other psychological advantage to the buddy system is in talking up the baking effort even before it’s under way. Reminding our friends that we’re doing this again this year, and telling new friends about it, is one of the ways that we commit ourselves to the effort.

As you go

It’s usually best to bake cookies in single batches, maybe doubled at the most. Beyond that and mixing becomes too difficult as you exceed the capacity of your largest mixing bowl, and the dough dries and leaveners lose their power, hanging around wet and waiting to be baked. Bake one sheet at a time for even results. As you’re baking, record notes such as true yields and changes you make to the recipe, and put them in your cookie spreadsheet. Note how many batches you made, and their yield.

Have storage

This year, our infrastructure investment was to buy another full-size freezer. You need adequate freezer storage if you’re going to be spreading your baking out over any length of time, and we take at least a month to do all of our holiday cookie baking. After fully cooling each treat, we pack them into the freezer.
  • Cookies are gently stacked into gallon ziplock bags.
  • For brownies and bar cookies, slice into individual pieces, place the servings in cupcake papers, then pack them into a ziplock bag for freezing.
  • Meringues don’t need to be frozen, but stored in a cool, dry place in an airtight container.

    Shortbread cookies, with and without chocolate drizzle

Several kinds of cookies in the Yule Drop

Pack it up

Create a descriptive insert to go along with the cookies. At a minimum, it should list the names of the cookies, enough description to allow the recipient to confidently match the real thing to its listing, and the ingredients. Like the spreadsheets of recipients and recipes, your insert is a document you can update each year and re-use. 

Use your ingredients spreadsheets to create ingredient lists, and consider bolding the common allergens: nuts are the big one for cookies. You can get creative with the insert: tell a family story about the recipe or a time you made them. Instead of describing the cookies yourself, you could record your kids’ descriptions of the cookies and have them illustrate it.

Set aside a day just for packing the containers. Generally, we do this on a Sunday, and deliver in a blitz on Monday morning. Review the spreadsheet totals for each of your cookie varieties and recalculate, if necessary, how many of each kind will go into each gift box or tin. Make notes of any recipients whose container needs to be customized because of a food allergy.

In each gift box or tin, we include eight little ziplock bags, one for each kind of cookie or treat. Grab your baking buddies, take everything out of the freezer, and employ all hands to repack into smaller ziplock bags, each with one kind of cookie, in the quantities needed for each of the sizes of gift containers. This keeps all of the cookies as fresh as possible, prevents the moist brownies from making the crisp meringues soggy, and makes it easier to pack the sturdy cookies beneath the more fragile ones. For small gift boxes, there may be just one or two cookies in a bag, while there might be a dozen of each kind of cookie in a giant tin.

Plan to deliver in a mad blitz, so the cookies arrive as fresh as possible. There will be a trip to the post office, where it goes without saying that you should ship your packages at the highest priority so they will arrive quickly. If there are gifts you will not be giving immediately, or cookies you’re holding back to serve later, put them right back into the freezer until you’re ready to serve or give them away.

Take pictures, keep notes, and continually improve your process each year.

Date-pecan pinwheel cookie

Linzer cookies