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Help Me! Some professional advice on making perfect Christmas cookies – even if they do look like ugly sweaters

by on December 02, 2019 1:10 PM

Each year, my partner, Becky, spends half the holiday season baking away in our kitchen, making batch after batch of Christmas cookies, while I mostly just enjoy them. A lot. 

She usually asks me to make at least one batch to help out, and sometimes I do, but they never turn out as good as the ones she makes. So, more often than not, I don’t even bother.

When we go to holiday parties, everyone compliments Becky on her cookies, while any that I make go over with much less enthusiasm.

People especially love her sugar cookies. She uses my mom’s recipe; I remember making them with my mom and my siblings when I was a kid. Becky has carried on the tradition and perfected it.

This year, though, I want to go back to my Christmas-cookie roots and make my mom’s famous cookies to perfection. At Christmas parties, when everyone says how much they love the sugar cookies, maybe Becky will say, “Well, actually, Vince made them this year.”

But in order to wow everybody, I would need a little help. So I asked Cheri Christian, owner and operator of Sweet Tooth Bakery in State College, to teach me some pro tips when it comes to making sugar cookies. She has been serving up cookies and other confections at her little bakery, tucked away on Miller Alley, since 1993. 

Her sweet sugar cookies are well known for their Penn State graphics, which she prints on the cookies through a computer program and edible ink. They look pretty cool, but for my Christmas cookies we were going to go hands-on with our decorations; Cheri is an expert at that as well.

Sugar cookies are a lot of work, and Cheri said most people don’t have the time. You have to make the dough, roll it out, cut the shapes, bake the cookies, and ice them. And then do it all over, and over again. She makes batch after batch during the holidays and knows the recipe by heart.

I was ready to learn the process, so we washed our hands, put on some Christmas tunes, and got started.

Cheri wouldn’t tell me the secret ingredients for her cookies (I guess that’s why they call it a secret). But that’s OK; I have my mom’s recipe to work with. 

Cheri had chilled the dough beforehand, and this made it a little easier to roll out. Before we started rolling the dough, we spread some flour on the tabletop and on the rolling pin to make sure it didn’t stick. If the dough is too sticky, you can add more flour, but don’t add too much because it can make the cookies a little tough.

I was a little apprehensive about whether I could do it right, but Cheri just had me start rolling away. It really took me back to being a kid, making cookies with my mom. Cheri’s rolled-out dough was much smoother than mine. I was trying to roll it too thin, and after I realized that it started looking better. Now it was time to cut the shapes.

We stuck the cookie-cutter in some flour and then into the dough. We cut star shapes, and shirt shapes to make cookies that look like ugly Christmas sweaters. The dough was sticking to the counter, so in order to not mess up the shapes, we used a spatula to carefully lift it. Then we repeated the process over and over until we filled two cookie sheets. It was time to put them into the oven.

Cheri’s convection oven was a little more complicated than I was used to, but it helps to bake things more evenly and fast. Cheri said she uses a regular oven to bake certain things because it cooks slower, but we wanted to use the convection oven for our cookies so that they all baked evenly.

Cheri has baked cookies so often that she doesn’t need to set a timer, but with me, we set a 10-minute timer as a kind of ballpark estimate. The trick is to get the cookies just slightly golden brown, but not so much that they are crispy. While we cleaned up and got the icing ready to go, we kept an eye on the cookies in the oven.

After 10 minutes, the stars looked pretty good, but the sweaters needed to cook a few minutes longer. 

The sweaters grew a little out of shape during baking and lost their detail, so we recut them after they came out of the oven. Cheri said that works as long as they are still hot, but if we waited too long, they would not look good. 

After letting the cookies cool for a bit, it was time to decorate. This is where I needed the most help. When it comes to icing, I kind of just slap it on there. But in order to make cookies that wow people, I needed a better presentation. 

Cheri had some icing ready to go and told me to use the back of the spatula to spread it. This made it easier. One thing I liked was that while Cheri makes beautiful looking cookies, she wasn’t worried about messing things up. In other words, it didn’t have to be perfect to look good.

We used white icing on the stars and green and brown for the sweaters. I struggled getting the icing all the way to the edge, but got better as we went along.

After we got them covered with a solid color, we were ready to add the details by piping in some icing for designs. Again, I was apprehensive; details like that are not my thing, but Cheri encouraged me to go for it and it was fun.

We drew lines from point to point for the stars and then added a few more designs along the lines. I was OK with the straight lines across the stars, but I made a few embarrassing designs in other parts, and one of cookies looked like a second-grader did it.

But I got better as we went along. 

The Christmas sweaters were more fun. We added red collars and cuffs to the shirts and used candy for more design. Cheri said I could make the ugly Christmas sweaters as “tacky as I wanted,” and I sure did. They looked great.

I sent a picture to Becky with my finished product and she said that even her sister Megan (who makes some pretty intricate-looking cake and cookie decorations) would be impressed. 

Now, for the real test, to taste them. They were delicious. I think I may be able to wow some people with my cookies at Christmas parties this year (or maybe I’ll just pick up some cookies at Sweet Tooth). I’m sure Becky won’t mind if I help out. 

Thanks for your help, Cheri.


Vincent Corso is a staff writer for Town&Gown and The Centre County Gazette.


Vincent Corso is writer for Town&Gown and the Centre County Gazette.
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