The holiday baking season is officially warming up this time of year, with kitchens white as snow from mounds of flour and countertops lit up like a Christmas tree with every color of frosting. That particularly excites Chicago chocolatier and pastry chef Martin Diez.
“People are baking more than ever before, and all those trends that are coming from TV shows and social media are taking more of a spotlight, with people really wanting to bake life a chef and experimenting,” says Belgian-born Diez, who works with the Chicago Chocolate Academy and leads the Barry Callebaut Studio in Chicago (a leading manufacturer of high-quality chocolate and cocoa).
In particular, Diez is focusing on cookies for the holidays.
“Cookies can be ultra-indulgent — and personalized, incorporating everything you love inside the dough,” he says, “and they’re fun to make with kids.”
Here are Diez’s key tips to make preparing your favorite holiday cookies a complete cakewalk.
Fresh is best
When it comes to having fresh cookies, Diez likes to prepare the dough ahead of time, freeze it, and then bake when ready. “That way you will have super fresh cookies, but all the work was done several days prior.” He also suggests filling up a cookie box to the brim to store them as occupying more space and avoiding any air pockets will help increase the shelf life.
Do the dough
The most important part in making a good batch of cookies is concentrating on having a basic dough and then experimenting from there, recommends Diez.
“There are always the basic ingredients of butter, sugar (or brown sugar), flour, baking soda, egg yolks and a bit of salt for enhanced taste. Once you combine those and have your dough then the possibilities are limitless.”
One of his favorite things to do with his kids is letting them open the pantry and pick out whatever they want to add — even cereal. “It always works,” he says.
Diez is an expert at baking with chocolate now, but says that even he burned his first few batches when starting out. There are some tricks to avoid that common mistake with melted chocolate, he says.
While the microwave works just fine — melting in 15-second increments until it’s ready — another option to consider is using an indirect heat source. Boil water in a pan and place chocolate in a glass or metal bowl, holding the bowl directly above the steam to warm it up. It might take a bit longer but the results will be flawless every time.
For baking with solid chocolate, opt for large chunks. “When they come out of the oven, they will be soft and gooey,” he says.
Also, Diez adds, the concentration of cocoa matters. He suggests using a high-quality dark chocolate (Barry Callebaut can be found at Whole Foods) with 60-75% cocoa, especially if you’re making cookies with other sweet ingredients. “The higher percentage of cocoa, the lower the amount of sugar, and that can help ensure the cookies aren’t overly sweet and provide some contrast.”
“The best piece of advice I ever received was to be conscious of the preparation that goes into baking,” says Diez who’s main trick is starting with every ingredient at room temperature.
“The key to a successful cookie is not having the butter too cold or eggs too cold. It’s important to soften those and mix well together to have a nice fluffy texture and give as much volume as you can during the baking process.”
Also, let the dough “rest” and chill before baking — or, as mentioned above, freeze your dough ahead of time. “If you bake the dough immediately the cookies will spread, and you want them to hold their shape,” he adds.
Timing is everything
Diez always has a strict rule of cutting 25% of the baking time called for in a recipe.
“It’s much easier to add a couple minutes than to have burned cookies,” he says. So, if a recipe calls for 10 minutes, plan on 6 minutes and then check the cookies to see if they are done or need more time. Also, if you are planning multiple rounds, make sure to give the cookie sheet the chance to cool down before adding more dough.
The right tools
Like any job, a chef needs the right tools to get the job done. While Diez loves a traditional kitchen mixer, he says a spatula also works just fine.
“Spatulas are better than whisks because you can avoid ingredients getting lost on the wires.”
He also recommends a good ice cream scoop for placing dough on your cookie sheet: “That way, each cookie is the same size and shape.”
Diez loves playing with contrasts in flavor, and even colors. Recently he experimented with a pistachio flour (if you can’t find it, you can grind and press the nuts at home), which yielded green dough that was contrasted by white chocolate chunks and fresh raspberries.
Also, he says, try adding enhancements on top of cookies after baking — grate chocolate on top, add a caramel drizzle or even a scoop of marshmallow fluff. Large chocolate chunks are great, too, because they will melt perfectly, he says. “It’s so easy to do and will wow anyone.”
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.