Ask Chef Hosch and Ann

Why are my holiday cookies always flat? Why is my pie crust tough and chewy? I see these pretty pictures of desserts and no matter how many different times I make them they never turn out like they should. I need some hints on how to fix my holiday treats!

This is a question I have been asked too many times to remember. On the other hand, there are times I wish I could gently give a few tips to family and friends without hurting their feelings. We all get plenty of tasty treats this time of year and let’s face some are not very nice to look at. I think most of us have had those chocolate chip cookies that are flat and crumbly or are pretty as a picture with absolutely no flavor. I’d like to help us all put a stop to these frustrating times of cookie nightmares. There are certain skills acquired when you are trained in baking, either by schooling or family traditions, that help immensely when it comes to preparing holiday specialties. I would like to share a few tricks that I have learned here.

How to bake the perfect cookie starts with the dough! Always read and follow the directions, they put them there for you for a very good reason you know. I always weigh or measure all of my ingredients before I turn on the mixer. This way it’s easier to follow the steps of the recipe without scrambling all over the place because you forgot or can’t find something. If you are using butter in a recipe then make sure you have it at the correct temperature because this simple ingredient has the power to make or break the entire batch. If the recipe calls for cold butter I like to pull it out, cut it, and put it back in the fridge until it is needed. Room temperature means exactly that, leave it sit out on the counter furthest away from the oven for an hour at least so it will be the same temperature throughout. When it says softened, I leave it out the whole night before and then place it closer to the oven or a warmer place in the kitchen but not directly on heat. If it gets too warm and starts to separate or run you get melted butter. I know this might seem too picky but trust me when I say the temperature of your ingredients can make all the difference in most recipes. I also want to make sure that you are not substituting any of those plastic butter flavored tubs (margarine) for butter either. If the recipe tells you that you can then by all means try it but I am a huge believer in the power of real butter!

So besides the temperature of the ingredients, there of course are the steps to mixing them together. A huge, simple step that will save a lot of the cookie varieties happens during the creaming step. The recipe will probably start with this step and it is an very important one too. This means that this cookie is made by what us baker’s call the creaming method. When you cream the fat and sugar — or other ingredients they may have you add at this step — it is important to do this until it is light and fluffy. When you cream or mix real butter and sugar they all begin to get lighter in color and seem fluffier than they did at first. This is exactly what you want, and keep going too. This creaming process actually is what is giving your cookies height or body, making them bigger or raising them like a yeast would a bread dough. Crucial step to say the least. Another helpful hint is to sift the flour or dry ingredients. This will help keep a smoother batter with no lumps and also helps the creaming do its job to keep it fluffier.

Pie crust seems to scare many and it shouldn’t. There are only a few ingredients and it takes minutes to put together. I will definitely suggest that all of your ingredients be as cold as possible. If you are using butter then cube it and put it back in the fridge. Do the same with shortening if you use it, measure or weigh and place it back in the fridge until you are ready for it. The folder the water the better. Add the fat to the flour and work it or cut in the fat until you have pea sized pieces, then add less than the called for amount of flour and work it gently. You only want to work the dough until it just comes together. If you over work the dough it becomes rubbery and tough. For a nice flakey crust just work gentle and cold.

There are several little techniques that will help you as a home baker and I’ll also say that the more practice you get the better.

Chef Hosch and Ann are a husband and wife team devoted to healthy and gourmet cooking and catering. Chef Hosch is a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, New York, and brings more than 25 years of experience and passion to his culinary arts. Ann is an occupational therapist and has worked as a cook and baker in the past. Chef Hosch and Ann specialize in creating food for all tastes and diets. Their column is published on the third Sunday of each month in the Lifestyle section. Submit cooking questions for Chef Hosch and Ann to fine food@chefhos­ch­.com and “like” them on Facebook to ask questions and get tips and recipes.

Hunter is Chef Hosch and Ann’s sous chef. She received a degree in culinary arts from Pennsylvania Culinary Institute in 2002. After working in the field for several years, she went back to school at The Culinary Institute of America, graduating in 2005 with a degree in baking and pastry arts. She has worked in several different kitchens on both sides of culinary and baking.