Sometimes all it takes to attract the curiosity of others is to begin assembling the ingredients for making cookies. At this time of year, festive cookies are part of holiday traditions for many. Time-honored cookie recipes tend to manipulate flour and fat in special ways to produce the tender, rich textures that are often the mark of special holiday fare. We call this manipulation "building frameworks."
In talking about frameworks, let's begin with flour, because all baking needs a structure to hold the dough together. The most common framework for cookies comes from wheat flour. In particular, two of flour's proteins form gluten when flour is moistened and mixed. Gluten resembles a mesh that gives the framework strength, while the starches in flour swell with moisture, then set in the oven, reinforcing the network. See how gluten forms and how mixing influences its strength in the Bread section.
Once you know how gluten works, however, don't be fooled into assuming you only need to consider gluten's influence with breads. In contrast to maximizing gluten development in yeast breads, festive cookies often require a framework in which gluten development is deliberately minimized.
So how do you handle flour to make a more delicate framework? Some recipes call for pastry or cake flours, which are wheat flours with lower protein contents so they have less potential to form gluten. Others call for a mixture of wheat flour and specialty flours made from grains that don't contain gluten-forming proteins. For instance, rice flour or cornstarch in shortbread recipes helps keep the dough tender, despite the fact that shortbread requires considerable mixing.
Another characteristic of many special cookies is their richness, which is usually associated with using a high proportion of fat (often butter). Calories aside, fats are major tenderizers because they physically interrupt the formation of gluten. So perhaps it's not surprising that many holiday cookies seem to melt in your mouth!
Fat is also a fine carrier of flavors because it absorbs the flavors of other ingredients and holds them inside the dough, so fewer essential oils and essences evaporate during baking. Think of the pungency and aroma of cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and cloves. Holiday baking often uses exotic spices and flavorings with liberal abandon. Rum and Pepper Gingersnaps! Pfefferneusse! French Honey Wafers! Should you be curious at holiday time as to where such spices originate and how they're used, check out the Seasoning section.
As a final hint, read your recipe through carefully before beginning. Think about which ingredients are building structure and which act as tenderizers. And if your recipe isn't high in fat, remember that the more you work the dough, the more the gluten develops and the stronger and less tender its framework becomes. Of course there's much more to cookies than simply their framework. But as is the case with putting most things together, the framework comes first!
Do you have a holiday classic cookie recipe? Pass it on!