Things Our Grandparents Should've Taught Us: Baking
The mentor: Amanda Ellis
Bona fides: Learned baking from her mom growing up on a northwest Ohio farm; ditched her marketing career in 2007 to found Bakery Gingham, a home-style bakery in German Village; added a second location in the Short North in 2009.
My mom is the best baker I know, but I've mostly just enjoyed the fruits of her labor, not studied her methods. So I recruited Bakery Gingham owner Amanda Ellis to walk me through a batch of cutouts. Anyone can follow a recipe; I sought the sorts of hints that don't make it into the instructions.
I was hoping to freestyle, but Ellis put the kibosh on experimentation. Get creative by adding chocolate chips or flavoring your icing, but don't screw around with dough consistency. Precise measurements are key.
That said, more flour makes stiffer cookies; extra butter and sugar yields a softer batch. Other tips for the dough: Lightly crack eggs on a flat surface rather than using the edge of the bowl. And mix dough slowly, but only until the ingredients are fully blended - over-beating will result in tough cookies.
We formed the dough into a brick and chilled it in the refrigerator for three hours. This helps it stick together for shaping.
For rolling, we spread a thin layer of flour on the counter, keeping extra flour on hand. We divided the dough into halves to facilitate quick rolling - dough gets warm and goopy fast. I struggled to flatten the dough to a consistent thickness, but it's necessary to ensure the cookies bake at the same speed.
We baked at 325 degrees. Ellis prefers "low and slow" because burnt cookies are useless, but you can always put undercooked goods back in the oven. You know it's done when you can smell it and when the edges are golden brown.
Mix butter and sugar to taste for icing. Some folks include milk, shortening or egg whites. A single drop of food coloring will go a long way. Feel free to apply as much icing as you like, and even "bling" (aka sprinkles). More than any other part of the process, decoration is where your imagination can run wild.
The verdict: I'm no match for Mom, but I feel capable of slowly, surely cranking out some cookies when the situation demands it.