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Gluten-free Christmas cookies

(article, Stephanie Stiavetti)

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In kitchens across the land, home cooks are digging out worn cookbooks and faded recipe cards, scouring baking sheets and the Internet for tips. Ovens are being preheated, and houses are filling with the cozy aromas of caramelizing sugar and browning butter. It's cookie season. 


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When I was a little girl, I swore that I could gauge how many days were left till Christmas by how intensely my neighborhood smelled of baking cookies. For many folks, myself included, making Christmas cookies is the best part of the holiday season.

We enlist loved ones young and old to stir, roll, cut, and decorate. We smile at the mess of sugar and the clatter of cookie cutters. And we're positively giddy at the prospect of packing colorful, tissue-paper-lined gift boxes with the results of our labors. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Ricciarelli are traditional Italian cookies."]But not everyone can enjoy traditional floury cookies. If you're trying to go gluten-free, the Christmas-cookie season can be a challenge. But it's certainly not impossible.

For help, I called upon learned cookie maven Nancy Baggett, the author of the recently released Simply Sensational Cookies.

"Very often, the baking expertise I would normally use yields poor results with gluten-free baking, or just no longer applies at all," Baggett told me. "For example, like all professionally trained bakers, I know that over-mixing wheat-based doughs will yield tough cookies; the excess manipulation develops too much gluten. But in rice-flour doughs, which lack gluten, I’ve found that vigorous stirring has an entirely opposite, very positive effect. It actually helps cookies hold together, and they come out less crumbly."

Gluten-free cookies tend to be more crumbly than their gluteny counterparts. This is due to the fact that gluten is what makes baked goods tender and chewy, and the loss of gluten in a recipe needs to be compensated for by adding other gum-like ingredients that do a similar job. There will still be a textural difference, as nothing really matches the stretch of good, old-fashioned gluten; but since non-wheat flours contain no gluten, there's almost no risk of over-mixing. 

In fact, mixing gluten-free cookie doughs more can help binders, such as xanthan gum and egg proteins, to bind even better, giving them the opportunity to soak into flour particles and creating a glue-like effect. You'll notice that some gluten-free cookie recipes recommend setting the dough aside in the refrigerator before baking; this helps firm up the dough for easier handling, with the added bonus of allowing the wet ingredients to integrate more fully into the dry.

Also worth noting is the fact that since non-wheat flours lack the stretch of their wheaty cousins, gluten-free cookie doughs are often more sticky than traditional cookie dough. As such, you'll need to be more careful when it comes to transporting formed, unbaked cookies — especially if they are rolled thin and cut into shapes. 

If cookies need to be cut and formed, I recommend doing all the work on the same piece of parchment paper you plan to bake them on. When you cut the parchment to the right size ahead of time, you can easily transfer the paper to a baking sheet and slide the whole thing into the oven, usually after a quick set in the refrigerator. This allows you to avoid having to move the actual cookie dough, which will stretch and tear at the slightest provocation.

When it comes to baking gluten-free cookies, the question I'm asked most often is, can you just take an old cookie recipe and replace the white flour for a wheat-free blend? "I don’t advise this," warned Baggett. "I suggest turning to cookbook authors and recipe developers who have already done the experimentation, worked out the innumerable kinks, and can offer reliable, tasty recipes to use. Taking advantage of what they have already learned and formulated guarantees not having to settle for less when it comes to sweet treats this season."

As luck would have it, a recent crop of gluten-free cookbooks have popped up that specifically pertain to the holidays. Here are a few I recommend:

 Gluten-Free Baking for the Holidays, by Jeanne Sauvage, for the everyday gluten-free baker.
 Jennifer Katzinger's Gluten-Free and Vegan Holidays contains some excellent baking recipes for those on both a gluten-free and vegan diet.
 Gluten Free Canteen’s Book of Nosh, by Lisa Stander-Horel and Tim Horel, specifically caters to Jewish holidays.
 And Nancy Baggett's own cookbook, Simply Sensational Cookies, has some excellent gluten-free cookie recipes as well.

Two of my favorite gluten-free cookies for the holidays are the classic sugar cookie, which is a holiday staple in my family, and ricciarelli, a traditionally gluten-free Italian almond cookie that takes on a winter look with a generous dusting of powdered sugar. 

If you're either gluten-free yourself or baking for someone who is, these cookies will become a standard part of your holiday baking repertoire. Enjoy!

p(bio). Stephanie Stiavetti's writing has appeared in a variety of media outlets, including National Public Radio, Culture magazine, the Huffington Post, and KQED's "Bay Area Bites." Her cookbook, Melt: The Art of Macaroni and Cheese, is due out next fall. She regularly writes about her cooking adventures on her blog, The Culinary Life.

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