`Rose's Christmas Cookies' by Rose Levy Beranbaum is a cookie baking book you should have if you enjoy baking cookies, even if you have one or a dozen other books on cookie baking. She gives the same lovingly detailed tutorial on virtually every aspect of cookie baking which you may want to know. I have reviewed two other major cookie books and have skimmed several other books I plan to review and Beranbaum's book stands alone in the amount of detail she gives on cookie baking technique.
Anyone familiar with her `Bibles' on bread, pastry, and cakes will be familiar with the depth to which she goes in explaining the secrets of this little corner of baking. There are several reasons that make this book stand out from the pack.
First, there is the detailed coverage of cookie baking ingredients and tools. The most important tool aside from the oven is the cookie sheet. I am chastised by reading that my pricy Calphalon jelly roll pans plus Silpat silicone lining is not the best platform for baking cookies. Also, there are great sections on how to deal with some of the more fussy nuts such as hazelnuts and how to tell the difference between unblanched, blanched, slivers, sliced, chopped, medium coarse chop, fine course chopped, and powdered nuts. Also, there is excellent coverage of virtually every other ingredient. Beranbaum, for example, explains the differences between butters and imitation butters and why the imitations simply don't work as well as the real thing. This treatment is especially good in giving formulas for substituting one combination of ingredients for another. The most useful is how to replace brown sugar with granulated sugar plus molasses. This is so easy, I wonder why I bother to stock brown sugar at all.
Second, there are the instructions on cookie decorating techniques including very careful pictorial demonstrations on how to use a standard piping bag, an improvised zip top plastic bag piping bag, and a parchment cone piping tool.
Third, all recipe amounts are given in both English and Metric units. This may seem unimportant until you get the urge to contribute cookies to a Boy Scout bake sale and want to multiply a recipe by four. As long as you have the proper measuring devices, this is much, much easier to do with metric units.
Fourth, almost all recipe procedures are described for both a food processor and a stand mixer. I am genuinely surprised that professional baker Beranbaum prefers the food processor, as the stand mixer technique is very easy to multiply using commercial sized Hobart mixers. But then, this book is about Miss Rose's family recipes, and, while Beranbaum is a professional, her speciality is in writing, teaching, and trying out new ideas rather than grinding out thousands of cookies for a posh Manhattan patisserie. The author is very careful to point out that the two techniques do not give identical results. The food processor will give better results in creating a `Bakers sugar' size from standard granulated sugar and it saves one the trouble of bringing the butter to room temperature. But, there is the danger that your food processor will turn a batch of nuts into nut butter if you run it for too long.
Fifth, Miss Beranbaum reserves her precious space for some of the more difficult types of cookies, up to and including a gingerbread replica of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. No, I am not kidding. It is really in the book with templates and everything. Most of the other recipes in the book are also just a bit less common than average. Where the author does touch on a standard that you will find in other books such as the very thin Moravian spice cookies, you will find tips about handling these extremely delicate cutouts.
Sixth, the book gives excellent advice on how to store dough before baking, how to store baked cookies, and how to get cookies through the US Postal Service or your carrier of choice without excessive breakage. I was especially tickled when she said many of these lessons came from her experiences shipping mercury thermometers here and there. Having had an up close and professional relation with precision thermometers as a chemist, I can really appreciate how Miss B learned her lessons.
Seventh, the book is divided into unusual but very useful categories such as:
Tree and Mantelpiece Cookies
Cookies for Giving
Cookies to Make for or With Kids
Cookies for an Open House
Cookies for Sending
Cookies for Holiday Dinner Parties (including the scale model of the Notre Dame cathedral).
Eighth, in spite of all the professional technical advice, this is still a very personal book with lots of endearing stories about how Miss Rose came upon many of these recipes.
Since this book does not cover many of the simpler traditional cookie types, you will actually gain by combining this book with other volumes whose main strength is coverage of the standards. In fact, as good as this book is, it does not preclude a high rating to other cookie books, even other Christmas cookie books, as they may be more suitable for a person who is simply too busy to walk through all the material here and simply wants a reliable Toll House cookie recipe or spice cookie cutout recipe.
The most useful advice in a book loaded with advice is the permission to rework cookie doughs as much as you want. They are simply a lot more forgiving than, for example, pastry or biscuit doughs. Cookies are easy baking tasks and you don't really need Ms. Beranbaum's exacting treatment, but if you are not happy unless you know everything you need to know, this book is definitely for you.
Very highly recommended for all amateur cookie bakers.