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By Maria Gallagher

Baking Christmas cookies can be a joyous experience, or a terribly frustrating one. How satisfying it is to press or cut perfect little trees and bells and stars. And how heartbreaking, to open the oven door to find those shapes flattened and featureless, or all soldered to the baking sheet.

For advice on preventing such common baking mistakes, we turned to Diane Marinelli, a Delaware County baker who expects to make 2,000 pounds of cookies this holiday season. The owner of Cookies by Diane in Clifton Heights spent many years fine-tuning recipes at home before leaving nursing to pursue her passion for baking.

"You should really be able to bake a perfect cookie," said Marinelli, 47, a self-taught baker who resides in Springfield.

If you're new to cookie baking, or bake just once a year, Marinelli suggests buying a cookbook with easy-to-follow instructions, perhaps one in the Betty Crocker series. Drop cookies, bars and dough shaped into balls are easiest. Cookies made with a dough press, piped from a pastry bag, or cut from rolled dough are more difficult.

Start with a basic butter cookie recipe and improvise. Most call for a teaspoon of vanilla, but other flavors can be substituted, such as almond extract, or lemon or citrus juice with a generous pinch of zested rind from the fruit. A few drops of mint extract enhance chocolate cookie dough.

For texture, add poppy seeds to butter dough (good with lemon flavoring). Chocolate mini-chips or finely crushed nuts work well in drop cookies, but will plug the tip of a pastry bag.

Growing up in South Philadelphia, Marinelli watched her father's mother make caggionetti, a deep-fried, ravioli-like cookie with a nut filling. Diane's first baking was done in a child-size Easy-Bake oven, and her first sales experience was selling her cookies at bake sales to benefit her school, St. Monica's. She since has taught her daughters, Marisa, now 17, and Elyse, 14, many of her techniques. Both help decorate cookies at their mother's shop during the busy holiday period. (Diane's husband, John Marinelli, a marketing manager for IBM, helped fund Cookies by Diane.)

Following recipe instructions exactly will improve chances of baking success, Marinelli said, but often that's not enough.

Here are some tips gleaned from her baking experiences.

Use premium ingredients. When a recipe offers a choice between butter or margarine, Marinelli prefers butter for its richer flavor. And premium baking chocolates taste better than discs or mass-market brands.

Pre-measure all ingredients and mix them just before baking. Use glass measures for liquids, and metal for dry ingredients. Level off flour or sugar with a knife.

Use an oven thermometer to ensure correct temperatures. Marinelli says 350 degrees is best for baking most cookies. For a convection oven, bake at 325 degrees. To avoid burned bottoms, never put cookies in the lowest oven level.

All ingredients should be at room temperature, unless otherwise specified. Combine dry ingredients first, liquid ingredients next, then add the dry to the wet. Don't over-mix.

Don't let the dough sit and dry up before baking. If you step away, Marinelli suggests adding a little water or milk to the dough to restore its texture.

For drop cookies or ball cookies, use a melon baller or tiny ice cream scoop for consistency in size. It also keeps body heat from warming the dough.

Use parchment or silicone baking mats when possible. Marinelli uses stainless steel air core cookie sheets and never greases them, explaining that greasing also can cause cookie bottoms to burn.

If the first batch of cookies spreads on the pan when baked, add a small amount of flour to correct the consistency of the remaining dough. Refrigerating the dough can also help.

Pressed cookies go directly on ungreased stainless steel sheets. When done, Marinelli loosens them gently with a spatula to keep them from sticking, but does not lift them, since they break easily when warm.

Drop cookies are more durable and can be removed at once to cool on wire racks.

To hasten cooling, place the pan next to an open window.

When melting chocolate, a very small amount of lecithin crystals, paramount crystals (sold in specialty shops) or solid vegetable shortening can be stirred into the melted chocolate to thin it and help it adhere to the cookies.

When giving cookie gifts, buy inexpensive baskets and line them with linen napkins in holiday prints. Wrap in cellophane with colorful bows. Don't use plastic, which can turn crisp cookies soft and alter the taste, Marinelli said.

For a grander gesture, use a large basket and include packages of gourmet coffees, teas, mugs, perhaps with a rolling pin, cookie cutters and recipes.

Marinelli shared two cookie recipes: one for White or Dark Chocolate Butter Almond Cookies, and a recipe for Walnut Melts handed down by her maternal grandmother, Emma Sgueglia.

Recipe: Basic Butter Almond Cookies
Recipe: Chocolate Dip
Recipe: Walnut Melts

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