Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

“Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
Next year all our troubles will be out of sight”

So I’ve finally ventured into the world of online baking, albeit to a select audience- my kids school. Living in the time of Covid-19 has us all at sea, missing connections and striving for some semblance of normality and familiarity in what has become a very isolated, displaced cyber age. Exchanging hugs and handshakes has become thing of the past replaced with online reactions of ‘thumbs up’ and real-time fleeting grabs at proximity with elbow bumps.

It was this want for maintaining connectivity that led me to the small cyber-screen. My kids’ school has a pretty close-knit community of parents and an active parents council. The sundering of this by the Corona virus and the resulting division between “in life” and virtual schooling presented a challenge- how to keep “everyone in the loop”? Both parents and kids missing school-yard friendships and school-gate gossips. Nearly 9 months of following covid-responsible protocols, vastly reduced personal interactions and hyper-vigilant hygiene routines have taken it’s toll on us all – I know they have on me and my family. Now there are feelings of covid-fatigue playing tug-of-war with impending excitement for festivities, all the while trying to hold some together some semblance of normality for ourselves and our children.

Yes, all of this might seem like an overly dramatic preamble to a few festive themed recipes. However, I think it’s in times like these that maybe were forced to look at things differently. Everyday habits and tasks becoming life-buoys helping to navigate the way. We look inward and discover dormant strengths. Especially when it come to our kids. Let’s face it as much as we might complain about them sometimes (oh, I’ll openly admit I do!) there is no judge, jury or executioner that will harm a hair on their heads will we draw breathe. So if distracting them for thirty minutes with cookie making and hot chocolate gives them a well needed little spark of festive joy; a diversion so they aren’t so down about missing playdates or such- then I’m in. I also know as a parent that in times like this when the children are otherwise occupied, you can breathe. Finally exhale and exchange a look with your significant other that says “You okay?… We got this.” Thirty minutes to centre and steady yourself.

A friend of mine said of our current times, “We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm.” There is no cookie-cutter (forgive the pun) or one-size-fits-all way of dealing with this. But we’ll find ways to make it through. It’s what we do as humans and as parents. It’s what we’ll do this holiday season…look for and create some tinsel-tinged spark of festive joy to light the encompassing winter nights. If baking some cookies helps do that then you go ahead and break out those mixing bowls and fire up the oven. I know I will be.

The segment I “zoomed” (?) was just for making and decorating vanilla cookies, along with making peppermint candy cane hot chocolate. I’ve included a couple of other recipes that you can try out if you feel like it. All suitably festively themed and can be made by one or all. Whatever you make or do I hope you and your family have fun. Enjoy the time, the flavors…heck even enjoy the mess.

Wishing you all a happy, safe and healthy Christmas and holiday season. Enjoy the cookies!

“Someday soon we all will be together
If the fates allow
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now”

Photograph: J Lee Frank

Vanilla Sugar Cookies

*Chilling the dough for at least 2 hours is required or else its too tricky and unworkable. I prefer to chill it overnight.

You can’t really go wrong with sugar cookies. Well you can actually. In my experience store bought sugar cookies err on the side of fudgy staleness enrobed in the tooth-aching sweetness of excess icing. This is definitely a case of “homemade is better”.

The only thing to bear in mind with these is the chilling time. I’ve seen various recipes suggesting 30 minutes, whilst others have up to overnight recommended. I’ve found that longer works better so I follow the overnight direction. If you find the dough becoming too soft, gummy and hard to work, wrap it back up in clingwrap and pop it back in the fridge for 30mins or so.

Makes approximately 48 cookies (this depends on your choice of cookie cutters)

Ingredients (all at room temperature)

Cookies

  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 ½  cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • ½  tsp salt

Glaze/ Icing

  • 1 ½ cups icing sugar
  • 2 Tbsp milk
  • 1 tsp light corn syrup
  • ½ tsp almond extract
  • Food coloring (your favorite festive colors) *see note on coloring
  • Nonpareils; sprinkles; dragees (take your pick!)

Method

  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, or with an electric mixer,  beat sugar, butter and vanilla until mixture is creamy, about 5-7 minutes. Scrape down sides of bowl. The mixture should become pale, fluffy and not feel grainy when you rub some between your fingers
  2. Whilst your mixture is beating, in a separate bowl combine flour, baking powder and salt and stir to combine. Set aside until needed
  3. To your sugar/ butter mixture, add eggs one at a time, beating after each addition, until fully incorporated. If you notice your mixture starting to split, add teaspoon of your flour mixture to bring it back together
  4. Once the eggs have been added, beat in the dry ingredients into the creamed mixture, until well combined. Increase the speed until the mixture comes together in a soft dough
  5. Remove the dough from the bowl and divide in to four even balls, flatten to discs and wrap in cling wrap
  6. Chill in the refrigerator for a least 2 hrs, or overnight (I personally find overnight works better
  7. When ready to bake, preheat your oven to 350°F
  8. Remove your chilled dough from the fridge, one ball at a time, and leave to become pliable whilst your oven heats to temperature. When your oven reaches temperature, roll out the dough to 1/4″ (0.6 cm) onto a well floured surface. (Avoiding rolling the dough too thin as it may stick and tear). Flour is your friend here – make sure you amply dust everything- counter surface, rolling pin, your hands, cutter
  9. Use cookie cutters of your choice for a variety of different shapes and sizes. Using a palette knife, or spatula, place cookies on your lined cookie sheets
  10. Bake at 350°F for 10 minutes or until the edges are just turning golden brown
  11. Remove from oven and leave to cool on their trays for 5 mins before using a spatula to transfer to cookies to racks to cool completely

Glaze

  1. Combine icing sugar with milk; corn syrup and extract to reach desired spreading consistency. It should be quite thick. If it is much too thick, add 1/2 Tablespoon more milk. If it is much too thin, add 2 more Tablespoons of confectioners’ sugar. If you drizzle a little of the icing with the whisk, the ribbon of icing will hold for a few seconds before melting back into the icing. 
  2. Stir in food coloring or leave icing white. You can pour some icing into different bowls if using multiple colors
  3. You can pipe the icing on to the cookies using a piping bag or squeezy bottle, or using a pastry brush, paint frosting over cooled cookies and decorate with your choice of sprinkles
  4. Allow to set for at least 30mins before eating (note: the icing will still be a little soft at this point. If you want the icing to be fully hard for gifting, leave the decorated cookies to air-dry on a rack overnight

*A note on adding coloring: I prefer to use coloring gels when coloring the glaze. They are a concentrate which with very little will pack a real punch of color without affecting the consistency of your glaze. If you’re using the squeezy tube color dyes be aware that because they have a more form you are adding more liquid to your icing mix.

Enjoy!

Rudolph Oreo Cookies

Now these look like SO much more work than they are. At worst they can be a little fiddly but that just means there’s more “mis-shapes” for the family to enjoy. This is a great recipe to get the little ones involved in. Once the chocolate is melted you can pretty much give them free reign! Step back and enjoy some chocolate covered chaos.

“And now,” cried Max, “let the wild rumpus start!”

Ingredients

  • 24 Double-stuffed Oreo cookies (if you can find “Mega-stuffed” even better
  • Large twist pretzels
  • 48 White chocolate chips (or candy eye decorations)
  • 24 red candy shell chocolates (M&Ms are ideal)
  • 160z chocolate (sweet or semi-sweet, to taste)

Method

  1. Line a cookie sheet with baking parchment or silicone baking matt
  2. Start by cutting up the pretzels. Use a sharp knife to cut them in half, then carefully cut away the center section where the pretzels were joined until to have a vaguely “antler” shape.  This bit can be a bit fiddly as the pretzels can break easy but do remember they don’t have to be exact – all reindeers antlers are different after all! Repeat until you have 24 sets of pretzel antlers
  3. Melt the chocolate in a medium bowl set over a pan of water OR in the microwave, stirring after every 30 seconds to prevent overheating. Once it’s melted and smooth, using two forks or a confectionary dipping scoop dip and coat an Oreo cookie until it is full coated. Remove using your chosen tools, then place the dipped cookie on the prepared baking sheet.
  4. While the chocolate is still wet, press a red candy chocolate into the center of the cookie- there’s your nose!
  5. Make your eyes using two white chocolate chips or candy eye decorations
  6. Create two pretzel antlers by pressing them between the cookies and into the space where the cream filling is. You may need to use a fork to hole the top cookie layer pressed in place while you poke the “antlers” in. Once you’ve assembled one reindeer this way, repeat until all of the cookies are dipped and decorated
  7. Lastly to give your reindeer more “eye appeal” dip a toothpick in the melted coating and give each reindeer two black dots in the center of the white chocolate chip eyes
  8. Refrigerate the tray to set the chocolate completely, for about 20 minutes. Store Oreo Reindeer Cookies carefully in an airtight container at room temperature. They will keep for several weeks, but for the best taste and texture, enjoy them within a week

Candy Cane Hot Chocolate

Well…we need something to wash those cookies down with don’t we? If you want to REALLY treat yourself, dip the rim of your mugs into some melted chocolate and then some crushed peppermint candy canes for a stress-free, festive finishing touch.

Ingredients

  • 3 cups milk
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 4oz semisweet chocolate, broken in to pieces
  • 4 peppermint candy canes, crushed

Optional decorations

  • 1 cup whipping cream, whipped to soft peaks
  • Mini marshmallows
  • Crushed peppermint candy canes
  • 4 small peppermint candy canes, to stir

Method

  1. In a saucepan, combine the milk and cream and heat over a medium heat until hot, but not boiling
  2. Whisk in the chocolate and the crushed peppermint candies until melted and smooth
  3. Pour hot chocolate into four mugs, and garnish as preferred. Serve each with a candy cane stirring stick
  4. Enjoy!

Baileys Edible Cookie Dough

Because even the grown ups need a li’l something in the festive season. This can easily be made kiddie-friendly by omitting the Baileys liqueur. Looking for that gift that’s a bit different? Then look no further! Place in mason jars, decorate and tag accordingly et viola! Cookie dough can be stored (in jars or other air-tight containers) in the refrigerator for up to a week. To enjoy at it’s best remove from the fridge and allow to come to room temperature.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups All Purpose Flour
  • 1 cup light brown sugar
  • ¼ cup white sugar
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • ¼ cup butter, softened
  • 3 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 Tbsp milk
  • 2 Tbsp Baileys liqueur

Extra Fixings

(added to taste but I usually keep it to including 2-3)

  • Festive Candy Sprinkles
  • Dark Chocolate Chips
  • M&M’s
  • Crushed Oreos
  • Crushed Peppermint Candy Cane

Method

  1. Combine all ingredients in a large bowl of a stand mixer and stir to combine.
  2. Add in extras and stir until well incorporated. Enjoy! (A note here – I usually keep the extra fixings to a maximum of 3, or else your cookie dough is in danger of becoming an over-sweet mess).
  3. Store in the refrigerator for up to one week. Before eating, remove from refrigerator and let come to room temperature for a softer texture.

Pumpkin Spice Toffee

A li’l bit late to the game but here we are- Pumpkin Toffee. Enough said.

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups pecan pieces
  • 1 cup salted butter, chopped
  • 1/2 cup warm water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tspn salt
  • 1 tspn light corn syrup
  • 1/2 cup pumpkin puree
  • 1 and 1/4 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice, divided
  • 1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

Method

  1. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat- the silicone baking mat being the better of the two. Set aside until needed later
  2. In a pan lightly toast pecan pieces for 7-8 minutes or until fragrant and lightly browned. Set aside on a plate until needed
  3. In a large heavy pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Once melted, add the water, 1 cup sugar, salt, corn syrup and pumpkin puree. Stir constantly until the sugar dissolves, then brush down the sides of the pan with a water-moistened pastry brush. Attach a candy thermometer to the pan
  4. Now get comfortable- you’re going to be stirring a LOT. Constantly but gently stir the mixture until it reaches 290°F (143°C; soft crack stage). Be watchful– the temperature slowly rises in the beginning, but then moves quickly. I usually take mine off the heat when the toffee reaches 285°F (141°C), as it will continue to cook in the few seconds after
  5. Immediately remove the pan from heat and stir in 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice and 1 cup toasted pecans. Pour the toffee out onto the prepared. lined baking mat. Your mixture should be thick and not spread all the way to the edges of the pan. Cool the toffee for 5-10 minutes
  6. In a microwaveable bowl melt the chocolate chips until smooth. I melt it in the microwave in 20 second increments, stopping and stirring after each
  7. Spread the melted chocolate on top of the toffee, then sprinkle with remaining pecan pieces and sprinkle over the remaining pumpkin pie spice
  8. Refrigerate toffee for 20 minutes or until the chocolate has set. Peel off the silicone baking mat and break toffee into pieces- sized to personal preference of course!
  9. Store toffee in an airtight container at room temperature in a cool dry place for up to 2 weeks

*If you notice the butter separating at any time during the cooking process, remove the pan from heat and beat vigorously (but carefully!) to bring the mixture back together

Smoked Pumpkin Cheesecake & Bourbon Brownies

Are we sitting comfortably? Yes? Good…because here’s another pumpkin recipe. In the spirit of the season, and let’s face it impending CV-19 induced re-lockdown, I’m going to be trying out the wide and various ways of using that seasonal wonder that is pumpkin. You lucky, lucky people! I’ll say right away that they’ll all be sweet bakes – well that’s the plan at the moment, so if you’re holding out for an orgasmic recipe for pumpkin risotto I’m afraid you’re out of luck.

If you follow my blog and recipes you’ll know that brownies are near and dear to my heart. Some people have comfort blankies ala Linus, I have brownies. So it was only right that I should try weave together in kitchen mysticism (it is Halloween season after all!) my love the fudgey (never cakey) traybakes and that bulbous orange cucurbit.

Using pumpkin in the cheesecake element of these brownies instantly renders them fudgey and decadent. I wanted to add another layer there, something to counter thought of sugar-laden PSL. So why not introduce a smokey element- camp-fires, late night and extra complex earthiness working to counter any lingering memories of saccharine heavy beverages.

And why not make them a little more grown up too? These are, after all, brownies for the aficionado. Let’s chuck in some bourbon while we’re at it! For me the flavors of the sweet whiskey go so well with chocolate that it’s too good an opportunity to miss. I’ve also used some chocolate extract here as I really wanted to elevate the chocolate intensity too – like I said these ain’t no five ‘n’ dime brownies. To really bring out the texture of these brownies I find they taste so much better when served straight form the fridge.

So yes- buckle up people…I’ve got 4 weeks of pumpkin recipes left and so far it’s brownies and nanaimo bars down. Any guesses what’s next?

Ingredients

Brownie Batter

  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp chocolate extract, eg Nielsen Massey (optional)
  • 2 Tbsp Bourbon
  • 1/2 cup AP flour
  • 1/2 cup cocoa, Dutched
  • 1/4 tsp Kosher salt

Cheesecake Batter

  • 8oz pack full fat cream cheese
  • 1 egg
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup pumpkin puree
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp liquid smoke

*All ingredients to be at room temperature unless otherwise stated

Method

  1. Preheat your oven to 350 F degrees. Spray a 9×9 inch baking pan with cooking oil then line it with parchment paper
  2. In a large bowl, add the cream cheese and beat it until smooth and creamy. Add the rest of the cheesecake batter ingredients mix until well combined and smooth. Set aside until needed later
  3. In a small bowl a bowl set over simmering water, combine the butter and chocolate chips to melt, stirring them together to combine. Once fully melted remove the bowl from the heat and set aside to cool
  4. In a large bowl if a stand mixer, combine the eggs and sugar and whisk at high speed until pale, fluffy and increased in volume
  5. While you eggs are whisking in a bowl combine the AP flour, cocoa and salt
  6. Into the melted chocolate/ butter mixture add the chocolate extract and bourbon. Stir well to combine. Add these wet ingredients into your whisked egg mixture. Gently fold in until fully combined and uniform in appearance
  7. Sift in the dry ingredients and again gently fold in until well combined and uniform in appearance
  8. Pour about 2/3 of the chocolate batter into the prepared pan and smooth it out. Spread the cheesecake batter over the brownie batter. Dollop the remaining brownie batter over cheesecake batter by spoonfuls. Swirl the batters together by running aknife or a skewer back and forth through the pan
  9. Place the baking pan in the oven and bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until center is set. Using a cake tester or skewer test the centre of the brownie pan – it should come out with few crumbs or a little mixture still on it. The brownies will continue to cook once removed from the oven
  10. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely on wire rack and chill before cutting and serving. I usually cut mine in to 4 x 3 giving me 12 brownies. They’re quite rich so I’ve found this to be the ideal size

Golden Coconut Shortbread

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Shortbread is the stuff of legend in our house. Having a family that is Scottish means they’re well qualified to judge what falls in the parameters of acceptability. A fussy bunch they are and rightly so. Many a commercial highland cookie has fallen for being “too crumbly”, “not buttery enough” or “too damp” to name a few of criticisms. So I set about experimenting to find that correct combination of ingredients that would yield a shortbread that crumbly enough with falling to pieces; buttery enough would feeling too greasy or damp in your mouth and crisp enough to yield enough with a satisfying snap. In the words of everyone’s favourite flaxen haired domestic critic, “Just right”.

The historic recipe for shortbread hails from Scotland and in it’s basic form is one part sugar; two parts butter and 3 parts plain flour. Time and tide has, like many an ancestral recipe, meant that the original recipe has been tweaked and adjusted with many families input and alterations.

My recipe here has been tweaked from an original from my mom. I found the additions of the more unusual dry ingredient of semolina, rice flour and cornstarch increase the more desirable textures of crispness and crumbliness without marring the buttery taste. The inclusion of the ancient grain flour of Red Fife was purely a whimsical  addition as I was exploring baking with differing flour types at the time. It adds a subtle nutty flavor to the finished shortbread cookie that works really well with the signature butteriness of the cookie. And the toasted coconut? Well who doesn’t like toasted coconut?

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Ingredients

  • 1 cup shredded coconut
  • 1 cup AP Flour
  • 2/3 cup Red Fife flour
  • 1/3 Semolina
  • 2 Tablespoons Rice Flour
  • 1 1/2 Tablespoons Cornstarch
  • 1/2 cup and 2 tablespoons fine sugar, divided
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Kosher salt
  • 1 cup/ 2 sticks salted butter, cold and cubed

Method

  1. Lightly grease and line a 9″ x 12″ traybake tin
  2. In a pan over a medium heat toast the shredded coconut until fragrant and lightly browned. Remove from heat and set aside until needed
  3. In a large bowl combine the flour, semolina, rice flour, cornstarch, sugar and salt. Whisk together to further combine
  4. Add in the cubed butter and rub together with your fingertips until the mixture is just beginning to bind together. Every so often do a  quarter turn of the bowl to make sure you’re using all the dry mixture. You’ll want a texture somewhere between breadcrumbs and damp sand before you stop. Be wary of overworking the butter into the mixture – you want to avoid a dough that is feels slimey from the butter melting too much into the dry ingredients
  5. Tip in the toasted coconut and lightly rub in with your fingers until combined
  6. Tip the crumb mixture into your prepared tin and press the dough so that it forms a solid layer. Level the surface with the back of a spoon or measuring cup, making sure the mixture is evenly spread and uniform. Prick all over with a fork
  7. With a knife or pizza cutter score the shortbread into 24 rectangular pieces (2 cuts by 7 cuts) taking care not to actually cut the full way through
  8. Refrigerate for 30 mins minimum
  9. Preheat your oven to 325°F
  10. Remove the shortbread from the fridge and bake for about 35 minutes or until a very pale golden brown.
  11. Remove from the oven and cut fully through the baked shortbread with a knife or pizza cutter at the score lines you previously made
  12. Sprinkle with remaining 2 tablespoons of fine sugar and leave to cool in the tin for 15 minutes. Carefully lift the fingers out of the tin with a palette knife or the parchment paper overhang and finish cooling on a wire rack
  13. Store in an airtight tin for up to a week

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Salted Fudge Brownie Cookies

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So waaaaaay back when- in a time when we could still hug each other; be in public without looking like random members of GI Joe or when Lysol still stocked grocery store shelves, I baked brownies. A LOT of brownies. The quantity of brownies baked in my kitchen was only just outdone by the amount of experimental cupcake flavors I would try tempt people with (Vanilla genoise w/ white truffle buttercream frosting, topped with strawberry, black pepper and a balsamic drizzle anyone?) Brownies satiated my passion for baking and my love of chocolate. In fact so much so was this the case that I ended up winning the title of Observer Food Monthly Best Reader’s Recipe 2014. The victorious recipe was my Smokin’ Pig Licker Brownies and can be found here if you interested.

Anyway I digress, as so often seems to be the case when I write these days! The current abundance of time indoors led me to wonder if this basic brownie recipe could be tweaked and applied to cookie format. And I was not to be the first. I’ll be perfectly  honest and admit I was utterly coerced by the glut of crinkle cookie images that seemed to be flooding my feed along with those of the omnipresent sourdough. The cookie recipe here follows pretty much the base template of brownies – melted choc/ butter combo; dry ingredients stash and sugar/egg volume. A dash of baking powder adds some leavening power to the cookie “dough balls” and stops them becoming a singular cookie en masse on the baking tray.

Overall I gotta admit to them being a tasty success, if thinner than I expected. I guess the word “brownies” in my head is synonymous with thick and chunky (applies to me in all walks of life!) so I was a little perturbed when these cookies baked to be a bit thinner. Nonetheless they still had the fudgy texture that I love of brownies and the crinkle topping certainly provided a certain visual ASMR.

So add these the long ever-growing list of what I should start calling “Quarantine Cookies”. Little morsels of baked goodness that have become my tasty alternative to crossing days off a calendar. The only downside being that whilst my repertoire is expanding so too, it would seem, is my waistline!

Stay safe!

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Ingredients

  • 1 cup AP Flour
  • 1/4 cup Dutch process cocoa (if you can’t get this standard cocoa is fine as long as it’s unsweetened)
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
  • 8 oz semi-sweet chocolate, broken into pieces
  • 1/2 cup salted butter
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons coffee extract
  • 2/3 cup brown sugar, packed
  • 1/2 cup fine sugar
  • 2 eggs, large
  • Optional: Flaky sea salt, to finish (I use Maldon)

Method

  1. Heat oven to 350°F and line two large baking sheets with parchment paper
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and Kosher salt until combined.  Set aside until needed later
  3. Combine the butter and chocolate pieces in a bowl over a pan of water. Gently heat over medium-low heat until melted, stirring occasionally to combine. When fully melted remove the bowl from the hot water/ heat, add in the coffee extract and give one final stir to combine. Set aside until needed
  4. While the butter/chocolate mixture is melting, combine the eggs, brown sugar and granulated sugar together in the bowl of a stand mixer. Beat on medium-high speed until pale and increased in volume
  5. Slow and steadily add the chocolate mixture into the egg mixture and fold them together until uniform in color and it is just combined
  6. Sift in the dry mixture, again fold it in until just combined
  7. Using a large (3 tablespoon measurement) scoop drop batter balls onto your prepared baking sheet, spaced at least two inches apart.  The batter will be quite runny and will spread significantly as the cookies bake.  (Sprinkle each cookie with a pinch of flaky sea salt, if using)
  8. Bake for 10-12 minutes, until the tops of the cookies are crinkled and slightly domed. Remove cookies from the oven and transfer the pan to a wire baking rack to cool. The cookies will flatten and crinkle even further as they firm up and cool down

*These cookies will keep in a sealed container for up to 5 days, or freeze for up to 3 months

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