When you put out a plate of cookies for a holiday party, or even Santa Claus, you don’t just pile them on the plate and pour yourself a rum-spiked eggnog. You need a mix of shapes, sizes and flavors. You need a blend of nostalgia and modern flair. You need to curate, compose and consider the total package.
Baking pros Jennifer Walls and Natalie Evans, owners of The Sweet Praxis bake lab and kitchen in downtown Syracuse, have some tips for the perfect cookie plate. After five years of baking at home and “popping up” at markets, festivals, bridal showers, weddings and other celebrations in Central New York, the duo opened a brick-and-mortar shop in the historic Grange Building, near Hanover Square, in early November.
Walls and Evans are well known for their signature French macarons: delicate, pastel-colored, sandwich cookie-like confections, in flavors like lemon basil, lavender, elderberry, matcha green tea, rosewater, salted caramel and pumpkin. The bakery-cafe allows them to branch out into croissants, brioche and other artisan breads, as well as muffins, scones, doughnuts, cupcakes, cakes, pies, tarts, galettes, pots de creme and other desserts served in jars.
December, of course, brings a focus on cookies. On a recent weekday, more than a dozen varieties were in the bakery case, from classic sugar cookies and chocolate chip cookies to Buckeyes, Cocoa Crackles and Mexican Chocolate Cookies. Several vegan and gluten-free choices are available daily, like Snickerdoodles and Trail Cookies (chunky cookies with nuts and dried fruit).
The offerings are expected to change often this month, as Evans and Walls finalize their plans for special, seasonal cookie plate offerings. Check thesweetpraxis.com and facebook.com/thesweetpraxis for updates and details.
But back to baking at home. Here are eight tips for killer cookie plates, from The Sweet Praxis:
1. Include at least one old-school favorite. Walls and Evans are tapping into their own family traditions, as well as their baking team members’, and offering traditional favorites like cutout sugar cookies, bourbon balls, buckeyes and “androgynous gingerbread people.” Evans says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
2. Try something new. “Or put a new twist on a classic,” Walls says. At the bakery, this includes adding a bit of peppermint oil in the brownies for a surprise, and the arrival of Candy Cane Macarons, an all-American twist on the delicate French treats. As Evans puts it, “Experiment with the unexpected.”
3. Booze it up! The perfect cookie plate reserves a spot for “adults only” confections like bourbon balls and rum balls. Parents who attended the Nov. 25 Christmas tree lighting in Clinton Square with their children appreciated a little something just for them when they stopped by the shop afterward for cocoa and cookies. Lightly boozed favorites in the dessert case this time of year include spiked “eggnog inspired” treats like mini-cupcakes and macarons.
4. Spice it up! Hello, gingerbread. Add a pinch of cayenne to your favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe and look for recipes with warming spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Evans and Walls say their Mexican Chocolate Cookie, which contains cinnamon for spice and cayenne pepper for a bit of heat, sells well this time of year.
5. Put a non-cookie on the cookie plate. This could be brownie bites, blondies and other bar cookies, mini-cupcakes … the list goes on. Truffles will also be among the seasonal offerings at Sweet Praxis this season. They’re still working out the flavors, but several will be on the boozy side, Walls and Evans say. (See No. 3.)
6. Don’t be afraid to try something vegan or gluten-free (or both). “There are so many people with dietary concerns and restrictions these days,” Evans says. Products like Earth Balance Vegan Buttery Sticks and Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free 1-to-1 Baking Flour make it easy to transform traditional cookie recipes — even buttery good recipes like shortbread.
7. Experiment with natural ingredients for holiday color. Walls and Evans use matcha green tea powder from Roji Tea Lounge for subtle flavor and color in macarons, cupcakes, cookies and more. The red in their Red Velvet macarons comes from beet powder, not red dye. These items can be found at larger supermarkets and at health food stores.
8. Embrace different flavor profiles on the plate. Sugar cookies and rich chocolate cookies are always great, but try to surprise your taste buds. Add a cookie with bright, tart notes of citrus; include something with nuts or maple or both; provide a little chew with raisins and dried cranberries; and adorn floral notes with herbs, extracts and waters.
The Sweet Praxis, 203 E. Water St., is open Tuesdays through Fridays, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Call 216-7797 for information.