How to fix holiday gluten-free cookie mishaps

We have lived in the same house for twenty years. So have three other sets of neighbors who have become like family. None of us have relatives in town so we long ago started a tradition of spending the holidays together. One neighbor always does Christmas Eve, another New Year’s Eve. Our family and the family next door alternate having dinner and dessert in our homes on Christmas Day. Then if Penn State is in a bowl game on New Year’s Day, we host a bowl game brunch back at our house.
This year, I’m having Christmas Day dessert so my daughter, Amanda, who has celiac disease and I are baking lots of cookies. In past years I’ve always served a combination of cookies made with wheat flour and gluten-free cookies. All my recipes are marked with little scribbles about how much of the “wet ingredients” I have to mix up and add to the smaller amounts of gluten-free dry ingredients. I let each of my children pick their favorite recipe and then make two versions of each. My son’s peppermint candy candy cookies have always been the biggest challenge. You have to roll the dough, half of which is red and half of which is white, into two long strips and twist them together to form the candy cane. You can imagine what this is like using stretch-less gluten-free dough. Still, somehow I manage to make about a half a dozen for Amanda.
But with all the improvements in gluten-free flours over the years, I decided it was time to change to all gluten-free cookies. I reasoned this would make everything much easier and the cookies would taste just as good.
Over the weekend Amanda and I set out to make eight to ten different kinds. We started with a new recipe I found for gingerbread cookies. I was a little worried because the dough did not look like it was going to form the nice ball the recipe called for. But I’ve been baking gluten-free for almost as long as we have lived in our house so I told Amanda, whose help in baking is a newer phenomenon, not to panic. Some time in the refrigerator would surely firm it up.
It worked and I was able to roll out the dough into a nice flat circle.
We pressed our cute new cookie cutters into it, leaving scraps like a dress maker who has snipped a pattern from a swath of cloth. But we found it nearly impossible to get the cut shapes onto the cookie sheet intact.
Still not to worry. I lifted each carefully with my flattest edged metal spatula, which worked until the dough started to warm up a tiny bit and stuck to the parchment paper. Amanda suggested leaving the dough in the cookie cutter, lifting it and gently tapping it out onto the cookie sheet. You can always learn from the young and this worked. We triumphantly slid the sheet in the oven and peered through the door only to watch our reindeer and Santas spread into amorphous blobs. After repeating this several times, we decided that since everything was coming out as a big circle anyway we would stop trying to make cut-out cookies, just rolled the rest of the dough into circles and baked it that way. They taste great. They just don’t look like much.
Next we decided to make a tried-and-true favorite, peanut butter kiss cookies. I’ve made these gluten-free for many years and never had any problems. But as soon as we put the round, sugar coated balls of dough in the oven, they flatten and spread like pancakes. What was going on here?
I have a new oven. Could that be it? I was using a new pre-made flour mix instead of my old one. Was that the culprit? But wait, there is no flour in the kiss cookie recipe. I switched from margarine to butter (said to be better for baking and your health). Was that a mistake?
I don’t really know the answer. I suspect it was the flour mix with the gingerbread cookies because I did a search through the wonderful gluten-free baking blogs and found others had had the same problem with this mix when baking cookies.
The more important point in all this for me was that these cooking “challenges” reminded me what it’s like when you are new to the gluten-free diet and you are trying so hard and everything is going wrong. I don’t often get that feeling anymore. But I realized my daughter who was soldiering on with me in the kitchen will as she takes over more and more responsibility for her food. I know those new to the gluten-free diet this holiday season may be ready to weep over their flops. All that time, effort and money and nothing to show for it.
In a strange way, I like reconnecting with all of you who are new to the gluten-free diet through my own cookie mishaps. After many years it’s easy to start thinking the gluten-free diet is no big deal. But at the beginning it is.
My advice is don’t give up. Take advantage of all the experience of really good gluten-free chefs (myself not included) who blog for the love of gluten-free cooking. Their recipes are imaginative and beautifully photographed on their blogs. They have often worked out all the bugs and if you follow their recipes precisely you might avoid the problem I ran into by using a recipe from a general cooking site instead of a specifically gluten-free source. In comments section you can sometimes find someone else has already asked for the solution to the exact problem you are having as I did when I typed “Why are my gluten-free cut out cookies spreading too thin?” into one search section. Karina Allrich, Shauna James Ahern , and Kate Chan are good places to start.
And don’t forget the avalance of gluten-free cook books now readily available in your bookstore or through These authors are using new flours and techniques to make better-than-ever gluten free baked goods. I love anything by Carol Fenster and Elizabeth Barbone has 15 holiday cookies in her book Easy Gluten -Free Baking.
Amanda and I have taken a few days off from cooking to shop and to wrap presents. But we’ll be back in the kitchen later today to finish off the rest of our recipes. We might not have gingerbread reindeer and Santas, but we were able to fix the kiss cookies in our second try. And we’ll make adjustments and teach each other a few things whenever we run into hiccups. I love being in the kitchen with my now nearly grown daughter more than any cookie.
Whatever you end up with as a result of your holiday baking this year, I hope you have a very Merry Christmas and are blessed with good health and happiness in the New Year.