It's cookie swap season. Are you filled with the Christmas baking spirit?

Even those who don't bake will make a batch of cookies once in a while, particularly during the holidays.

But even simple ones can be tricky.

Cookie dough varies so much in texture — there are drop cookies, shaped cookies, crisp rolled and melt-in-your-mouth shortbread-like cookies, and all have different ratios of butter, sugar, flour and eggs. 

Because drop are the most common (think oatmeal raisin and classic chocolate chip), the biggest question people ask me is, how do they stay chewy? 

The trick, generally, is to not overbake them; if they're golden all over, they likely won't be soft once they cool. It's best to slightly underbake them — they should be golden around the edges, but still soft in the middle, and will firm up as they cool. 

Another common question: why are cookies spreading too much, or not enough? This is often due to an oven that's too hot or cool. The dough is melting before it has a chance to set, or setting before it has a chance to spread. Picking up an oven thermometer for around $7 will help you gauge the accuracy of your oven temperature.

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Cookie swaps are a common tradition at this time of year. A group of friends gets together, each having baked a large quantity of cookies, and swaps them so that everyone takes home an assortment to have on hand through the holiday season. It can be overwhelming to bake a large quantity of cookies, though, and not everyone needs 10 dozen in their freezer.

I like to tell everyone to bake what they like, and bring home as many as they brought. I also love the idea of a cookie dough swap — everyone brings logs or bags of scooped dough to exchange. It's far less work, the dough keeps longer than baked cookies, and everyone can bake them as needed — freshly baked cookies are always the best, anyway. 

Cherry Shortbread

Julie Van Rosendaal

You can do anything with shortbread — flavour it with citrus zest (finely grate and beat it along with the butter and sugar) and add any additions you like, like chopped nuts or chocolate. 

Ingredients:

½ cup icing sugar (or 1/3 cup granulated sugar)

1 cup butter, at room temperature

1½ cups all-purpose flour

½ cup cornstarch

¼ tsp salt

candied cherries (or cherries in syrup), preserves or mincemeat

Preparation:

Preheat the oven to 325 F. In a large bowl, beat the sugar and butter until pale and light. Beat in the flour, cornstarch and salt — it may look dry, but if you get in there with your hands, the dough will come together.

Roll the dough into walnut-sized balls and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Make an indent in each with your finger or thumb, and place a whole or piece of a cherry (or a small spoonful of preserves or mincemeat) in each. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until very pale golden. (They will be more golden on the bottom.) Transfer to a wire rack to cool, or let them cool on the sheet. Makes about 1½ dozen cookies. 

Peanut Butter Cookies

Julie Van Rosendaal

These aren't particularly festive, but they're CBC Radio host Rob Brown's favourite cookie, which makes them perfect for the holidays. (And no, they don't contain any flour, which makes them extra peanut buttery. Feel free to add chopped chocolate if you like!)

Ingredients:

1½ cups peanut butter (smooth or crunchy)

1 cup sugar (brown or white)

1 large egg

Preparation:

Preheat the oven to 350 F. In a medium bowl, stir together the peanut butter, sugar and egg. (If you like, add chocolate chips, too.) Stir until well blended and thick.

Roll the dough into one-inch balls and place on a parchment-lined or ungreased baking sheet. Press down on each cookie with the tines of a fork. Bake for 12-14 minutes, until pale golden around the edges. Transfer to a wire rack to cool, or let them cool on the sheet. Makes just over one dozen cookies.

Anything Biscotti

Julie Van Rosendaal

Use this as a basic template for any kind of biscotti — you could add citrus zest, ginger, nuts, chocolate, dried fruit or spices. Anything goes. 

Ingredients:

1/3 cup butter, at room temperature 

3/4 cup sugar 

finely grated zest of an orange or lemon (optional)

2 large eggs

2 cups all-purpose flour 

1 tsp baking powder 

¼ tsp salt

any additions you like: oats, chopped chocolate, nuts or dried fruit

Preparation:

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

In a large bowl, beat the butter, sugar and zest (if you're using it) until pale and light; beat in the egg. Add the flour, baking powder and salt and stir until the dough comes together. Stir in any additions you like.

Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet and with dampened hands (if it's sticky), shape into a 12-14 inch log, then flatten until it's 3-4 inches wide. If you like, brush with a little beaten egg, and sprinkle with regular or coarse sugar. Bake for 25-35 minutes, or until pale golden and set.

Let the biscotti log cool and reduce the oven temperature to 300 F. Slice the long on a into ½-inch thick slices on a slight diagonal, and return them to the baking sheet, sitting them upright, spaced at least an inch apart. Return to the oven for 30 minutes, or until pale golden and crisp. Makes about 1½ dozen biscotti.