Practically every Christmas cookie swap features treats that range from easy, like chocolate chip cookies, to technically difficult ones, like macarons.
If you want to get serious about your cookies, the right recipe helps, but technique rules. That's where Julia Usher's "Ultimate Cookies" comes in.
A pastry chef and food writer, Usher's specialty is high-end dessert design, and "Ultimate Cookies" is her master class in fine cookies. Its copiously illustrated pages offer dozens of cookies worthy of centerpiece status at events throughout the year, not just Christmas.
Calling one of Usher's creations a "cookie" tends to understate its craft, its impact and the amount of work involved. "Edible artwork" comes closer.
Here are cookie lollipops covered in brilliant swirled designs of two and three colors. Here are gingerbread Easter baskets, decorated right down to bunny whiskers. Here's a Valentine's Day "love letters" celebration, an intricately stenciled cookie box containing letter-shaped cookies that spell out their message.
Before her readers try to tackle these mighty feats of frosting, Usher runs them through the basics. Sharing techniques and equipment preferences shaped over decades, she covers the tools she "can't live without," like offset spatulas and soft-gel coloring.
Usher also addresses the foundation steps, like how to roll out cookie dough for best results, using pastry bags, and how to find and use cookie decorations that are better to buy than make.
Then it's on to advanced decorating techniques that might sound familiar to interior decorators: marbling, stenciling, wafer-papering and embossing.
Her book's aim, Usher writes in her introduction, is not to have bakers slavishly reproducing her designs, but to empower them to create their own. "I'm a firm believer that if you make the investment upfront to understand basic decorating principles, then you can extrapolate and make just about anything."
"Ultimate Cookies" displays a dazzling array of Usher's edible flights of fancy. "Breakfast in bed" is a plate of bacon, sunny-side-up egg and orange slices, all cookies at their core. Her miniature wedding cake replicas would brighten any birthday.
Her Christmastime efforts include "snow globes," three-dimensional Christmas trees and macaron snowmen.
These kind of projects aren't for everyone, and neither is this book. Usher herself puts it plainly: "If you feel your blood pressure rising at the thought of making a batch of cookies or icing from scratch, then this book is probably not for you."
But if you believe, as she does, "The present of a lovely cookie is truly transcendent," then let Usher be your guide.
By Julia Usher
272 pages, softcover, $24.99