This is not a complete list, of course, but I've tried to shed some light on different ingredients, flavorings, and their variations that you're likely to use for molded cookies. It's arranged alphabetically.
Almond extract is easily available, but there are many other forms of almond flavoring as well. Almond flavor goes especially well with chocolate, lemon, coconut, orange, and vanilla.
One traditional use of almonds is the crushed almonds on the back of windmill cookies. Or sliced almonds, I've seen it both ways. The way I do this is to lay down a sheet of parchment or nonstick foil and spread a thin layer of almond slices or chopped almonds on it. Then I roll out my dough on a separate sheet and flip this onto the almond layer. Then I roll lightly and use my molds.
If you're using a springerle rolling pin, you can do this as one large sheet. For smaller molds, you'll probably do better match the size of the mold and make the cookies one at a time.
Almond paste works well in molded cookies, substituting for part of the fat and part of the sugar. Best with thin cookies.
I haven't had good results with almond butter in molded cookies, though peanut butter works fine. I'm not sure of the reason, just passing this along.
I've looked at various kinds of almond syrup, mostly intended for flavoring coffee drinks. They seem to be just sugar, water, and almond flavoring, so I doubt they'd contribute anything special to cookies.
I've used Amaretto liqueur, which has an almond-like flavor (supposedly, it's made from apricot pits). It's quite good, if not precisely almond.
These may be used to replace part of the flour—up to about half a cup. It makes the cookie crisper, and does give an almond flavor, though not a strong one.
A marzipan topping is nice on cookies. You mold the marzipan instead of the cookie.
All my recipes call for butter, and that's really what works best. But what about substitutes?
I used to say that margarine was a good substitute for butter in molded cookies. Until recently, most margarines handled more easily than butter. This is no longer true. As a result of recent re-formulations, margarine does not work well. This applies to all the brands I've tried, including vegan margarine. Hydrogenated fats have been replaced with palm and palm kernel oils, which make a sticky dough. If you add enough flour to combat the stickiness, the dough becomes brittle.
Buttery spreads and whipped products don't work, either. They contain too much water, and will not work in baking. A product should say it's either butter or margarine.
Coconut oil is very similar to butter, as far as molding cookies is concerned. So if you don't use butter, you can try substituting coconut oil. Make sure you get the refined kind, for its more neutral taste and higher smoke point. And don't get any down your drain! With its high melting point, it's guaranteed to congeal in your pipes, forming a blockage that will have you calling your plumber.
There are several kinds of chocolate: bitter, bittersweet, semi-sweet, milk, and white chocolate are some of the best-known. These names are actually regulated according to proportions of chocolate, sugar, and other ingredients. If you want a real technical rundown, Wikipedia is a good source. In addition to block chocolate, there are two kinds of cocoa powder: natural and Dutch.
As bought for use, chocolate contains cocoa solids, cocoa butter, sugar, and possibly other ingredients including condensed milk, milk powder, vanilla, and vegetable oil. The higher the percentage of cocoa solids, the more bitter the chocolate will be. Chocolate marries well with flavors such as coffee, raspberry, orange, hazelnut, rum, cinnamon, or mint.
White chocolate contains no cocoa solids. It must be 20% cocoa butter by weight, but often contains vegetable oil, as well as sugar and milk. It works well as part of the fat content of molded cookie recipes, but it doesn't taste like chocolate.
This isn't used much in molded cookies. If you add enough chocolate to the recipe to get a strong chocolate flavor, the dough is too dark for the patterns to show well. And chocolate chips don't work well with cookie molds either. I've solved this by using either chocolate backing or layered cookies, where the dough is laminated in dark and light layers, with the light layer against the mold. Layering is also good where chocolate chips are used.
Cocoa can be used as a spice, as in some Speculaas or Dutch windmill cookie recipes. They don't really taste like chocolate, but it adds a complexity. The best type of cocoa for baking is the natural unsweetened variety. Dutch cocoa is treated to make it less acidic, and it's mostly for drinking.
It's available, made out of chocolate. It's very dark, and it does darken dough. Not everyone likes it—it's not a complete, true chocolate flavor.
Most of what we buy as cinnamon isn't true cinnamon. It's a related plant, cassia, or Chinese cinnamon.
So what is true cinnamon? It's also called "Ceylon cinnamon." It has a smoother flavor than cassia. In stick form, it's papery, easily ground in a coffee or spice grinder. The secret to my wonderful carrot cake (which, now that I've mentioned, I'll post a recipe today) is freshly ground Ceylon cinnamon.
An interesting thing about cassia cinnamon is that it contains the same substance that made the FDA ban traditional Mexican vanilla. Cassia cinnamon is regarded as unsafe to consume in large quantities—not that you'd put a large quantity in cookies.
There are two other types of cinnamon: Saigon or Vietnamese cinnamon and Indonesian cinnamon. All the plants are related, but in my opinion, the Ceylon is by far the best. I buy mine from The Spice House, but I'm sure other spice vendors would have comparable quality.
The fresher, the better. Baking with Cookie Molds calls for large eggs, but medium will do.
It's a simple material, so why does it have to be such a large subject?
First of all, flour varies greatly from one country to another. I live in the US, so my knowledge of US products and regulations is more complete. I'll attempt to do justice to the entire subject, but please contact me with any appropriate additions or corrections.
Gluten-free baking is a specialty in itself. I encourage readers with this expertise to develop molded cookie recipes. I will be happy to test such recipes and link to any page or blog that gives workable, gluten-free solutions for molded cookie baking.
Flour varies primarily depending on how much protein (gluten) is in the wheat. The gluten is what gives structure to cookies made with wheat flour. The less gluten in the flour, the tenderer the cookies will be. However, there is a lower limit. Below it, the cookies fall apart. Flour with more gluten is called "hard." That with less is called "soft."
The US is the only country I know of where bleaching of flour is permitted. Many people can taste the difference between bleached and unbleached flour.
The softest US flour is cake flour. US cake flour is bleached, and thus unavailable anywhere but in the US. Use of cake flour alone produces cookies with inadequate structure—they crack badly during baking. Depending on the size of your molds, you may be able to substitute cake flour for as much as half of a recipe's flour and still get cookies that will hold together. For success with softer flour, use very small cookie molds. There are a few substitutes for cake flour that combine unbleached flour with cornstarch. In my tests, this mixture did not produce good cookies. They overbaked easily and tended to be hard and odd-tasting. Regular cake flour is easily available in the US.
Available everywhere, bleached or unbleached. It always works well for cookies.
Regional Southern flours such as White Lily were designed to produce tender results in recipes for biscuits and quick breads. Southern all purpose flour is slightly harder than most cake flour, but not much. I use it mixed 50-50 with regular all purpose flour to make tender shortbread in very small molds. Available only in the US Southern states, or by ordering online. White Lily all purpose flour is bleached.
Pastry flour is harder than cake flour, softer than all purpose. It is not as easily available in most US stores as cake flour and all purpose, though it is available in some gourmet and health food stores. It is available bleached or unbleached. May work well for small cookies, or in combination with all purpose flour, for medium size ones.
A hard flour designed for yeast bread. Not suitable for cookies.
A small amount adds flavor, but whole wheat flout has little gluten and tends to be sticky. Even a small amount makes unmolding cookies more difficult.
Contains leavening, and is not useful in my recipes for molded cookies.
Approximately equal to US all purpose flour. It may have slightly less gluten. It should be fine for moderate size molded cookies. Very large ones may require some experimentation, possibly using a mixture of plain and bread flour.
Approximately equal to US bread flour.
In Canada, all purpose flour tends to have a higher protein content than most US all purpose flour. Mixing Canadian all purpose flour with softer flour may produce tenderer cookies.
Marketed in Canada for lower-gluten baking.
European flours may be lower in gluten than comparable US flour types. Experimentation may be needed for successful molded cookies. I encourage readers to provide more information.
Among these are natural and artificial extracts—strawberry, cherry, raspberry, apricot, and a host of others. You can use them in small quantities, but be careful, unless you really like cookies that taste like lollipops. Another alternative is fruit liqueur or brandy, diluted jelly or jam, and fruit syrups intended for pancakes or coffee drinks.
Ginger. I love it. Gingerbread, ginger snaps, the more gingery the better. It's available in lots of forms
Like all ground spices, it's best when very fresh. See if your town has a spice shop—if not, look at the online ones such as The Spice House, Penzeys, Buck's Culinary Exotica, and other spice merchants. Usually, their wares are both cheaper and better than grocery store spices.
Available in most grocery stores. Avoid ginger root that's soft or wrinkled. It's generally grated for use in baking. However, it's hard to get it to grate properly. It tends to end up stringy—just what you don't want in your molded cookies. Here's how I deal with that:
When I bring the ginger home from the store, I rinse it and put it right into the freezer. When I want some, I grate it frozen (it doesn't need to be peeled) with a microplane hand grater or box grater. This makes it pretty fine, but then I combine it with about a cup of the flour in my recipe and run it in the food processor with the steel blade. It comes out very fine, and more fresh-tasting than powdered ginger. This is one for ginger lovers!
And of course, the ginger lasts indefinitely in the freezer, as long as you don't let it thaw.
All are available in prepared form. Check any ginger preparation before buying it to use in cookies. Some are meant for sushi, and contain vinegar and/or salt.
Also available in prepared form. Ginger marmalade is made by several manufacturers. I haven't tried these in cookies, either, but would think that any of them would be useful for sweetening. If they contain larger chunks, they should be strained or pureed.
I use this in layered cookies, where I laminate a chunky dough with a smooth one and face the smooth side into the cookie mold. Detailed directions for this technique, which (as far as I know) I invented are in my book, Baking with Cookie Molds.
Lemon is one of the most popular flavorings for cookies. Here are the kinds of lemon flavoring I've come across so far.
I've lived in places where they were cheap, especially at restaurant supply stores. Inexpensive lemons usually come in net bags, sometimes several pounds for only a few dollars. When I could buy those, I'd grate all the rind, juice the lemons, and freeze. Where I live now, I can't get any deals, and lemons cost about a dollar apiece.
I've also lived in places where you could grow lemons, but these were Meyer lemons, which are good, but not as sour as other varieties.
When you buy lemons, look for ones that feel slightly rubbery when you press them. If they are hard, they probably have thick skin. The thin-skinned, juicy ones will give a little in your hand.
Before you squeeze a lemon, get it warm. Prick a few holes in the lemon with a fork, and microwave it for ten to fifteen seconds. Or store lemons at room temperature overnight before juicing.
Before you cut a lemon, roll it on the counter under your hand, pressing hard to break down the cell membranes so the juice can be released.
I like the natural kinds, but don't like artificial lemon flavor at all.
The King Arthur flour web site sells this, and it's pretty good. I don't think it's as definite a flavor as fresh lemon and rind, but it's natural, and it's a pretty fair substitute.
This can be bought either frozen or not. The frozen kind is all lemon. I prefer fresh, but it's not bad. Most bottled lemon juice is full of weird stuff, and it doesn't exactly taste like lemon. Better than artificial lemon flavoring, but not exactly good. There is a health food brand of bottled lemon juice that's all lemon, and it's good.
One of the best of the lemon flavorings. It works very well in cookies.
Unless it's powdered, it doesn't work in cookies. Too hard and dry.
Maple is a nice flavoring, especially for holiday cookies. The most easily available form is maple syrup, which works well for molding. The flavor of maple goes well with nuts, nutmeg, ginger, orange,and vanilla. Many cooks avoid mixing it with brown sugar, as the favor may become quite intense.
Maple syrup is graded differently in different countries, but all the ones I've researched have the same quirk: The higher the grade, the milder the maple taste. This goes back to the days when maple was an important sweetener for all kinds of cooking, not a specialty. So, unless you wanted half your food to taste like maple, the preferred kind would be the one with the least distinctive taste.
Today, we use it mostly for its special quality, so lower grades might be preferable in cookie baking. In the US, this would be Grade B. You have to look to find it—Trader Joe's used to sell Grade B maple syrup, but I don't know if they still do. It isn't significantly cheaper.
Maple syrup that has been cooked and cooled to bring it to the consistency of peanut butter. I haven't tried it in cookie baking. It's also called "maple spread."
Maple sugar is syrup with the water content evaporated. Since the syrup is already reduced to 1/40th the volume of the maple sap, it won't be a surprise that maple sugar, even more reduced, is expensive.
Both natural and artificial maple flavorings are available. A very little goes a long way, in my experience. You may prefer not to use them.
Nutmeg and mace are two products of an Indonesian evergreen tree. Nutmeg is the seed inside its fruit; mace comes from a lacy covering over the seed. The flavor of mace is described by most sources as similar to nutmeg, but sweeter and more delicate. Personally, I find the two so different that I was surprised to learn they came from the same plant.
Fresh, whole nutmegs are much more flavorful than commercially ground. However, hand-grated nutmeg will show up as flecks in your cookies, probably more so than the prepared ground kind, depending on your grater. This can give you a problem with design. If your mold design isn't one that can tolerate a sprinkling of dark dots, it might be better to use finer-ground spices. Some sources recommend substituting mace for nutmeg in recipes where the dark flecks aren't acceptable.
Mace is a wonderful spice in baking, but many people have never used it. It's a bit harder to find than nutmeg, and more expensive. The name is associated more with the self-defense "pepper spray" than with baking, but there's no connection.
I've always bought mace ground, but it is available whole. Better-quality ground mace is orange-ish in color, not beige.
Orange flavor in baking often comes from orange juice, fresh or concentrated, or fresh orange peel. Other sources are orange extract, orange peel powder, culinary orange oil, or orange liqueur such as cointreau.
Orange blends well with chocolate (think of orange cookies with chocolate backing). Also with walnuts, cranberries, vanilla, cinnamon, brandy, or lemon. A mild orange flavoring is traditional in Danish butter cookies.
This is traditional in some cuisines and makes a nice flavoring for wedding cookies, since orange blossoms are the traditional bouquet flower.
It's one of the most-used of all flavorings, often by itself, also quite frequently with other flavors. Here's the forms I know of, most of which I've tried:
The way I've used whole vanilla beans is to split them and bury them in a tightly lidded container of sugar. After several months, the sugar becomes infused with a vanilla scent. It's nice, but not that strong.
For most of us, this is probably the basic form of vanilla. I've had at least one bottle of it that was awful, a restaurant supply store brand. The "natural" brands taste slightly better to me than McCormick's, but not a lot. Artificial vanilla flavoring doesn't taste right to me at all.
Bourbon, Tahitian, etc. are very good. Pricey, too. I wouldn't use this except for the only flavoring in a cookie. It seems sort of wasteful to combine it with strong flavors like peanut butter.
Traditional Mexican vanilla extract is no longer available in the US (you can buy vanilla extract from Mexican beans, and it's good, but it's not the traditional kind). It has a percentage of tonka beans, which have mild anticoagulant effects (as do many other things, including aspirin). The FDA banned it, although I think you'd have to drink about a quart of it to experience any effect. It is absolutely delicious, like nothing else, including export-produced Mexican vanilla extract. If you go well into Mexico (stuff for sale in border towns is fake) and aren't worried about tonka, I recommend trying it.
I think this is mostly produced for use in frostings, where the idea is to add substantial flavoring without thinning. I haven't tried it in cookies.
Very nice. It is expensive, and it does color the dough and also add a slightly flecked appearance. If those drawbacks don't bother you, give it a try.