Planning to bake and ship a little love this holiday season?
If you want to make sure your cookies don't end up as crumbs by the time they get to your friends and family, the type of cookies you make can be as important as how you wrap and pack them.
"We've all seen the footage" of shipping operations, says Gary Welling, director of the International Baking and Pastry Institute at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I. "Man, oh man, things get thrown ... and jostled." So here's what you need to know:
Experts were reluctant to herald one variety of cookie over another, but all agree — sturdiness is key. This isn't the time for brittle, delicate or thin-cut cookies with intricate woven sugar decorations.
Whether shipped by the U.S. Postal Service or a private carrier, your package will travel along sundry conveyer belts, be exposed to hot and cold, get handled by several people and possibly rattle for many miles in the back of a truck.
The UPS Store has compiled a list of baked goods its shippers say can take the tumbling and temperatures. They recommend molasses cookies, peanut butter cookies, shortbread, sugar cookies, brownies, biscotti and puffed rice treats.
Agnes Hsu, owner of the Teacake Bake Shop in San Francisco, bakes roughly 20,000 cookies a month, many of which she ships. She suggests drop cookies, which tend to be thick and dense.
Also, think small. Small, thick cookies are less likely to break than large, thinner cookies.
And don't mix soft and hard cookies, according to the Web site TroopCarePackage.com. The moisture in the soft cookies can make hard cookies, such as biscotti, go soft.
Frosted cookies ship fine, if you use royal icing, a decorating icing made from powdered sugar, egg whites and lemon juice.
"It hardens really fast. It stays hard. It has a nice finish," says Hsu.
For food safety reasons, Hsu recommends using meringue powder (available at most craft and baking stores) instead of the raw egg whites called for in most recipes. This icing also can serve as an excellent glue for adhering decorations to cookies.
Hsu says the key to shipping cookies it to wrap each one separately. This help cushion the cookies, prevents them from sticking together and allows you to ship a variety of cookies without the flavors mixing.
For the wrapping, there are plenty of options. Hsu suggests using parchment paper to create sleeves or envelopes for each, which also could be attractively tied with ribbon.
If your cookies need to travel some distance, freshness may be a concern. In that case, consider cling wrap or press-and-seal-style wraps, which lock out the air and lengthen the life of baked goods.
Once wrapped, the cookies should be arranged (don't crowd) in a small box or canister. If there is extra space in the box, use crumpled waxed paper, which cushions and helps absorb excess moisture.
Hsu wraps her cookies in what amounts to small hat boxes. Similar boxes, and a number of other options, can be found online at places such as The Container Store, where lidded white gift boxes start at $2.49 and round, metal tins start at $3.29.
Welling suggests visiting dollar stores for gift boxes and tins. This year, Welling is mailing his homemade fudge in a holiday tin shaped like a treasure box that he found at a dollar store.
Or take The UPS Store's creative advice and recycle Pringles potato chip cans. Cut your cookies to be slightly smaller than the diameter of the can, then stack them (separated by rounds of parchment paper) in the can.
The smaller box or container of cookies then should be placed inside a larger shipping box that is filled with packing peanuts or other packing material. Aim for at least 2 to 3 inches of packing around the container of cookies.
UPS spokeswoman Diana Hatcher says her company has seen many creative, though ineffective, ideas — from wadded up grocery bags to dirty laundry. For the safest shipping, she says stick with packing peanuts and bubble wrap.
Hsu wraps her gift boxes of cookies in bubble wrap, then places them inside a larger box that has a layer of craft paper and bubble wrap on the bottom. She covers the gift box with more of the same until the mailing box is filled. When you think you've got the box packed, close and shake it. If anything moves, add packing. Air pockets allow the contents to vibrate during transit.
The most important rule is to take your time, says Marc Haymon, a baking instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. Baking and shipping on the same day is bad; the cookies will stick or be too moist.
Haymon advises baking the cookies the evening before mailing them, which gives them about 12 hours to set up.
Neither the U.S. Postal Service nor UPS has restrictions about what foods can be shipped, but they do share some standard holiday fears, such as candy canes stuffed in business-sized envelopes, which jam letter-sorting machines.
Even the day of the week matters when shipping food. The pros mostly ship on Mondays and Tuesdays to ensure the packages arrive before the weekend, when the cookies could end up sitting in a warehouse until the following week.
Hsu recommends using next-day or second-day service to mail cookies, and the shipping companies agree.
The Postal Service offers three categories for shipping packages: express, priority and standard. Express is fastest, but costs a lot more, while priority mail generally will get the cookies to their destination in two or three days.
The Postal Service encourages customers to use its priority, flat-rate boxes, which come in two sizes, can hold up to 70 pounds and cost just $8.95 to mail anywhere in the country.
UPS recommends shipping by air, not ground, because fewer people will handle the package and it'll get to its destination faster. It, too, can air ship a package of cookies in one to three days.
FedEx home delivery program uses ground service, which takes longer, but its FedEx Express will ship a package in one to three days.
On the Net: UPS: http:pressroom.ups.com/holiday/faqs U.S. Postal Service: www.usps.com FedEx Corp.: www.fedex.com