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The cookie recipe asks for:

1½ cups plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour  
1¼ teaspoons ground ginger  
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon  
¼ teaspoon ground cloves  
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg  
1 tablespoon unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder  
¼ pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature  
1 tablespoon freshly grated peeled ginger  
½ cup packed dark brown sugar  
½ cup unsulfured molasses  
1 teaspoon baking soda  
1½ teaspoons boiling water  
7 ounces best-quality semisweet chocolate, cut into ¼-inch chunks  
¼ cup granulated sugar  

then, it asks us to combine all these ingredients and

; turn onto plastic wrap. Pat out to a 1-inch thickness; seal with wrap. Refrigerate until firm, 2 hours or overnight.

Questions:

  • How do you define "firm" here? Something which is not melting, or something which we'll have to crack with our hands?

  • There is a great difference between 2 hours and overnight. So, what temperature should be set of the fridge that'll result in fast firmness in less time? Will that be counter productive? Can I use the freezer?

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I would interpret that as "at least two hours". If you're making the cookies in the daytime, put it in the fridge and go do something else. If you're making them after dinner, put them in the fridge and come back to it tomorrow. Sure, maybe it will be firm enough after 92 minutes if you checked all the time, but probably not. It needs 2 hours, and it won't hurt to have more so you don't have to stay up late to pull the cookies from the fridge and do the next step. –  Kate Gregory Mar 30 '13 at 12:24
    
See also: cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/29270/… –  SAJ14SAJ Mar 30 '13 at 13:11
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Having actually made exactly this recipe before, I also happen to know that you left out the last bit, which is to roll the cookies into balls by hand, chill again, then roll them in granulated sugar. This makes it particularly important that they're firm; otherwise they'll melt all over your hands, because it's a pretty soft dough at room temperature. And even the warming from rolling them is enough that you want to chill them again before rolling in sugar, because otherwise the sugar will mix into the surface rather than sticking on it and looking pretty like it's supposed to. –  Jefromi Mar 30 '13 at 19:03
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3 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

When cookie recipes ask to be refrigerated for a period of time or overnight, it is about more than simply the final temperature. You cannot, for example, chill the dough in an ice water bath (sealed in plastic, for example, to keep it from getting waterlogged) to get it to a lower temperature faster. The outcome is about time as well as about temperature. In fact, in some ways time is more important, and the refrigeration is to keep it safe (since cookie dough usually has raw eggs).

While the final temperature does effect the firmness of any fats or shortenings in the cookie directly, and that effects how easy they are to roll out, another major issue is hydrating the flour.

The longer the rest, the more time there is for the starch granules in the flour to absorb water, which will make your dough more cohesive (stays together well) and workable. This is especially important for rolled out or sliced cookies, which I suspect your particular recipe is.

The texture of rested dough will be putty-like and pliant, It will not crack easily when pressed, rolled, or pinched.

The majority of this effect takes about four hours—I am surprised your recipe specifies only two hours. Overnight is even better, although not usually necessary.

Note: Most refrigerators would be approximately: 40°F / 4.5°C, since you asked what temperature is expected.

See also: What does an overnight chill do to cookie dough, that a 4 hour chill doesn't?

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thanks for the answer, and the explanation - "cohesive (stays together well)" –  TheIndependentAquarius Apr 1 '13 at 9:10
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When I've seen that step in cookie recipes, generally there's no way you can over-firm in the fridge; if you're doing all the steps on the same day, it'll take two hours to set, but if you're trying to prep the night before, you can break for the night at this step.

Generally you'll have a wet, sticky, soft dough you can't cut into shapes, and after a trip to the fridge, it'll be firm enough to hold a shape when you go at it with a cookie-cutter (or roll it into a pinwheel and slice, or whatever shaping is happening). It's basically letting the butter go back from room-temperature-butter consistency to fridge-butter consistency.

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  • Firm here means that it should not be supple, nor too hard to be easy to cut. It will be sustaining shape. If you have a round cylinder of cookie dough, cutting it should keep the cylinder in the same shape rather than flattening the sides where you are holding the dough and flattening the dough around the cut (dough too soft).

  • 2 hours or overnight means at least two hours. 2 hours to get some of the benefits of firming the dough; more could potentially give you a better result; the dough is firm all the same after the night.

  • as mentioned by @SAJ14SAJ, resting the dough may give you other properties such as different elasticity and cohesion. I don't know what the author of your recipe had in mind; he may or may not look for those properties to change.

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