Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Holiday Time: The Cookie Matrix (The Time Element)

Last time, I wrote about getting physically organized for holiday cookie-baking: inventorying and enumerating ingredients, determining averages to figure in to distrubition, etc. Making all these plans helps save a lot of time. However, I reached a point where I was still finding myself baking cookies late into the night, when I really needed to be sleeping!

Having two kids and working a full time job, all on top of a normally busy holiday schedule, makes for a severe time crunch! I really felt I could be managing my baking time more efficiently.

I found that some cookies (like Peanut Butter) could be whipped up in no time, where some (Lemon Crisps) took forever, due to the rolling out & cutting with cutters. And some cookies required that the dough be pre-chilled, whereas some did not. I also knew that some days (Saturdays) I had more time than others (Thursdays, when my daughter has Girl Scouts).
So, how did I reconcile these two pieces of the puzzle?

First, I broke down the baking process into the following steps: mixing, shaping (whether it be rolling out & cutting or just dropping the dough), baking, decorating (like frosting once cool), and packaging. (I didn't count cooling time, since the cookies had cooled by the time I packed them up.) I also noted which doughs required chilling (which I counted as an overnight process).
Next, I started measuring--per cookie type--the amount of time it took to do each step. (And yes, this was a bit more time-consuming in the short-run.) I did this for about 2-3 years so I'd get a good average without wasting so much time in the measuring.

Next, I calculated the average time of the post dough-chilling steps for each cookie type. (Again, I wouldn't count the mixing for these cookies, since the dough had to chill overnight.)

Finally, I'd look at my schedule and fit in what kind of cookie to bake on what day, including times where I had to mix up dough for the next day's batch. Now that I have decent average times, I only need to repeat this particular step each year, since my schedule changes yearly.
I have to say, once I started doing this, my stress level has dropped immensely, and I'm actually able to get some sleep & enjoy the season more!

So there you have it: The Cookie Matrix. I'm sure my readers are thinking that I'm as nutty as my Cherry Delights, but rest assured, I'm one happy nut!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Holiday Time: The Cookie Matrix (The Physical Element)

You may wonder why I’ve dubbed this blog “The Efficient Matrix.” Yes, it’s obviously about efficiency. But why “Matrix?” It all started with my cookie matrix…

1987 was the first Christmas I was on my own and I wanted to revive my mom's tradition of cookie baking! She would bake a ton of different kinds of cookies & give them away as gifts. So I obtained some of her recipes, picked up some cookie ingredients & went at it!

It wasn't long before I had to hit the supermarket again...and again...and again. It occurred to me that this was not the most efficient way to go about baking such a large amount of cookies, especially with limited time. So I went into...


Problem: going to the store too often to get cookie ingredients.
Solution: need to buy all the ingredients I'll need in one trip (two, at most)
Strategy: identify how many cookies I'll need to bake, how much of what the ingredients are, how much I already have & how much I'll need to buy
Ultimate Solution: chart it out!

I had some graph paper, so I laid out my needs as such:
1 - Along the X-axis (on top), the kind of cookie being baked
2 - Along the Y-axis (on the side), units of each ingredient (i.e., cups of flour, tsps salt, # eggs)
3 - Along the right of the graph, I totaled up the ingredients, subtracted my inventory & determined the total needed (eventually using conversions like, X cups of flour per pound). This would turn into my shopping list.

(Note that these were the days before Microsoft Excel; I have tried the Matrix in Excel, but there's something gratifying about putting it on paper!)


I wanted to make sure that I had enough of each type of cookie so that there would be sufficient variety in each batch. I determined how many folks were getting a large tin, and how many a small tin. Then I figured out (based on a rough estimate) how many of each type of cookie per each type of batch. Multiply that times the number of each type of batch, and I'd know how many cookies I'd need, or if I'd have to adjust the number per batch.

Part of making sure I'd have enough or if I'd have to adjust was tracking the average per batch. As the cookies were cooling, I'd count them up & write down the total. The total would be used in the next year's planning as part of my average number of cookies per batch. Sometimes my yields would vary dramatically, so having an average kind of gives me a target and a baseline for planning.

Whew! Sounds like a lot of work, right? Actually, it's just a lot of planning. Once the plans are laid, I'm able to bake cookies like a machine!

Next up: The Time Element!