My Christmas cookies are done! I come from a long line of Christmas cookie bakers, and they took the job very seriously. My great aunts taught me to make an annual list of my cookies, and to take notes on the yields, adjustments to make next year, and other details. They also showed me that while those gorgeous cookies in food magazines are inspiring, you had better balance the time-consuming ones with some more practical offerings. Karen Tack, I'm not, but I still manage to make some pretty nice-looking sugar cookies. My secret is to keep it simple. By doing just one design (this year, green trees decorated with nonpareil sprinkles or shiny dragees to simulate ornaments), I am whip through many dozens in no time. Read on to find my favorite sugar cookie recipe, and click here for more cookie making tips.
Sugar Cookies 101
Makes about 3 1/2 dozen cookies, depending on size
Make Ahead: The dough must chill for at least 1 1/2 hours. The cookies can be baked up to 1 week ahead.
My perfect sugar cookie must have buttery flavor, melt-in-your-mouth texture, yet be firm enough to stand up to a fair amount of decorating. (After all, undecorated sugar cookies are may taste good, but they are a bit plain until you roll up your sleeves and ice them.) Typical sugar cookie recipes cream the butter and sugar together, but I cut the butter into the dry ingredients like a pie dough to increase the cookies’ flakiness. For added tenderness, I also combine shortening with the butter and cornstarch with the flour. If you want to freeze these, freeze undecorated baked cookies, as the icing won’t hold up well. They can be frozen for up to 1 month. About a week before when you want to serve them, defrost the cookies, decorate, and store in airtight containers at room temperature.
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup vegetable shortening, at room temperature
1/3 cup heavy cream
1 large egg plus 1 large yolk
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Royal Icing (recipe follows)
1. Position racks in the top and bottom thirds of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F.
2. In a large bowl, whisk the flour, cornstarch, sugar, baking powder, and salt to combine. Add the butter and shortening. Using a hand-held electric mixer at low speed, move the beaters through the mixture until the butter and shortening are uniformly cut into tiny crumbs and the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal, 2 to 3 minutes. In a small bowl, mix the cream, egg, yolk, and vanilla well. Using a wooden spoon, stir the cream mixture into the dry ingredients and mix well to form a soft dough. Gather the dough together and divide into two thick discs. Wrap each disc in plastic wrap. Refrigerate until chilled, about 1 1/2 hours. (The dough can be prepared up to 1 day ahead.)
3. To roll out the cookies, work with one disc at a time, keeping the other disc refrigerated. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and let stand at room temperature until malleable enough to roll out without cracking, 5 to 10 minutes. (If the dough has been chilled for longer than 1 1/2 hours, it may take a few more minutes.) Unwrap the dough and place on a floured work surface. Lightly sprinkle the top of the dough with flour. Roll out the dough 1/8-inch thick, or slightly thicker for softer cookies. (A silicone rolling pin works best for this somewhat sticky dough.) As you roll out the dough, it will become easier to work with, and tiny cracks on the surface will smooth out and disappear. Occasionally run a long knife under the dough to be sure it isn’t sticking, and dust more flour under the dough, if needed.
4. Using cookie cutters, cut out the cookies and transfer to cookie sheets lined with nonstick baking pads or parchment paper, placing the cookies 1 inch apart. Gently knead the scraps together and form into another disc. Wrap and chill for 5 minutes before rolling out again to cut out more cookies.
5. Bake, switching the position of the cookie sheets from top to bottom and front to back halfway through baking, just until the edges of the cookies are barely beginning to turn golden, about 10 minutes. Do not overbake. Let stand on the cookie sheets for 2 minutes, then transfer to wire cooling racks to cool completely. Decorate as desired with Decorating Icing. (The cookies can be baked up to 1 week ahead, stored in airtight containers at room temperature.)
Makes about 2 cups, enough for about 4 dozen cookies, depending on size
Make Ahead: The icing can be made up to 2 days ahead, stored in an airtight container with a moist paper towel pressed directly on the icing surface, and refrigerated.
This lustrous icing hardens into a shiny, professional-looking surface. Traditional royal icing uses raw egg whites, but as dried egg white powder is available at most supermarkets these days, I prefer it to avoid any consternation about the uncooked whites. You can also use meringue powder, available at hobby shops. Food coloring paste gives better color than liquid coloring.
1 pound (4 1/2 cups) confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons dried egg white powder
Food coloring paste, as needed
Sprinkles or dragees, for decorating
1. In a medium bowl, using a hand-held electric mixer at low speed, beat the confectioners’ sugar, egg white powder, and 6 tablespoons cold water until combined. Increase the speed to high and beat, scraping down the sides of the bowl often, until very stiff, shiny, and thick enough to pipe. 3 to 5 minutes. (The icing can be made up to 2 days ahead, stored in an airtight container with a moist paper towel pressed directly on the icing surface, and refrigerated.)
2. Transfer the icing to a bowl. Thin with enough water to give the icing the consistency of house paint. Tint with food coloring as desired.
3. One a a time, holding the cookie by its edges, dip a cookie just into the surface of the icing. (Don't worry if you dorp it--it will float if the icing is the correct thickness.) Lift the cookie out of the icing, letting the excess icing drip back into the bowl. Use a small metal icing spatula, preferably an offset spatula, to smooth the icing. (If the icing seems too thick, use the spatula to scrape the excess back into the bowl, being careful not to scrape into the cookie surface.) Place the cookie on a parchment- or wax paper-lined surface. Decorate with the sprinkles or dragees. Let cool completely, at least 1 hour.