Sugar Cookies

December is the month of cookies. I have been patiently waiting for this month, even with the unwanted onslaught of all things Christmas since November 1st. Cookies are a traditionally a December thing, and I wanted to get in on the action.

When I started baking, I mainly stuck to cakes. Cookies looked so easy and alluring; it was something I had always wanted to conquer. I would fawn over perfectly frosted cut outs, garnished with shiny sprinkles of colored sugar, desperately wanting to make some gems of my own. What took me so long to finally take the plunge? Butter.

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Now, let me explain. In my house, we don’t use real butter. My family swears off of margarine, and it is and always has been the “butter.” I knew about the real stuff, but didn’t think it made a difference. Whenever I made a cake that called for butter, I just used the margarine. It would still come out good, so I never really gave it much thought. I had somehow formed a bit of fear over butter. I mean, it’s a stick of fat that’s solid when cold, and not when warm. Don’t even get me started on shortening; that’s a fear I am just NOT ready to conquer.

I recently decided to overcome my fears and began to bake with butter. I started out slow, and quickly realized that there is a huge difference. Butter is made out of the milk fats found in milk or cream, as opposed to margarine’s oil. The key factor to this stuff, besides the fact that it’s not all vegetable oil, is that its solid when cold and spreadable when warm characteristics are crucial to baking. Especially with cookies, you need the butter to be cold so that the cookies can hold their shape; something I never realized when using the always soft margarine. I don’t know how I got through many years of baking without it, but I quickly saw the error of my ways and am glad I let butter into my life. I sound crazy saying it, but believe me; the difference is that big. So now that I have real butter stocked in my fridge regularly, I was ready to take on some cookies.

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These sugar cookies are Bon Appétit’s “ultimate.” What makes them ultimate? In BA’s own words: the cookies are “crisp yet tender, keep their shape when baked, and taste great too.” With that description, I knew this one was a good start. I mean, a recipe that has not one, but two and a half sticks of butter in it has to be good.

Making the dough was tricky for me because as most of you know, I do not own a stand mixer. Now, you don’t necessarily need one but this process will be eons easier if you have one. I tried to use my trusty old  hand mixer for this, and ended up messing up one of the functions. I’m not ready for my only mixer to kick the bucket, so I proceeded with the rest of the recipe by hand. It takes a bit longer but it does come together.

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My sister and I had fun decorating and eating these cookies. Even though we may not be artistically inclined, we had a blast channelling our inner Picasso. The cookies definitely held their shape when baking, and were exactly as described; crisp and tender. Even when iced with royal icing, the cookies weren’t overwhelmingly sweet. I baked off half the batch, and am already looking forward to baking off the rest in the coming weeks.

Ultimate Sugar Cookies – slightly adapted from Bon Appétit

Makes 2-3 dozen, depending on size

  • ¾ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour, plus
  • more for rolling
  • 1¼ cups (2½ sticks) chilled, unsalted butter, cut into ½” pieces
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 teaspoons lemon zest (optional)

Directions:

  1. Place racks in lower and upper thirds of oven; preheat to 325°. Whisk salt, baking powder, and 3 cups flour in a small bowl.
  2. Using an electric mixer on high speed, beat butter and sugar until well combined (butter does not need to be fluffy), about 3 minutes. Alternatively, you can whisk the butter and sugar with a whisk. Add egg, egg yolk, and vanilla; beat just to combine. Reduce speed to low, or switch to wooden spoon or rubber spatula, and gradually add dry ingredients; mix just to combine. Form dough into two ¾”-thick disks; wrap in plastic. Chill at least 2 hours.
  3. Let 1 disk of dough sit at room temperature until softened slightly, about 5 minutes. Roll out on a lightly floured sheet of parchment paper until about ¼” thick, dusting with flour as needed (if dough gets soft or sticky, chill on parchment until firm). Cut out shapes with floured cookie cutters; transfer to parchment-lined baking sheets. Pop your cut outs in the fridge between batches, so cookies won’t spread when baked.
  4. Bake cookies, rotating baking sheets (switch sheets from top to bottom racks, and rotate 180 degrees) halfway through, until edges are golden, 12–16 minutes, depending on size.
  5. Transfer to wire racks and let cool. Repeat with scraps and remaining dough. Decorate cooled cookies as desired.

Royal Icing – adapted from Bon Appétit

Makes about 2 cups

  • 3 1/4 cups (or more) powdered sugar, sifted
  • 2 large egg whites
  • 1 teaspoon strained fresh lemon juice
  • Assorted food colorings (optional)

Directions:

  1. Using electric mixer, beat 3 1/4 cups powdered sugar and egg whites until thick and shiny, adding more powdered sugar by tablespoonfuls if mixture is too thin to spread, about 3 minutes. Add lemon juice.
  2. Divide icing into portions, if desired, and add different food coloring to each. Cover until ready to use.

Lucy’s Tips:

  • I added about two teaspoons of lemon zest to my dough, for added freshness. The taste is subtle and brightens up the cookies. It’s totally optional but if you want more of a lemon punch, add in a couple teaspoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice along with the zest.
  • When cutting the cookies out, it’s important to keep the dough cold or they’ll spread out. If you’re waiting to put in two complete trays in the oven at the same time, put your cut outs in the fridge until ready to bake. I learned this one the hard way.
  • If your dough gets too soft when rolling and cutting, pop it in the freezer for a couple of minutes for a quick chill.
  • For the icing, make sure it’s not too thin or it’ll run off your cookies.
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