In the category of foods that only get made once a year we’re going to have to include Sugar Cookies. They show up at holiday parties cut into cute shapes and decorated in festive colors and often they are the last cookie to go. Sugar cookies don’t have the same overdose problem as latkes although decorating a whole batch can be a little tedious. No, sugar cookies have a dirty little secret: they just aren’t that good.
I know that makes me sound like a grinch but I can’t be the only one. Sugar cookies are pretty sweet to begin with and then they’re traditionally frosted with royal icing which is almost entirely sugar. But, despite their shortcomings I make them every year and they just look so adorable. This year I wanted to make something that people would enjoy eating as much as they like looking at them. Or at least more than they normally do.
The first step was to dial down the sugar. There’s quite a bit already and there’s more with the icing so it won’t hurt to decrease it. As a result it will need a slightly shorter baking time since the cookies won’t have as much moisture but that’s easy to fix. And to balance out the sweetness I added a little tanginess in the form of yogurt. The final cookie doesn’t taste like it has yogurt in it but it does taste like more than a sugar cookie. And the final cookie count? Four sugar cookies and six brownies. Not a bad record.
Adapted from Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan
Makes about 3 dozen holiday-shaped cookies
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
10 tbs (1 stick + 2 tbs) unsalted butter, cut into 20 pieces
3/4 cup sugar
2 tbs yogurt
1 tsp vanilla
In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, salt, and baking powder and set it aside.
In a large bowl with a hand mixer or the work bowl of a stand mixer add the butter and sugar. Cream them by beating on medium speed for a few minutes until the mixture is fluffy and lighter in color. Add the egg, and then the yogurt and vanilla, beating in between additions until well combined, scraping down the sides periodically so everything is included.
Turn the mixer to low and then add the flour mixture slowly. Alternatively you could add the flour in three to four batches, mixing until just combined before adding the next addition. When the flour is barely combined use a spatula to scrape the sides and incorporate the last of the dry ingredients.
Turn the dough out into a plastic bag or onto a piece of plastic wrap and wrap it up tightly. Put the dough in the fridge to firm up for at least 2 hours and as much as 3 days.*
When the dough is sufficiently chilled, preheat the oven to 325F. Line two baking sheets with parchment or silpats and set them aside.** Cut off a quarter of the dough and roll it out to 1/4 inch thickness – this requires a lot of flour both on the board/counter and the dough itself. Cut out shapes and roll the scraps into a ball which you then put back in the fridge. Cut another quarter and repeat the process. Only reroll the used dough after all the other dough is gone so it has time to chill slightly again.
Bake the cookies form 8-10 minutes or until they are firm but not quite, or perhaps barely brown around the edges. Let the cookies cool on the pan for a few minutes and then move them to a cooling rack. Repeat until all the cookies are baked. Let them cool completely before icing. You can eat them plain but they’re actually a little under-sweetened without icing.
From the Joy of Cooking (because you can’t really improve much on that)
2 egg whites
2 tbs lemon juice
1/4 tsp kosher salt
Up to 3 cups of powdered sugar
Using a stand mixer or a hand mixer and a large bowl, beat the egg whites, salt, and lemon juice for a minute or two to combine them. Then add the powdered sugar 1/4 cup at a time, beating between additions.
After about a cup it should become smooth and after two cups it should start to shift from opaque to white. Keep adding sugar until the frosting forms clear ribbons – when you lift the beaters the frosting should fall back on itself and form a ribbon that stays raised on the surface of the icing for 5-10 seconds. If the icing won’t hold the weight of the ribbon it’s not stiff enough yet.
Put the icing into a piping bag with a narrow tip, a ziploc bag with a small hole cut in the corner, or a squeeze bottle (my preferred method). When icing it helps to keep constant pressure while you’re drawing. To make clear corners it also helps to draw lines individually rather than trying to drag the icing around the corner. If you want to fill in or “flood” a cookie you can either add a few drops of lemon juice to thin out the icing (finicky) or just push the icing around the cookie so that it fills the space. Even if it looks a little messy initially it will smooth itself out in a few minutes. Let the icing dry for a few hours before serving – it will harden in the air so keep any frosting you hope to use later tightly covered.
* I often scoff at the “refrigerate dough” step but this is a really soft and melty dough and since you have to work with it so much – rolling and rerolling the scraps – keeping it cold is really important. If you can spread this recipe over two days it goes much more smoothly.
** This is a situation where two pans are better than one so you can let a pan cool off between batches and get ready for more cookies.