A buttery sugar cookie in its purest form. Rolled thick for a nice softness or thin for a crisp bite, this cookie only gets more magical with a simple buttercream. Sprinkles optional; enjoyment is not.
O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Saviour’s birth.
Mahalia Jackson or Nat King Cole singing that carol are pure Christmas spirit and everything wonderful I feel about the season. Growing up, December 1st always meant the arrival of Mom’s stack of Christmas albums; the Advent wreath, a stiff wire form covered in fresh greens, red berries, and ribbons, topped with four candles – three purple and one pink; and the Advent calendar tacked to the kitchen door to the basement. The season had arrived and cookies were not far behind!
It’s the most wonderful time of the year
There’ll be much mistltoeing
And hearts will be glowing
When loved ones are near
It’s the most wonderful time of the year
(fave version: Andy Williams Christmas Album)
I still make all but one of the Christmas cookies we had at home when I was a child. You’ll always find sugar cookies, mintywiches, peanut blossoms and fudge. The one I don’t make is Spritz which require my mother’s half-century(plus) old tin creature of cookie magic. I have yet to find a cookie press on the market that does even a remotely decent job so I leave those cookies to Bunny who always makes enough for a crowd (and a pilfering child or two). Guide me to a cookie press that actually works and I will gladly take on that cookie … Gauntlet Thrown!
The cookies I always bake first are sugar cookies. Not to play favorites, but they are mine. Crisp, vanilla-strong, buttery cookies topped with a generous slather of buttercream, maybe a few sprinkles … pure Christmas joy. Cookie baking in my house is generally the week before Christmas, starting with these sturdier cookies and ending a day or two before with the more delicate ones.
Those years as an adult when I would bake cookies with Mom and Monica, we would do a two-and-a-half day frenzied marathon of baking debauchery fueled by Fritos Scoops (must be the Scoops) and Heluva Good dips (French Onion and Bacon Horseradish). Every year we would agree we were only going to do five or six types of cookies and every year Monica would totally ignore that plan and bring the recipes and fixings for about five or six additional types which we were then obligated to bake. You can’t waste ingredients, right? People need 65 choices, right? Pretending you run a bakery so you never get the idea that’s a good plan is a good idea, right (though oddly a sisters-run food truck is still in the talking mix)?
Now that I’m baking alone, I tend to stick to my five or six favorites with one or two … or three … extra thrown in to silence that niggling little Monica voice, “but everyone NEEDS a jam-filled mini hand pie with a lemon drizzle!” Oh, and the Fritos and dip? I actually have to buy extra – bah humbug! – because the locusts love the stuff and I have yet to come up with a reason to deny them. Damn my seasonal generosity.
Growing up, our Christmas celebration was never about the gifts, something that in childhood was of great consternation to me but now I am grateful for and continue. The locusts happily jot down, edit and re-jot their obscenely long list o’wants each Christmas, but as soon as the mixer comes out or the smells start wafting, they are in the kitchen, offering to help (translation: taste), generally getting in my way (why God invited steel-toe boots), singing carols (sometimes with interpretive dance – them and me) and making merry. Just as things should be this most merry time of the year.
I pray my wish will come true
For my child and your child too
He’ll see the day of glory
See the day when men of good will
Live in peace, live in peace again
Little baby pa-rum-pum-pum-pum
I stood beside him there pa-rum-pum-pum-pum
I played my drum for him pa-rum-pum-pum-pum
I played my best for him pa-rum-pum-pum-pum
And he smiled at me pa-rum-pum-pum-pum
me and my drum.
(David Bowie and Bing Crosby duet of Little Drummer Boy and Peace on Earth)
I wish you happy baking, a merry Christmas, and peace on earth to us all. And now onto the sugar cookies!
There are very few ingredients so make sure they’re good ones. Most specifically, the vanilla and almond extracts should be exactly that, extracts of the thing on the label. Imitation almond flavoring can contain benzaldehyde, an industrial-use chemical. Yummy … go look that ingredient up while you’re gobbling down a cookie or three. Wait, wait … first check out the ingredients for imitation vanilla … it may either be synthesized from wood pulp or wood-tar creosote. Lordy, I need another one of those cookies. Huge apologies for the rant; lemme unhook my hug from the old oak and keep typing… You are free to pick your own ingredients.
This cookie is a great gateway bake item because it’s so simple. You sift the dry ingredients together and set aside, cream the butter and sugar together, add the eggs and extracts, scrape down the sides, add the dry ingredients and you’re done.
Divide the dough in half, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate at least six hours though I always do overnight (or 48 hours … it really is a flexi dough). If you have a lot of pungent scents in your chiller, do yourself (and your cookie audience) a favor and double-wrap the dough.
A preventive talk off the ledge … rolling dough is not difficult it just takes patience. The counter should be spectacularly clean and sprinkled pretty liberally with flour (with more nearby for adding). Your rolling pin should also be pretty liberally rubbed with flour (unless it’s marble which doesn’t need it). As you roll, change the direction of your pin and every few rolls pick up the dough, add a little sprinkle of flour, and turn the dough’s direction. Worse case, if the dough gets too warm and soft, put it back in the fridge or even the freezer until it’s workable. I try to put all of my cookie cutters down at one time to conserve space and prevent a third roll. I’ll only do a second roll with the scraps. After that, I just toss the bits onto a pan and bake for the locusts. That’s more a kindness to me than them … it keeps them out of my Fritos. Mother. Of. The. Year. Here.
This is the very darkest the cookies should come out, just a tinge of color on the edges. Of course, if you are like me and LOVE the occasionally accidentally (wink, wink) very dark cookie, g’head and let that timer go for a minute or three longer. If you’re a frugal baker and don’t plan on baking enough cookies for all of Kansas and half of Nebraska, the burn treatment is a perfect use for your scrap bits … they brown-black up real nice like.
Buttercream frosting is my favorite for these cookies. Feel free to use royal icing if that’s your jam. I grew up with buttercream and that’s where my love and loyalty lie.
(adapted from the New England Butt’ry Shelf Cookbook 1969)
makes approximately 24-30 cookies
1 cup softened butter
1 ½ cups sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
4 cups all purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup softened butter
1 lb powdered sugar
2 tsp vanilla
2-4ish Tbs milk
Sift together the flour, salt and baking powder. Set aside.
Beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and extracts. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the flour mixture and mix until smooth, about 2 minutes. Divide the dough in two and pat into disks. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill at least 6 hours (or overnight).
When you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375ºF.
Using one disk at a time, roll dough out on a lightly floured board. If thin crisp cookies are wanted, roll the dough about 1/16 inch thick. If soft, thicker cookies are wanted, roll about 1/8 inch thick.
Place about 1 inch apart on a parchment-lined sheet pan and bake, one tray at a time, until very delicately golden, 8-12 minutes depending on thickness. If you are rolling the dough faster than your oven is baking, hold filled trays in the fridge until ready to bake. Cool on wire racks.
Frost to your heart’s content. Frosted cookies should be stored between parchment sheets in a cookie tin or on a tray covered in plastic wrap, no higher than two layers. Unfrosted cookies can be kept in an airtight container between parchment layers though for how long I have no idea other than they are still fresh two weeks out.
Using the paddle attachment on your mixer at medium speed, beat the butter for 3-4 minutes until light and fluffy. Add the powdered sugar, flavoring and 2 Tbs of the milk. Starting on very low speed, turning up as the powdered sugar is incorporated, beat until light and creamy. Stop occasionally to scrape the sides of the bowl and check the consistency. It should hold it’s shape but not be crumbly or gloopy. If it’s too dry, add milk by very small drops and beat until you get the right consistency. If it’s somehow too wet, add more powdered sugar.
To color, divide the frosting between bowls and tint to your heart’s content. This frosting works best if used right away.