Dec 20, 2011

Perfecting the Sugar Cookie

Every year around this time I curse at myself because I can't find my Christmas cookie cutters.  I go out, buy some new ones and curse even more because I know for sure mine are hiding out somewhere in my baking goodies cabinet.  Then I go back home, stand on a chair to pull out the cookie sheets in the cabinet above the fridge (aka goodie cabinet) and voile, there are the cookie cutters from years before hiding out behind some bundt pan I never used.  Does this sound familiar to you too, or is it just me?  No way I am the only baking hoarder out there.  And every year I decide to try a new recipe because the one from last year wasn't crispy enough, or chewy enough, or flattened too much etc.  I also have this problem with mascara, I am 30 years old and have never found a mascara that I like.  Same goes for pillows.  God I would pay anything to have a decent pillow.  Well, since so far in my life mascara and pillows are out, I thought this is the year I'd master the sugar cookie.

I usually SWEAR by Martha Stewart, but I tried her basic cut-out sugar cookie last year and they got a little puffy.  You know what I'm talking about if you bake sugar cookies often.  You have to be careful how close you lay your snowman down next to Santa, otherwise they can become conjoined twins.  I always wondered how bakeries got their sugar cookie edges so sharp.  They always seem to maintain their shape so well during the baking process, and I was out to find the secret.

After reading through countless cookbooks and websites I opted for a recipe that had neither baking soda or baking powder. That means with the exclusion of both types of leaveners my little candy cane cut-outs should come out of the oven roughly the same size and thickness that they went in. And damn-it they did! They were still chewy, but not puffed up. I was able to bake them pretty close together with NO grouping (aka the conjoined twins bit).

I find it extremely resourceful reading through comments people leave on blogs and cooking websites like because typically if there is an error in a recipe, many people will make the same comments about it. This is great at giving you a heads up on what to prepare for.  Out of all the comments I read with regards to sugar cookie recipes, I noticed one in particular kept popping up.  People continually mentioned that the easiest way to transfer the cut out cookie to the sheet pan was to first roll the dough onto waxed paper, cut your shapes out, remove the excess dough (to be reused of course) and then to transfer the waxed paper with your cut-outs directly to the pan.  Seems like such a small step but trust me it makes a huge difference, especially when you've got delicate shapes or your dough has warmed up a bit too much and is beginning to get sticky.  How many times have we all had to try and re-shape Santa after pulling him off the counter?  I know he's lost an arm or two over the years in my kitchen.   

And since I was on such a roll I said to myself, this will also be the first year you glaze them with royal icing.  Usually I wimp out with the decorating and simply throw some colored sugar on the cookies prior to baking.  This is how my Grandma always made them, so maybe I've been using this as my excuse for all these years.  But really, nothing is better than an iced sugar cookie.  Especially that first bite when you sink your teeth into the frosting that's so thick and laden with sugar it makes your taste buds do the Macarena, oh that's good.

I'll admit though, I only frosted about one batch.  Two reasons.  One, okay I was nervous and didn't want to screw them ALL up in case I didn't get the frosting right the first time.  Second, I'm flying these precious, delicate little babies all the way to the US, and there is no way the icing would make the trip.  I can barely make that trip.  Plus, my husband is going to kill me when I tell him we have to hand carry all these flippin' cookies I've been baking this week (more posts to come).  Yes, like our 22lb. child isn't enough. 

Here are some additional tips that I found to be extremely useful:

Separate your dough into baseball size portions.  This makes it easier to roll out (especially when rolling on waxed paper).  It also prevents the dough from cooling off too much.  This means it will stick less to the rolling pin and in turn you'll need less flour.  Dusting the dough/counter with too much flour during this stage can cause your cookies to become dense and brittle, and who wants to bite that.

As I mentioned before, roll onto waved paper instead of directly onto the counter.  However I found it was much easier to first spray the counter with non-stick cooking spray.  This gives the waxed paper something to grab on to.  Otherwise it will be dancing all over the place and it is no help at all.

If your recipe calls for baking powder or baking soda and you find that they tend to lose they shape in the oven, first put the pan in the freezer with the cookies already on it for about an hour so until they firm up.  If your dough goes into the oven quite cold you'll have less spreading.  On a side note, I always keep my cookie dough in the fridge for pretty much all cookie recipes for this exact reason, especially in between batches.

1/8" to 1/4" rolled thickness is perfect for recipes with no leavening agents.  You can pretty much guarantee that whatever height and shape you put them in the oven they'll be about the same coming out.

Rotate your sheets 180 degrees halfway through the baking time for even color and to prevent over-browning the edges.  Although, I think that's usually the best part.

If your cookies start to dry out after you've stored them (preferably in a metal tin with a piece of waxed paper under the lid or an air-tight container) add a piece of bread.  The moisture from the bread is absorbed by the cookies making them soft and chewy again.

Always try to bake on waxed paper.  This not only helps the cookies from over-browning but you also won't need to grease the pan.  Additionally I find that it helps with clean-up in between batches.  If you are dusting your cookies with colored sugar, the excess sugar that falls onto the pan (and not your cookie) can get caked onto the pan while baking.  Then when you're ready to bake the next batch you'll have to scrub the pan clean before you can start with another dozen.  Waxed paper solves this as you can just toss it in the trash and start clean with a new piece.

Christmas Sugar Cookies

2 1/4 cups bleached all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 sticks (6 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 large egg
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest (optional)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
colored sugar for sprinkling

In a small bowl, whisk the flour with the salt. Put the sugar in a food processor and process until very fine. 

Add the pieces of butter and process until the mixture is smooth and creamy.

Add the egg, lemon zest and vanilla and process until smooth.  A microplane works greats to zest the lemon.  Highly recommended for lots of other uses in the kitchen too (nutmeg, cinnamon, cheese).

Add the flour mixture and pulse just until a dough forms.

Divide the dough into baseball size portions and wrap with plastic wrap. Chill until firm, about 1 1/2 hours.  Preheat the oven to 350°.  Spray counter with cooking spray and place a sheet of waxed paper on top.  Lightly dust the paper and your rolling pin.  Roll out the dough 1/8 inch thick.  Stamp out shapes, cutting the cookies as close together as possible.

Remove the dough from in between the cut-out cookies.  Roll this back into a ball with your hands, re-wrap with plastic wrap and place back in the fridge to firm up.  You'll re-roll this later to make more cookies.  You'll have to gauge how many times you can re-use the dough.  Every time you roll more flour gets incorporated which can make the cookies tough.  I probably wouldn't use more than twice.

Since the waxed paper will also be going into the oven, I used a pastry brush to remove the excess flour from the sheet.

Sprinkle the cookies with colored sugar (unless you plan on frosting them).

Transfer the cookies (along with the waxed paper) to nonstick baking sheets. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until lightly browned around the edges. Transfer the cookies to racks and let cool.

Royal Icing (optional)

2 1/4 cups confectioners' sugar
7 1/2 teaspoons meringue powder
1/4 cup water

Place confectioners' sugar, meringue powder, and water into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment; beat on low speed for 10 minutes.

Use immediately, or store in an airtight container up to 2 days (icing hardens quickly when exposed to air). Beat well with a rubber spatula before using.

If you want to add color to the frosting it's best to use food coloring gels.  Gels don't water down your frosting like the old fashioned drops.  Additionally the color is much more concentrated which means you'll achieve a brighter, richer color.

Divide your frosting into separate parts, depending on how many colors you want to make (I only did two).  Have some tooth picks on hand, they are the best tool to use when adding gel.  You'll be surprised at how little you'll actually need.  A little drop will do ya!  

Once you've mixed up the colors get yourself a piping bag with a number two or three tip.  I used one of each and they both worked about the same.  Here is a little trick I learned from a cake decorating class I took a couple years ago.  Get a tall glass as shown below.  Place your piping bag (with tip already in place) inside and fold the top of the bag over the edge of the glass.  This makes the bag extremely easy to fill with the frosting.

First you'll need to pipe the edge.  This creates a border that will hold in the frosting that will be 'flooded' inside.

After you're done with all of the edges let the cookies sit until the border firms up.  Now you'll need to water down your frosting so it becomes more fluid and easier to spread easier.  Add 1 tablespoon of water at a time until you've reached the desired consistency.  Ideally it's best to do this in a bowl and refill your bag.  I completely forgot this step and filled my cookie with the thicker frosting that should have only been used for the border:

When you have the correct consistency the frosting will 'flood' the cookie and will set even and beautiful.  I got it right with the red though:

After you've flooded the cookie, sprinkle them with colored sugar for a bling-bling effect

Let the cookies sit for a few hours to let the frosting harden up before you pack them.  Otherwise things could get really messy.

Sugar Cookie recipe adapted from Food & Wine
Icing recipe courtesy of Martha Stewart

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