The winter solstice party was cancelled on account of winter weather, and the world failed to end after all, so we spent Friday evening at home decorating sugar cookies. My nine year-old art director had just received a new box of extremely fancy cookie decorations from her grandmother, and so each batch, two cookie sheets’ worth, took nearly an hour.
“You know, in my day, we only had the red sugar and the green sugar.”
(Pause for dramatic effect.)
“If we wanted white, we had to use salt!”
“Did you really only have red and green sugar when you were little?”
Nine is old enough to do most of the work of cookie-baking, so except for operating the mixer and helping to flatten the cold dough, she did practically everything: measuring, mixing, rolling, cutting, decorating. I helped; the snowy Christmas trees are mostly mine.
My main job was coming up with a recipe that would taste good but would still be easily rolled and cut by a child. So I compiled eight different recipes published since 1950, compared ratios of ingredients, and came up with a compromise between rich chewy texture and workable structure. They were about right, I think: they taste good, they’re lightly crisp, but the dough was easy to work. They’re still mostly for looks, but they taste good enough that we’re not just eating them to be polite.
Incidentally, if you’re the sort of person inclined to follow every recipe to the last detail, consider this: Of the eight recipes I examined, varying in size from 1¼ cups flour to 5 cups flour, all but one called for exactly one teaspoon of vanilla extract. That is, apparently, what one does to flavor a recipe: add a teaspoon of vanilla. We do it more or less unthinkingly. I doubled that, and added just enough spice for interest.
I did that last year, too, and lost the sheet of paper I wrote my recipe on. So I’m posting this one here, and although it’s too late for this year’s baking, maybe y’all can use it next year too.
“Mom, on the way to the store Dad told me the whole history of sugar cookies.”
“He does that, honey.”
Recipe: Sugar cookies
This makes enough dough to keep your kids occupied for awhile, should be easy enough for them to work without frustration, but still tastes good. For variations on the spice, see my historical flavor suggestions.
- ¾ pound (1½ cup) butter
- 1⅓ cup white sugar
- 1–2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 2 eggs
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- 4 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon cardamom
- ½ teaspoon nutmeg
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon milk, as needed
Surely you’ve done this before, but here we go anyway:
- Whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, and (if you’re using it) spice. Cream the butter and sugars together until fluffy, then beat in the eggs one at a time and stir in the vanilla. Stir in the flour mixture just to combine. If the dough is dry, add a tablespoon or so of milk.
- Chill the dough for at least a couple of hours, then roll, shape, and decorate, as they used to say, “to your fancy.” Bake at 375°F; how long will depend on thickness, but 8 to 10 minutes for ¼-inch-thick cookies should be about right.
What to look for
The dough, at room temperature, should be soft and pliable, not stiff but also not greasy or sticky like drop cookie dough. Too soft a dough will be hard to roll, even cold, so add another couple tablespoons of flour. If the dough is too stiff or crumbly, add dribbles of milk.
Baking time is really a matter of personal preference. I like them barely brown at the edges and still a bit soft in the middle so that they aren’t rock-hard, but some people prefer them brown and crisp. And if you roll them very thin, you may want to turn the oven up to 400°, since they’ll bake more quickly.