What is it about sugar cookies that bring out everyone's inner five-year-old? Maybe it's the whimsy of the shape or the beautiful colors in the icing that make sugar cookies so yummy & endearing.
Chances are that the pound of butter and oodles of sugar in the recipe have a little something to do with it too!
My mom was an amazing sugar-cookie-baker. She had a system and a few tricks that worked great for her and her cookies always seemed to turn out perfectly. All of my children have loved to make sugar cookies with "Grama Yena." She let them help her with everything from rolling out the dough to frosting the cookies.
Like most good cooks who make their art look simple, my mom made baking sugar cookies look easy. How is it that I could use the exact same recipe and end up with little more to show for my efforts than a few rock-hard cookies and flour all over every surface of my kitchen?
I can't remember what prompted me to begin my quest for a sugar cookie recipe that would actually work for me, but after trying literally dozens of different recipes, I finally found a few that I love.
Now I make sugar cookies for almost every holiday. My cookie cutter collection has grown out of control (a lot like my fabric collection, my yarn stash, my scrapbooking paper addiction......notice a pattern?) And, like my mom, I've developed a system and a few tricks that seem to work for me. Hopefully they'll make sugar cookie baking fun for you too!
Let's begin with the recipe...
Finding a good recipe makes all the difference. You know, there's a lot of chemistry in baking that is a great mystery to me! So my method of finding a good recipe is always trial & error...I bake, and I bake, and I bake.
One of my great frustrations in sugar cookie baking was that the cookie dough cutouts never seemed to hold their shape when they were baked. My cute Christmas Santas, Easter bunnies, and Valentine Cupids always seemed to melt into shapeless blobs in the oven. That's one of the things I love about these sugar cookie recipes...the cutouts keep their shape when they're baked!
And, although I'm sure there are a lot of sugar-cookie-purists out there who would gasp at the thought of messing with the ol' standby classic sugar cookie....you really HAVE to try the chocolate sugar cookie recipe too!
My favorite sugar cookie baking tip...
(adapted from Kitchen Collectables)
The icing on the top...
There are two kinds of sugar cookie eaters: for some, it's all about the cookie...it has to be just right...not too soft, not too crisp...And then there's the rest of us...it's all about the frosting!
Whether you're a "cookie person" or a "frosting person," there's no denying that it's the icing on the top that really makes sugar cookies fun!
Being a frosting person, I was never fond of that hard "royal icing" that is often used to decorate sugar cookies. I always favored a nice thick slathering of buttercream frosting. However, years ago I picked up a wonderful book, Cookie Sensations, and discovered a whole new art to cookie decorating AND a new take on the classic royal icing that tastes a whole heck of a lot better. The icing recipe calls for just a little bit of shortening and some vanilla and almond extract, which gives the icing a better flavor. And, although the icing DOES set up hard enough to stack the finished cookies, it doesn't dry hard and crunchy like the classic.
Again, with a lot of trial and error, I came up with my own version of the book's icing recipe. I also created a chocolate version of the icing which, besides being totally yummy, is really nice to use when trying to mix dark colors of icing (like red, brown, & black) because you don't have to add as much color gel and the brown undertone gives the dark icing a richer color.
Important Tips for Making Royal Icing:
- Traditional royal icing recipes usually call for egg whites. However, since sugar cookies are often made for children, it's now recommended to make the icing with meringue powder instead of fresh egg whites. Meringue powder can be purchased where cake decorating supplies are sold (Michaels Craft Store or Walmart would be a good source).
- Egg whites or meringue powder will not rise and stiffen if mixed in a plastic bowl--use a glass or metal mixing bowl. They will also fail if there is any grease on the mixing blades or utensils (so be sure to wash everything thoroughly before making a second batch).
- Use food color gels. Traditional liquid food coloring can make icing too runny and doesn't have the intensity of color created by the gels.
- Non-colored icing is not really WHITE. If you want a bright white icing, add white coloring liquid (also sold with cake decorating supplies).
- Store the frosting in an air-tight container. This icing sets up like a ROCK very quickly! When working with royal icing, spoon out what you need and cover the remainder quickly.
Icing as ART...
While I love to decorate sugar cookies with my children, sometimes I want to play with the icing all by myself! One of my favorite icing techniques is marbleing.
A few of my favorite sites for cookie cutters, baking supplies, and
sugar cookie inspiration...