It is a grey day and I am filled with both gratitude and sadness. Gratitude that my town was not on Hurricane Sandy’s hit list. Sadness for those people and places who were in her path.
This past weekend was a bit surreal as we battened down the hatches in anticipation for what we believed was coming. I thought back to Hurricane Irene last August and the devastation left in her path. My mind was also on the freak October snow storm which dumped two feet of snow over western Massachusetts. That storm resulted in local town officials cancelling trick or treating on Halloween due to downed power lines. We were without power for a week.
Old habits die hard and this past Sunday after hearing all the dire storm warnings I was busy bottling water and gathering candles. Shawn prepared by putting away the porch furniture and getting extra gas for the generator we bought as a result of last October’s snow storm. In eighteen years of marriage the generator may be the best early Christmas present ever.
The threat of the storm also had me thinking back on how I was trying to bake for the Academy at Charlemont’s Cornucopia Auction with no power. Several friends who did have power offered their kitchens for me to use. The amount of baking I’d committed to however was a storm of the sugary kind and I didn’t want to inflict it on the unsuspecting. Our new generator allowed me to begin baking 48 hours before the auction started and all was well, though I did have to cut a few recipes which took more time. For this year’s auction I have the luxury of seven days to prepare so I’ve added iced sugar cookies to my list of baked goods I’m planning to donate.
I love making iced sugar cookies because they fit any holiday or occasion. Once the cookies have cooled the real fun begins. Icing sugar cookies is like entering the zone for me. I surround myself with bowls of frosting, a few toothpicks, some non parelis, and I’m off. You don’t need to be a food stylist, Martha or a pro baker to make fabulous sugar cookies. All you need are three things – awesome cookie cutters, food paste to tint your royal icing, and a great sugar cookie recipe. My go-to sugar cookie recipe is from Nancy Baggett.*
Over the years I’ve loved seeing what cookie ideas Martha’s minions come up with. I never miss an opportunity to stroll through Dean and Deluca when I’m in New York to see what their bakery buyers have sourced. And of course there is more sugar cookie inspiration to be found on dozens of blogs as well as on-line stores. My suggestion is to look around for ideas then go into your kitchen and cream your own butter and sugar together. Pull out a few cookie cutters, mix up some royal icing, and have a blast. I’m sure the results will be fantastic!
Basic Sugar Cookie Dough
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2-3 teaspoons vanilla
1/8 teaspoon lemon extract (optional)
1 Tablespoon milk
3 cups flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
Cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy. Add the egg, vanilla, milk, and lemon extract (if using) and blend together. The butter and sugar mix may break down at this point and become curdled looking – don’t worry the flour will bring it all back together. Add the dry ingredients and mix until they are completely incorporated. Divide the dough in half, smoosh each half flat, then wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for a few hours or overnight.
Preheat oven to 350º F for smaller cookies and 375º F for larger. You can work with either temperature, but I find little cookies burn quickly so I use a lower oven temp.
Now here’s the real trick to making great sugar cookies – do not add more flour to roll out the dough. Instead unwrap the dough but keep it on the plastic wrap. Add a second sheet of plastic wrap on top. This way the dough will not stick to your counter or rolling pin. You will need to peel back the plastic wrap every so often and reposition the dough. I also flip the dough over once or twice to make sure each side is smooth. I try to get my dough roughly 1/4″ thick, though it does often vary.
Cut out your cookies, place on a parchment or silpat covered cookie sheet and bake 7-10 minutes depending on size and oven temperature. I will often bake two sheets of cookies at a time so I rotate them top to bottom and back to front to ensure even baking. The bottoms should be lightly browned and perhaps the edges too, depending on how thin you rolled your dough. Carefully remove and place on a cooling rack.
Once the cookies have cooled you can either store them in an air-tight container or move on to frosting. I use a classic royal icing, which I’ve modified slightly to accommodate concerns about raw eggs.
1/2 – 1 pound confectioner’s sugar, sifted
1-3 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
pasteurized egg whites
paste food coloring
I cannot tell you how important it is to sift the powdered sugar. Yes, it may seem unnecessary. Yes, it will probably make a powdery mess. Do it anyway! If you decided despite this advice not to don’t complain to me when your royal icing is lumpy.
I haven’t given an amount for the egg whites because it can vary depending on the season or humidity as well as if you want runnier or stiffer icing. I generally start with a few Tablespoons worth along with the lemon juice and then just add dribbles more until I have my desired consistency. Then I divide the icing into bowls and add the paste food coloring (be aware a little goes a long way). If there is a color I don’t think I’ll use right away I lay a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface to keep it from crusting over. Note – if you are really concerned about the raw egg thing (even pasteurized) you can use powdered version, just refer to the manufacturer’s recommendations for reconstituting.
Here are some frosted sugar cookies and cutters from my files:
*By the way Nancy has a new cookie cookbook out which you can read about here.