Kicking Up the Flavor of a Holiday Favorite
If you believe in Santa Claus — and deep down, we all want to believe — you believe in cookies. After all, you have to leave out a big plateful on Christmas Eve to reward Saint Nick for showing up. Especially when you know that you’ve been more naughty than nice.
And it’s the rare holiday assortment that doesn’t include a sugar cookie of some description. They’re easy to make and extremely versatile. You can adapt the recipe to feature your preferred flavors. You can serve them plain, or coat them with decorating sugar or sprinkles, or even slather them with icing. It’s all good.
Best yet, you can make a double batch of dough and freeze some of it. That way you can bake some fresh cookies whenever the moods strikes you.
Just make sure you have plenty available on Christmas Eve. I have it on good authority that they’re Santa’s favorite. Ho, ho, ho!
Recipe: Almond Sugar Cookies
The predominant flavor of sugar cookies is butter and vanilla. In this recipe, we enhance that by adding some almond extract. If you prefer, you could just omit the almond and have classic sugar cookies.
Sugar cookies have been around for centuries, and all cookbooks contain more or less the same recipe, differing only on precise ingredient quantities. Mrs. Kitchen Riffs is the cookie baker in our household, and she really likes Maida Heatter’s cookbooks. So she adapted this recipe from one found in Heatter’s 1977 Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Cookies.
This recipe prepares about 40 three-inch cookies (fewer if you make bigger ones). It takes about 20 minutes to mix the cookie dough, plus anywhere from one-half hour to 2 hours to chill the dough (see Notes). Then you’ll need about half an hour to roll out, cut, decorate, and bake a couple sheets of cookies (plus more time for additional sheets). So figure maybe 1½ hours active time for preparing this recipe.
As noted up top, you can freeze the dough to prepare later (wrap it well in cling wrap or aluminum foil, and store in a freezer bag; it’ll keep for at least 2 or 3 months). Or you can mix the cookie dough and chill overnight (or for a couple of nights) before rolling out and baking.
Leftover baked cookies theoretically last for a week or so if kept in an airtight container. But we always eat them long before then, so we can’t say for sure.
- 3¼ cups all-purpose flour
- 2½ teaspoons double-acting baking powder (see Notes)
- ~ ¼ teaspoon salt (if using kosher salt, a touch more)
- 1½ sticks (6 ounces) unsalted butter
- 1½ cups granulated sugar
- 2 eggs (consider using pasteurized; see Notes)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 - 2 teaspoons almond extract (see Notes)
- ½ tablespoon milk
- decorating sugar or sprinkles, or icing, to decorate cookies (optional)
- Whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt for about a minute to thoroughly mix all ingredients. Set aside.
- In the bowl of a standing mixer, cream butter. Add sugar and continue beating until the mixture is light and fluffy. (If you don’t have an electric mixer, use a wooden spoon and mix in a large bowl.) Beat in the eggs.
- Add vanilla extract, then almond extract, and then milk, mixing after each addition.
- With the machine running on low speed, gradually add the dry ingredients until they’re fully mixed in, scraping down any bits that cling to the side of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Don’t add all the dry ingredients at once! It takes time for the wet ingredients to absorb the dry, and if you add the dry ingredients all at once, it will actually take longer for this to occur than if you add the dry ingredients gradually.
- Dump the dough out onto a work surface, and divide into two parts (this will allow it to chill faster, and will make it easier to handle when you’re rolling it out). Wrap each half in cling wrap or wax paper, and place in freezer for ½ hour or in refrigerator for at least two hours (see Notes).
- When ready to roll out the cookies and bake, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Place one rack in lower third of oven, the other in the upper third position.
- Prepare baking sheets by cutting out parchment paper to just fit the surface of each baking sheet. (I don’t recommend using silicone baking mats or greased cookie sheets for these cookies.)
- Lightly dust your work surface (consider using a pastry marble or silicone mat; see Notes) with a light coating of powdered sugar, not flour (see Notes).
- Place one half of the dough on the prepared surface, and with a rolling pin (preferably silicone; otherwise, you may want to dust your rolling pin with powdered sugar to prevent the dough from sticking) roll the dough out into a roughly rectangular shape, to a thickness of about ¼ inch (see Notes); if you want very thin, crisp cookies, roll the dough thinner. I usually find it easiest if I roll in one direction; then rotate the dough 90 degrees and roll again. And then turn over the dough and roll some more. Work quickly so the dough doesn’t warm up too much.
- Cut the cookies with cookies cutters (see Notes for discussion of metal vs. plastic cutters) or biscuit cutters. Or if you don’t have those, use a knife and cut into squares or diamonds. To use the cookie or biscuit cutters, place them on the surface of the dough and firmly press down. Use a spatula to transfer the cookies to the prepared baking sheet. Make sure to leave a space of an inch or so between cookies so they can expand somewhat; this will also allow the air to circulate around them so they’ll bake more evenly. Repeat until all of your cookies are cut out.
- If decorating with colored sugar or sprinkles, dust the cookies with decorating ingredients before baking. If leaving plain or decorating with icing, skip this step.
- Place cookies in preheated oven and bake until done (they’ll be lightly browned). Smaller cookies usually bake in 8 to 10 minutes; larger ones (4 inches or more) may take 10 to 12 minutes. When done, remove from baking sheet with a flat spatula and cool on a wire rack.
- While cookies are baking, gather leftover scraps of dough and form into a ball and chill. Remove the second batch of dough from the freezer, roll it out, and cut out cookies. Continue doing this, eventually rolling out and cutting the leftover scraps, until all the dough has been formed into cookies and baked.
- If you haven’t decorated the cookies with sugar or sprinkles, you can cover them with icing once they’re cool, using your favorite icing recipe.
- If you don’t want to roll out the cookie dough and cut it into fancy shapes, no problem. Just form it into sliceable “logs”: Tear off an 18-inch length of wax or parchment paper. Spoon a few dollops of dough down the length of the paper, until you’ve formed a strip about 10 to 12 inches long and about 2 inches thick. Fold the paper lightly around the dough. Using your hands to press against the paper with a slight rolling action, shape the dough into an oblong-shaped log. Repeat until you have formed all the dough into long rolls. Wrap the dough in the paper, then place in plastic wrap or a plastic food storage bag and place in freezer or fridge, as explained in Step 5. When you’re ready to bake, unwrap a log of chilled dough and place on a cutting board. Using a sharp knife, cut into slices of ¼ inch or so and bake. (This is the same method we used for Chocolate Pepper Cookies recipe.)
- This recipe calls for both vanilla and almond extracts. You can leave out the vanilla if you prefer, but I think it works well with almond.
- Adjust the amount of almond extract to your taste. If you use 2 teaspoons, the cookies will have a fairly pronounced almond flavor — tasty, but perhaps more than you want. If you prefer just a hint of almond, stick with one teaspoon.
- You should use high quality (pure) vanilla and almond extracts in this recipe.
- Pure vanilla extract is made by soaking vanilla beans in a mixture of water and alcohol for several months. BTW, the FDA requires that pure vanilla extract contain at least 35% alcohol. If the label doesn’t say “pure,” that means it’s made from synthetic vanilla. The artificial kind is usually derived from the sapwood of several species of conifers — or from coal extracts!
- The flavor of some imitation vanillas can be nasty. You don’t have to spend a fortune on pure vanilla extract, but getting decent quality does mean spending a bit more for something that’s not loaded with sugar or imitation flavoring. Do yourself a favor and get the real stuff.
- Almost every baking powder you’ll find on your grocery shelf is “double-acting.”
- Baking powder does become weaker over time (and most baking powder tins have an expiration date). So replace your baking powder when necessary. I usually replace mine once a year, when daylight savings time ends (so I remember to do it).
- It’s a good idea to shake your baking powder before using it to make sure all its components are well mixed. Baking powder consists of baking soda, an acidic ingredient (which reacts with the baking soda to produce leavening), and a neutral substance (usually corn starch) to provide bulk.
- Eggs carry a slight (but real) risk of salmonella. So I suggest using pasteurized eggs for cookie dough. Although it’s unlikely that the eggs you buy will be infected, why take the risk? Especially since most of us can’t make cookies without tasting the raw dough!
- You can easily identify pasteurized eggs because they usually have a red “P” stamped on them.
- Most recipes tell you to chill sugar cookie dough in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours. But I usually speed up the process by stashing it in the freezer instead. That way, it’s ready to roll out in about 30 minutes.
- The idea for rolling out the cookies in powdered sugar rather than flour comes from a great post on Holiday Baking Tips from Alanna Kellogg on Kitchen Parade. As she notes, the sugar will “melt into the surface” of the cookie dough. If you use flour when rolling, it can add too much gluten, potentially making for tougher cookies.
- The quicker you roll out your dough, the cooler it will remain. This is important because warm dough is harder to work with. And your cookie cutters may produce edges that are a bit rough and uneven.
- Marble pastry slabs “suck” heat from the dough, helping keep it cool; so if you have one, that’s a great surface to use for rolling out the dough. I’ve also heard of people freezing aluminum baking sheets and sliding them under the rolled out dough for a few minutes before cutting, again to help transfer the heat from the cookie dough to the baking sheet. But if you work quickly, you generally won’t have a problem with warm dough.
- If you have problems rolling out your dough to an even thickness, you can buy little bands or spacers for your rolling pin that look something like big rubber bands. They’re a precise thickness, so using these it’s easy to roll your dough out to ¼ inch or whatever; the spacers won’t allow you to roll too thin.
- Metal or plastic cookie cutters? Metal ones usually have thinner cutting edges, making a cleaner cut. But they can rust, and if you’re not careful you can bend them. So there are advantages to both. But if you wash your cookie cutters in the dishwasher, and they live in a cluttered drawer where they get knocked around and potentially bent, plastic might be the better choice.
- If you're not festooning the cookies with colored sugar or other holiday-specific decorations, just sprinkle them generously with granulated sugar before baking.
- If you’d like to try the lemon variation we chat about below, here it is: Reduce the vanilla extract to ½ teaspoon; leave out the almond extract and milk. Add the zest and juice of one large lemon in Step 3.
A Blank Canvas
“So which do you like better,“ Mrs K R asked as I helped myself to a sugar cookie star that had been decorated sparkling red, “plain sugar cookies or these almond ones?”
“Tough choice,” I pondered, chewing slowly. “These are awfully good. But so are the plain sugar cookies. I have an almond job in my hands right now, so I have to vote for these.”
“I can’t decide either,” she agreed, putting the last sheet of cookies into the oven. “I wonder what they’d taste like with lemon?”
“Lemon?!” I reached for a Christmas tree-shaped cookie covered with green sugar. “That’s one of my favorite flavors! Why haven’t we done lemon?”
“I’m thinking about it, I’m thinking about it,” she soothed me. “One of the great things about sugar cookies is they’re such a great canvas for experimentation. Almond is good, and I’ll bet lemon is too. Pretty much any flavor you fancy is probably worth trying — just add a bit of the appropriate extract or other flavoring to the dough, and bake away.”
“Add lots of lemon,” I said as I reached for a round cookie covered with sprinkles. “Have I ever mentioned that it’s one of my favorite flavors?”
“I think you might have,” Mrs K R said.
I grabbed a star coated with green sugar.
“Aren’t you overdoing it a bit with the cookies?” Mrs K R asked. “It’d be nice to have some tomorrow.”
“I just want to see whether the ones with green sugar taste different from the ones with red sugar,” I replied. “Research. It’s important to do thorough research — our readers depend upon it.”
I swept crumbs from my shirt. “Besides, the sooner these are finished, the sooner you can make some lemon ones.”
Lemon is one of my favorite flavors, you know.
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Chocolate Pepper Cookies
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Ultimate Chocolate Brownie
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What a great idea to replace your baking powder at Daylight Savings time. Just like checking your batteries in your fire alarms! I'm going to add baking powder to that list - thanks for the great tip!
Hi Kristy, although baking powder is actually good for a bit more than a year (just like the batteries in the fire alarms), it does weaken with age, so replacing it on schedule seems like a good idea. Thanks for the comment.
Another sugar cookie recipe to try! I made two different batches already today so that some friends can taste and decide on a favorite. Maybe a 3rd is in order?
How adorably festive and delicious :)
Choc Chip Uru
Cute cookies - very festive and Christmas-y!
I am a big fan of mixing vanilla and almond extract - these sound delicious!
Your almond sugar cookies look and sound amazing. I was compiling a list of cookies to make soon and the standard sugar cookie was on the list. Seems so boring now after reading and viewing yours! These look very delicious!
I can see a lemon cookie in your near future.... I love your little almond cookies. I usually have to frost my cookies per my teenagers request but the use of the sprinkles on the dough before hand is a great idea. No frosting needed for the sprinkles. Have a super week. BAM
Hi Lizzy, as if the world needs another sugar cookie recipe! But they really taste nice with almond. And I definitely think a third is in order! Thanks for the comment.
Hi Uru, this cookie has Christmas written all over it! Thanks for the comment.
Hi Julia, thanks! And thanks for commenting.
Hi Alyssa, isn't that a great combo? Both seem somehow enhanced when combined. Thanks for commenting.
Hi Judy, plain sugar cookies are pretty good too, IMO. But it's always fun to play with the recipe a bit. Thanks for the comment.
Hi Bam, actually Mrs K R made the lemon version today! Delish. Frosted cookies look great, but can be a little messy (as if the ones with sprinkles aren't!). They're actually quite good without any decorating as well, but of course less festive. Thanks for the comment.
Love almond flavored anything but it's better to eat a whole cookie than a whole cake. I usually don't bake cookies for Christmas but these sure are tempting. Let me see how I'm doing once I get the biscotti made. I've a feeling there are some of your cookies in my future. Thanks for sharing your recipe.
Oh lemon does sound like a delicious addition! I love love adding almond extract to my baked treats, instead of vanilla extract, it gives such a gorgeous flavor to the sweet treat:-) I believe in Santa, why not? It is fun to think about, and wonder for sure:-) Your pictures are beautiful, Hugs, Terra
I hope that I'm "good" enough to enjoy all these delicious festive biscuits. You sounds like a cookie master with all these fantastic cookie baking tips - Thanks!
I like lemon too but chocolate is always our family number 1 fav! :p
so how long did it take to get the lemon cookies??
Hi John, this is a pretty good cookie and quite easy to make, although rolling and cutting out the cookies does take a bit of time. I've never made biscotti - something I (or Mrs K R) definitely need to do. Thanks for the comment.
Hi Terra, it's pretty hard to beat lemon in this sort of cookie, IMO, although the almond is quite good. Thanks for the kind words, and the comment.
Hi Zoe, it'd be tough to choose between lemon and chocolate! Fortunately, we can have both! And I'm sure you've been "good" enough to have both! Thanks for the comment.
Hi Maureen, Mrs K R made some lemon ones today! Lucky me! ;-) Thanks for commenting.
I have a granite bench which is always cold and it works well for pastry. I didn't know you could get rolling pin spacers - not a silly idea for getting the pastry even.
I love your simple Christmasy decorations on the cookies.
Very nice, simple and colourful cookies. Very festive indeed!
Hi Suzanne, granite is an excellent surface for rolling cookies too. Those spacer deals are kinda neat. You do need a longish rolling pin to take full advantage of them IMO, but for pie, cookie, and cracker dough they work pretty well. Thanks for the comment.
We use almond extract in our Christmas sugar cookies, it takes them to a whole new level. I too love lemon, though I am partial to almond flavoring at Christmas for some reason and save lemon for spring. Silly how we associate certain flavors with certain seasons...I don't think Santa minds either way. ;)
Hi Raymund, when decorated these really do look quite festive! And of course they taste great. Thanks for the comment.
Hi Judy, I agree that almond always seems more of a winter flavor to me. I just like almond, so I always have to give Mrs K R a hard time and beg her to make something with lemon. ;-) And I agree that Santa doesn't mind at all! Thanks for the comment.
hee! hee! My kids like to see if the different colored sprinkles and icing taste differently, too! I've seen sugar cookie recipes using cream cheese in the mix, so you have to "research" that one, too! Why not a lemon glaze???
As usual, another great cookie! For some weird reason I am not a fan of lemon in sweets. Weird, I know. But I still hope you get your lemon cookies!
Hi Laura, I'd probably fit right in with your kids! ;-) Lemon glaze is a good idea, as well as the cream cheese. Lots of research to do! Thanks for the commet.
Hi Abbe, I obviously love lemon in anything, but if you don't like it in sweets, well, you don't like it in sweets! And Mrs K R did bake some lemon ones. ;-) Thanks for the comment.
Perfect timing! My nephew is coming on Friday for Christmas cookie baking. He's three so I'm thinking I'll be doing most of the cooking making. :)
I loved it when my older siblings got to old for "Santa" (if that's possible) and passed the Christmas Eve tradition of preparing the cookie tray to me. My favorite cookies to put on the tray were sugar cookies and Oreos. My favorite sugar cookies is lemon, but I would never turn down a "plain" or almond one! I'd easily fill my cookie jar with these cookies! Thanks Mrs. KR for sharing such a great cookie recipe!
Yummy looking cookies. I have never used almond extract in sugar cookies, sounds like it would a good thing to try.
Oh...these cookies look awesome...and they are so perfectly shaped...I am sure that Santa will appreciate them.
Have a wonderful week!
Nothing quite says the holidays like a big spread of decorated cookies. I bet Santa will love them, too. Happy holidays! ;)
Hi Kristi, three is the perfect age to doing lots of cookie testing. ;-) You'll have a great quality control helper. Thanks for the comment.
Hi MJ, I'll never turn down any kind of sugar cookie! Such a simple one, but so good. Thanks for the comment.
Hi Dawn, the almond extract is really worth trying - it has great flavor. Thanks for the comment.
Hi Juliana, Santa will definitely appreciate them. Or maybe he already has . . . ;-) Thanks for the comment.
Hi Carolyn, isn't it fun having a big plate filled with several different kinds of cookies? Happy Holidays to you as well, and thanks for commenting.
Oooh yum! I just love holiday baking! So many different delicious Christmassy cookies to make, so little time!
Wow you almond sugar cookies turned out so pretty! I bet they taste great. I love cookies with almond extract :)
Pretty and delicious! A great gift idea. This week, I will be making tons of cXmas ookies...
I'm so with you on the lemon bit. Sounds like Santa's one lucky guy in your house around this time of year, huh? Thanks for sharing!
Hi Christine, so little time is right! And in some ways a good thing, otherwise we'd be making a ridiculous number of cookies! Thanks for the comment.
Hi Kristi, it's pretty hard not to have a pretty cookie with sprinkles! And isn't almond extract wonderful? Thanks for the comment.
Hi Rosa, have fun baking! Thanks for the comment.
Hi Ala, Santa really is pretty lucky! And isn't lemon such a nice flavor? Thanks for the comment.
I definitely believe in cookies! And, sugar cookies are my favorite. Plain sugar, almond, or lemon all sound equally great to me.
Lemon once are my favorite too, even before I got to the dialogue part, I was thinking to myself: lemon zest would be nice! Can I adjust sugar amount too? Not a bit sweet eater, always cut on sugar in recipes to a possible minimum. I know, I know, it's sugar cookies, but still... :) Love all the decorations, look very cute, and each cookie has a nice cut!
Hi Lisa, who doesn't believe in cookies? ;-) I'll take any kind of sugar cookie too - they're all good. Thanks for the comment.
Hi Marina, isn't lemon just such a good flavor? I would imagine you could cut the sugar a bit, but I'd experiment by cutting just a bit at a time. Sugar is there not only for sweetness, but it also provides some structure (I'm sure you could replace it with something, but I'm not enough of a baker to know exactly what; I'll bet one of Shirley Corriher's books would have the answer). Thanks for the comment.
So festive and pretty! I love how colorful these are and different shape! I have almond extract too, but only used for waffles. I must use it for cookies next time!
Hi Nami, you'll love almond extract in cookies and other baking! Although the waffles sound pretty good! Thanks for the comment.
Wow, such beautiful cookies! I love the addition of almonds.
Hi Ilan, the almond flavoring is excellent. As was the lemon, when Mrs K R made those. ;-) Thanks for the comment.
I have tried lemon but not almond extract in my sugar cookies. Research is good and our readers do appreciate it. Santa will appreciate it too. :)
I'm already starting to feel a bit over-indulged on sugar and Christmas is still over a week away! These look delicious!
Hi Biren, isn't research such a worthy activity? ;-) Plus it's so satisfying personally, if you know what I mean. ;-) And your point about Santa is excellent! Thanks for the comment.
Hi Ali, I know what you mean! But just think, right after Christmas we get to start talking about New Year's festivities! ;-) Thanks for the comment.
Such adorable cookies!
Hi Asmita, these are fun, aren't they? Not to mention delish! Thanks for the comment.
Fantastic twist with the use of almond extract. I definitely have fond memories of rolling out dough and decorating the cookies - it's a tradition I can't wait to do when I have kids.
Hi Food Jaunts, sugar cookies are really fun to play with - you can so easily change their flavor slightly with different extracts, etc. And I agree rolling out the dough and cutting cookie shapes is tons of fun! Thanks for the comment.
Great cookies, I've always loved sugar cookies. And kudos to you and Mrs. KR for doing such valuable research.
Hi Kim, research is vital, don't you think? ;-) And I agree that sugar cookies are among the best. Thanks for the comment.
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