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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