Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Christmas traditions: Sugar Cookies
Surely one of the chief pleasures of Christmas is the nostalgia bit: doing the same old things you've always done. Although every year brings unavoidable changes, there is something so comforting about established rituals -- particularly when they stretch back all the way to one's childhood. When it comes to holiday baking, I have three sentimental favorites that I must make or it just doesn't feel like Christmas. Gingerbread men. English toffee. Sugar Cookies.
Sugar cookies were the first Christmas cookie that I remember "helping" to make. Unlike the more complicated roll-out butter cookies, we always used a recipe that was child-friendly. Even smallish children could roll the dough into balls, press them down with a sugared bottom of a glass, and then decorate them lavishly with colored sprinkles or pecan halves. They were delicious to eat, too. So delicious, in fact, that we always left them out for Santa. (I was so surprised when I moved to England and learned that English Santas get mince pies and sherry . . . instead of sugar cookies and milk!)
But even though my love for this sugar cookie recipe is a true love, and even though our relationship spans back nearly 40 years, I do still like to flirt. Not often, you understand, but very occasionally.
Last week I needed to make cookies for my daughter's Christmas Fayre (sic), and I was tempted to stray by one of my most beguiling baking books: The Pastry Queen, by Rebecca Rather. My mother gave me this cookbook, and such was my love for it, that I insisted on making a specific pilgrimage to Fredricksburg, Texas, just to visit Rebecca's Rather Sweet Bakery and Cafe. When I am feeling homesick for Texas, or when I want a really over-the-top delicious recipe, I tend to reach for this favorite.
The name -- Sugar Saucers -- caught my eye. Cookies are fairly rare at an English bake sale, and I knew that an oversized version would be popular with the kids. VFM (or, value for money) as my husband always says. Also, I couldn't help but be wonder if Rather -- a baking goddess -- had a better sugar cookie recipe than the one I've been making all of these years.
4 ounces softened, unsalted butter
4 ounces vegetable oil (sunflower or canola)
4 ounces granulated sugar
4 ounces powdered (or icing) sugar
1 large egg
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups plain flour (13 ounces is about right; I needed slightly more flour than two measured cups)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
Preheat the oven to 350F/175 C. If you aren't using silicone mats, you will need to grease your cookie sheets.
Using a mixer, beat the butter on medium speed until creamy. Then, adding one ingredient at a time, add the oil, granulated sugar, powdered sugar, egg and vanilla -- beating well, until each ingredient has been incorporated. Stir in the dry ingredients (flour, baking soda and salt) all at once -- either using a wooden spoon or your mixer on a low speed.
The dough will be very soft, and you will need to refrigerate it for approximately an hour -- or freeze it for 15 minutes, if you are in a hurry.
When the dough has chilled, you can form balls -- depending on how large you want the cookies to be. A walnut sized ball of dough will give you a medium-sized cookie. Don't put more than 8 balls on a cookie sheet, as they will spread quite a bit. Rather recommends pressing the dough balls down with your fingers or palm, but I used a smooth-bottomed glass -- covered in sugar. Sprinkle the tops generously with sugar -- either granulated, or a colored decorator kind.
Baking times will vary a lot, depending (again) on the size of the cookie. Begin with 10 minutes, and then start checking every minute or so. My large cookies needed about 15 minutes -- but they will still be a light, creamy color. You should let the cookies cool on the baking sheets for 10 minutes or so before removing to a wire rack. (This recipe will freeze well, should there be any left after 24 hours.)
I've made two batches now, and the first batch was slightly chewy -- while the second batch was delicate and crisp. A minute or two of baking time will make a difference, but both batches were absolutely scrumptious.
But are sugar saucers better than my own beloved sugar cookie recipe?
Yesterday, I decided that I should perform a proper taste test. I made a batch of each kind of sugar cookie, and I invited a few tasters over for afternoon tea.
After careful, considered munching, the verdict: both equally good. I won't stop making my sugar cookies, but there is always room for new traditions.