Ah. I love Christmas cookie season. I typically start thumbing through magazines and cookbooks sometime in mid-November in anticipation. I have my usual standbys, but I always like to try a few new ones too. And every once and a while one will shine through, upgrading it’s status from trial to permanent.
I seem to be especially taken with cut-out sugar cookies. I have sort of a sick habit of using the tiniest cookie cutters I can find and then spending an inordinate amount of time decorating them. December can be a ridiculously busy month. But despite everything there is to do, somehow I find it very therapeutic to sit and put little carrot noses and itty-bitty buttons on a plate of one inch tall snowmen. I especially like doing this late at night, when the house is dark and quiet with only the glow of the tree and a glass of wine to keep me company.
To facilitate my cut-out cookie fetish, I have orchestrated scads of sugar cookie trials. But a few years back, I finally quit. None of them ever made the jump to permanent. The reason, I finally concluded, is that nothing can top my Great Aunt Mabel’s sugar cookies. These cookies have to be one of the first things I ever baked, and certainly one of the first “real” recipes I ever copied down into my now overstuffed binder. They are buttery, flaky, and just sweet enough.
But there is something else that sets them apart. Something that I didn’t realize was unusual until I really started baking. The dough gets a shot of vinegar. And this, I believe, is why in blind taste test after blind taste test, I always pick Mabel’s cookie. It just has a little somethin’ extra. I sure wish she was still here to ask “why the vinegar Mabel?!” It no doubt reacts with the tiny bit of soda, eliminating the need for baking powder, but still, I’d love to hear her take on it. That’s Mabel, below on the left, with her sister-in-law (my grandma) Myrtle (the table setting diva). Have you ever seen two women so happy over a bowl of mashed potatoes?
Mabel’s recipe is the traditional, flatten with a glass sort of sugar cookie, but many years ago I started using it for cut-outs too. In either rendition, it’s a lovely cookie. And as far as cut-out are concerned, I don’t limit myself to the Christmas season. In my book any holiday is reason enough for cut-out cookies – valentine hearts, easter eggs and spring chickens, four leaf clovers, canoes and sailboats, witches, even turkeys – I don’t discriminate. But in the off-times, a plain old, glass-flattened sugar cookie and a stiff cup of afternoon tea can certainly do no harm.
Great Aunt Mabel’s Sugar Cookies
1 cup sugar
1 cup butter
(the original recipe of course calls for shortening, which was very vogue in the day – use whatever combination of butter and/or shortening you’d like)
Cream together. Then add and mix in:
2 tablespoons vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla OR almond extract
Sift together and add:
2 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
Form into balls. Press flat with a glass dipped in sugar. Bake in a 350º F oven for about 10 minutes, until just barely golden.
* For cut-out cookies: After the dough is mixed, divide into 3 rounds. Flatten each disc between 2 large piece of parchment. Roll the dough through the parchment until it is an even 1/8″ thick. Chill the rolled out sheets for about three hours. Once chilled, peel off the top sheet of parchment from one packet at a time and cut out shapes. Use a small spatula to transfer cut-outs to a baking sheet. Cold dough is your best friend! Keep the other sheets chilled until ready to use. If the sheet you’re working on starts to become unruly – stick it back in the fridge or freezer for a quick chill and then resume cutting out. Save the scrap piles from each sheet and re-roll between parchment, chill, and cut again. This dough is pretty easy to work with as long as it is chilled. If you don’t have the patience to periodically re-chill it, you can add up to an additional 1/2 cup of flour during the original mixing. This will help the dough be a little more forgiving.
Smaller cookies take less time to bake. Watch carefully – the bottoms should be light golden, with almost no color on the tops! Once cooled, frost (or, sprinkle cookies with decorative sugar before baking)
1 cup powdered sugar
1 egg white
beat well with electric mixer. Add:
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
Beat again. This makes about one cup. I usually make 2-3 batches, divide into small bowls and stir in a teeny bit of coloring to the bowls. Let the frosting harden before storing finished cookies in an airtight container.