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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Alton meets Martha: Classic Cutout Sugar Cookies and Icing

I was incredibly pleased with the traditional yet delicious taste and crisp texture of these cookies. I loved eating them plain perhaps even more than I liked them iced, which is a true testament to the quality of the cookie. Most of all, I loved making them. I made up a batch of these traditional treats with a very good friend of mine, and they helped me remember that a nostalgic holiday task, performed in the kitchen with good friends, is a fast way to find joy in small things.

I prefer a crisp sugar cookie that only reveals some of its chewy nature after being bitten into, and that is exactly what this recipe gives. If you prefer the exceedingly chewy sugar cookies that have been made popular by the tubes of Pillsbury dough in the fridge section of the grocery store, you might want to look elsewhere. This recipe has none of those odd industrial add-ons that keep baked goods unnaturally flexible. But pure and simple ingredients coming together for a classic holiday taste.

I am an unabashed Alton Brown fan. His particular science-based take on the kitchen never ceases to interest me, because any time I watch one of his shows I feel that I learn important little bits of knowledge that extend beyond the particulars of that recipe, and tend to stay with me long after the tv is off, continually improving my kitchen technique. So when searching through troves of seemingly similar sugar cookie recipes, I let Alton's reputation sway me to his Sugar cookies recipe.

I followed Alton's recipe precisely, although I just couldn't abide by a sugar cookie recipe that didn't include any vanilla extract, so I added a scant 1 teaspoon vanilla extract to the dough and was ultimately very pleased with the addition. If you are looking for something a little different in your sugar cookies, you could also consider adding 1/2 tsp vanilla extract and 1/2 tsp orange extract. I didn't refrigerate the dough for the requested 2 hours because once I get on a baking roll, I simply can't be bothered to stop that train and wait for two hours while doing something else. So I stuck the dough outside in the frigid Chicago weather for about 20-30 minutes while I did dishes and prepared my roll-out stage.

I particularly loved that Alton recommends to "flour" your working space with powdered sugar, which worked like a dream and left none of the chalky taste or residue that flour can sometimes leave. The dough was easy to roll out to a quarter inch thickness without tearing, and cut well. I baked the cookies on my tried-and-true baking stones. The cookies bake up beautifully.

The only caution I would offer is that when working with very thin cookies, even slight variations in thickness can mean that some cookies are cooked too much while others are still too light. This just cautions you to do your best to ensure an even roll out.

Confectioners' Sugar Icing. Although the many high profile mentions of "royal icing" were tempting, being pregnant I didn't want to mess with raw egg whites, and we aren't the kind of family that just happens to have meringue powder laying around just in case. So a more classic confectioners' sugar icing was just what we were looking for. Martha's original recipe seems to assume you are baking for the entire Local pipefitter's union. But the recipe was built on perfect proportions that were reducible by three, so we scaled the recipe back to one third and still wound up with more than enough icing.

Scaled Recipe
Enough to frost all of Alton Brown's Sugar Cookies

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 pounds confectioners' sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
1/3 cup milk, plus more if needed

Now anytime you mess with the scale of a recipe, it is always possible any failings of the recipe are your own, because some recipes just don't scale well. But in my experience that happens most often when you are dealing with leavening agents. And the ingredients in this list just don't lead me to believe there is any reason the recipe couldn't be scaled.

I just didn't like either the taste or the texture of this recipe as written. We all agreed that it tasted like pure sugar. While icing should be sweet, you want to convey some experience that goes beyond licking a sugar block. So we tinkered. The most important change was to gradually introduce more salt, which helped raise the overall flavor and diminish the sense of unadulturated sugar. Slightly more butter and milk also helped with the overall taste and texture.

In the end it was a workable recipe, considering I found there were surprisingly few good recipes for icing out there that weren't using the royal icing eggwhite base.

The other issue I had with this icing was that it was only moderately spreadable after whipping, and tended to produce more granular results than I really like. I wanted to create that smooth, svelt look of icing that I associate with classic cut-out cookies. I found a great solution: take about half of your icing (or half of whatever color you want to work with) and microwave it in a bowl on high or medium high for 6-10 seconds (depending on volume). Stir well. To thicken, add back in some of the unheated icing and stir to combine until you've achieved your desired balance between thickness and smoothness. The heated icing cooled to a beautiful smooth finish, and was firm enough that stacking the cookies to store did not make them stick together in a gooey mess. You can see the difference between the slightly heated and unheated icings above.


Katie Barlow said...

Yum! These look great! Come check out my christmas cookie list and my giveaway which ends today!

Darius T. Williams said...

These cookies look great. You've gotta tell me how you get your pictures to be that huge? I want to learn how to do that?

Can you e-mail me?

AJ said...

You can add a little corn syurp to your recipe to give you a nice gloss w/o the egg whites. Recipezaar has a good recipe for icing as well.

Gina Thompson said...

Thanks for the awesome post. Alton's cookies turned out great! I added some vanilla like you said. (And I agree, who doesn't add vanilla to a cookie recipe?!) And I used your icing recipe and it tasted great! I didn't need to nuke it or anything. This is the first time I've made sugar cookies and I was so proud of myself! But your post helped tremendously in getting it to come out right!

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