It’s so satisfying smelling these simple, delicious sugar cookies as they bake in the oven on a chilly day. Cookies in general are super popular in my family and a must-bring on special occasions, holidays, and birthdays. They are easily dressed with sprinkles, icing, or chocolate.
WHY YOU’LL LOVE THIS RECIPE
- Rich, delectable vanilla and butter flavor
- Stays super soft, yet keeps its shape
- Delicious with or without icing
- Highly versatile
- Easy to decorate
- Can be frozen and made ahead
I work at a bakery and the holiday season is a two-month long marathon of hand cramps, back and knee pain, and detail oriented stress. Since 2020 was such a rocky year, I decided to force some Christmas spirit into me so I could survive the busy days ahead. While shopping around a discount store for new Christmas lights, I came across a basket filled with assorted cookie cutters going for only $0.99. I envisioned a pile of colorful and sparkling Christmas cookies in my future.
Although we don’t know their precise origins, sugar cookies as we know them today can be traced back to the 1700s in Nazareth, Pennsylvania (1). In fact, the original name for them was the Nazareth Cookie. German protestants who settled in the area often made these cookies and their popularity grew as sugar became more available to the public (2). They were described as being round in shape with a buttery taste and crumbly texture. Back then, the cookies were simple, but their transformation doesn’t end there.
The tradition of decorating sugar cookies is an old one that goes back to the Middle Ages, particularly in the 1500s and 1600s. It was a popular Christmas tradition to bake and dress what were biscuits using exotic ingredients such as dried fruits, pepper, cinnamon, ginger, and almonds. Each European country had a rendition of the biscuit. The Germans made lebkuchen, a heavily spiced cake and predecessor of gingerbread; the Swedish made papparkakor (sounds like pepper cracker!), a cookie similar to the gingersnap; and Norwegians created krumkake, a waffle cookie that is wafer-thin and flavored with lemon and cardamom (3).
German and Dutch settlers brought their molds and cookie cutters to the United States. Originally, they were simply shaped and homemade or made by a local tinsmith. However, between 1871 and 1906, the holiday market became overwhelmed with inexpensive imported wares from Germany (4). Among these wares were cookie cutters, which made the tools not only easy to access, but also stylish in shape.
American cookbooks such as American Cookery by Amelia Simmons (1796) and New Butterick Cook Book by Flora Rose (1924) began to introduce decorative Christmas cookies which called for a demand in fancier molds. Novelty shapes became every household’s desire as opposed to flavor. These days, however, we do appreciate both a delicious cookie and an eye-popping decoration.
These cut-out sugar cookies are highly versatile, pairing well with sprinkles, royal icing, chocolate, and any other unique topping. The vanilla flavor really pops in this recipe; there’s A LOT of it! But, you can substitute the vanilla extract with other flavors such as orange, rum, peppermint , or lemon extract.
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Stand Mixer – a stand mixer isn’t required, but will make mixing the dough go a lot faster.
Rolling Pin – use a rolling pin or a wine bottle to help roll out your cookies. We usually have at least one or the other, right???
Parchment Paper – parchment paper or a silicone mat will serve as the base surface for both rolling out your cookies and baking them in the oven.
Cookie Cutters – cookie cutters are available at your local craft or baking supply store in dozens of shapes and sizes. For this recipe, use cutters that range between 3.5” and 4” in height and width so that your cookies can bake evenly.
Cut-Out Sugar Cookies
- 1 cup (220g) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1 cup (200g) cane sugar
- 3 cups (300g) all-purpose flour, sifted
- 2 large egg yolks (35g)
- 1 tbsp (15g) vanilla extract
- 1/4 tsp sea salt
- 24 oz (800ml) royal icing, for decorating
In a large mixing bowl, cream together the sugar and butter until super smooth and creamy. Next, add the eggs and vanilla and mix until fully incorporated.
In a separate large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour and salt.
A third at a time, mix the flour into the creamed sugar until combined. Mix for another 15 seconds. Do not over-mix. Over-mixing will develop the gluten structure, creating a dense and chewy bread-like cookie. The dough should come together easily, but still have a slightly crumbly consistency.
Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead it until the dough comes together further. This should only take a minute. At this point, it should no longer be crumbly, but smooth and easy to shape. Divide the dough into 2 equal parts.
Lay a 12×12 inch sheet of parchment onto the counter and dust it with flour. Roll out one of the chunks of dough onto the parchment until it is just under a 1/4 inch thick. Repeat for the remaining piece of dough.
Lay the layers of parchment and dough on top of one another, and place onto a baking sheet. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and chill it in the freezer for at least 1 hour.
Preheat your oven to 300°F (150°C).
Take the dough out of the freezer and lay the parchment on the table.
Keeping the dough on the parchment, use desired cookie cutters to cut out unique shapes in the dough. Set the shapes onto clean parchment lined cookie sheets at least an inch apart from one another. Knead the leftover dough together and roll it out again into a sheet just shy of a 1/4 inch thick. If the dough is too soft, chill it again before cutting out additional cookie shapes. Repeat until all of the dough has been used up. You should have 20 to 25 cookies.
Bake them in the center of the oven for 20 to 25 minutes or until slightly golden at the edges.
Allow the cookies to cool completely before decorating with royal icing, or eat as is!
- Thoroughly creaming the cookie batter will give your cookies more body and dough to work with. Cream well for a lighter sugar cookie.
- Cookie molds can get stuck in the dough if you roll the dough out to over ¼ inch. Keep them under ¼ inch for easy cutting and molding.
What’s Cooking America
Lynne Olver. “The Food Timeline: history notes – cookies, crackers & biscuits”. Foodtimeline.org Archived from the original on 2012-02-17
Olver, Lynne. “Food Timeline: Christmas foods”. The Food Timeline. Retrieved 2009-12-13
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