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Keep Your Cool: The Secret to Perfect Sugar Cookies

Since our friend Kate helped us secure the venue for the fundraiser we hosted on Valentine’s Day, I made sure to save her one of the party favors–a little bag of heart-shaped sugar cookies all tied up in a bow. We also managed to pick up, direct from Teuscher in Zurich, a box of her favorite champagne truffles. And even though the truffles really are mind-meltingly delicious, it’s the cookies she was still talking about last week. As in: “Those cookies. You’re going to teach me how to make them, right? Soon, right?”
So. Sunday was cookie-making day here at the PassionFruits kitchen. There are two critical factors at stake, I’ve found, when one wants to produce the perfect rolled sugar cookie–lovely, buttery, crispy, lightly sweet and with beautifully defined edges.

First, on the flavor front, the right recipe is critical. We used a Rose orginal from her Christmas cookie book, no surprise there. These are the only sugar cookies I will deign to make or eat. Why? Because the leavening agents in other recipes leave a nasty metallic flavor that leaves me wanting to sandblast my tongue. Yes, yes, I know, roll your eyes if you must, but trust me, I can taste the baking soda and it does. not. taste. good.

These cookies avoid the issue altogether by dropping the leavening agent and adding a bit of lemon zest, which makes for a sugar cookie that’s actually edible. Since there’s no baking powder or soda, they don’t expand when baked, which is great for more intricate forms since they don’t loose their shape when baked. Find the recipe, courtesy of Food & Wine, here.

Which brings us to important lesson the second: temperature. While the dough does maintain their nice edges well onced baked, you’ve still got to cut the cookies and get them safely onto your cookie sheet. As you probably know if you’ve ever tried to make cookies in the summer or a holiday-hot kitchen, things tend to get sticky, smushy, and irritating REAL quick.

To avoid that annoyance and heartbreak, the dough needs to be kept cold–like, just this side of frozen. Since I can’t always prechill my great-grandma Peg’s marble slab in the snow (though that works great when I’m home for Christmas), I instead make sure the dough spends a good deal more time in the refrigerator. The added time and coordination is well worth the ability to quickly and easily cut cookies and pop them onto their baking sheets with neither tear nor tear.

Specifically, I divide it into baseball-sized hunks (look at me being all sporty!) flatten them into discs, wrap them in plastic, and chill them. A fairly standard approach… so far. Meanwhile, I clear a space in the freezer and put in a cookie sheet. Once the dough’s had its initial hour or so in the fridge, it gets rolled out into an oblong between two very lightly floured sheets of plastic wrap, and put ceremoniously onto the cookie sheet in the freezer. I repeat with the rest of the dough, until I’ve got a stack of rolled-out dough chilling away.

Generally, by the time I’m done rolling the dough, the first piece has chilled to a leathery firmness that’s perfect for cutting, so out it comes from the bottom of the stack and I cut away with lightly floured cutters, transfering the perfect shapes quickly to parchment-lined baking sheets with an offset spatula.

Dividing the dough into smaller pieces before rolling is key too, as I can keep its dimensions within the confines of the plastic wrap, it’s easier to move around, and small enough that quick cutter-work can move through a piece without it going all soft and squidgy. But, even if it does, you can just pick it up by the plastic and sling it back in the freezer to firm up while you work on a different, proberly chilled, bit of dough.

Scraps can get mooshed together easily, rolled, chilled and cut. Using plastic wrap to move the dough around really limits the amout of flour needed, so I can get one or two additional rollings without the cookies getting tough.

And those, then, are my secrets to baking perfect sugar cookies (decorating them, however, is a whole other bucket of crazy). As Kate found out Sunday, they ARE a labor of love–particularly when driven by a martinet with a piping bag of royal icing in hand. But, thanks to these common sense and only sliiightly OCD tips and tricks, now they’re actually worth the effort.

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