Why is it so hard to find a good sugar cookie recipe? Seriously, I have tried nearly a dozen recipes that all say "the perfect sugar cookie recipe," "sugar cookies that hold their shape," "the only sugar cookie recipe you need"... none of which have lived up to such bold statements. I've even tried shortbread recipes that are supposed to hold their shape, but then they get crumbly and fall apart much easier. Ugh! It's been an ordeal, to say the least.
Before I start telling you about this particular recipe, one that I deem pretty close to perfect, let me tell you what makes a the ideal sugar cookie in my mind because we all have different expectations when it comes to cookies, especially sugar cookies. First and foremost, it needs to taste good (flavor always trumps presentation for me). I like a sugar cookie that isn't overly sweet because once you add a buttercream frosting or royal icing, the sweetness is going to be overwhelming (you know, like the store-bought bakery frosted sugar cookies. Those cookies basically encompass everything I don't want in a sugar cookie). For me, I want a cookie that has a slight buttery taste and a little bit of texture. Nothing too crunchy, but also nothing too fluffy and airy. And, of course, I want a cookie that will hold it's shape when baking.
So, after many, many sugar cookie tests, I've decided this is my favorite recipe so far. It uses more butter than some of the other recipes I tested (never a bad thing), but once you add all the flour, the dough comes together nicely without being dry and then rolls out beautifully. the original recipe says you can use almond extract or lemon extract. That was a no-brainer for me. I don't like almond extract in my sugar cookies, so I went with lemon extract and LOVE it. Like, love, love, love it. It's just a hint of lemon but it makes the cookie for me. I also like that these cookies are tender with the slightest crunch when you bite into them.
A lot of sugar cookie recipes, including this one, instruct you to refrigerate the dough for a while before baking. I've always thought this step was to chill the butter so the cookie doesn't spread too much. However, while it does do that, the main reason for chilling the dough is actually to give the gluten a chance to rest and the flour time to hydrate completely. If you skip this step, the texture of the cookie is likely going to change somewhat.
I also like that this recipe tells you to break up the dough in three parts and then roll out each portion in between parchment paper before refrigerating it. This makes life so much easier, I promise. Trying to roll out cold sugar cookie dough can be a real struggle!
I also noticed a difference with how the cookies baked based on the thickness of each cookie. The cookies that I didn't roll out enough, did spread a little. Whereas, the cookies that I rolled more evenly and not over a quarter of an inch thick, held their shape much better.
Also, after you cut out cookies from one portion of your dough, re-roll that dough and refrigerate it again. Once you start re-rolling the scraps and cutting again, the dough gets softer and I noticed those cookies would lose a little bit of their shape.
Sugar Cookies (adapted from "Good and Easy Rolled Sugar Cookies" from Simply Sensational Cookies by Nancy Baggett)
Yield: this will depend on how big your cookie cutters are and how thick/thin you roll your dough. I got about three dozen using medium and small-sized heart cutters.
1 1/2 cups good quality unsalted butter (like Kerrygold), at room temperature
1 2/3 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon lemon extract (or almond)
4 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
Decorate with my Whipped Vanilla Buttercream or your favorite royal icing.
1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter, sugar, baking powder and salt together on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3-4 minutes.
2. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the vanilla and lemon extract and beat again until incorporated.
3. With the mixer on low speed, add about two cups of the flour, mixing until just barely combined. Add the rest of the flour and continue mixing until combined. If the dough seems too soft and sticky (which probably means your butter was too soft), you can add a little more flour until it's a better rolling consistency.
4. Divide the dough into three equal portions and roll out each portion in between two pieces of parchment paper to just shy of 1/4" thickness. Stack the three pieces (paper included) onto a baking sheet and refrigerate for about 45 minutes.
5. When ready to bake, preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.
6. Remove one sheet of the dough from the fridge at a time and cut out your shapes. Transfer the cut pieces to your prepared baking sheet.
7. Bake for about 8-11 minutes, until just barely colored around the edges (mine were perfect at 9 minutes, but keep an eye on the cookies by 8 minutes because if you roll your dough thin, they'll be done on the earlier end and leaving them in too long will result in a crunchy cookie).
8. Allow to cool on a wire rack for a few minutes before removing the cookies from the pan and allowing them to cool completely.