A Cut-Out Cookie Rescue

Tuesday, Noon PT: The skies in Seattle are steely gray, spitting out a mix of rain and snow, and I’m about to head to the airport to pick up my brother, Tim. The phone rings. It’s my Chicagoland friend, Nancy, whose name really should be Lucille (as in Ball).


Nancy G's heart-shaped cut outs, the second time 'round. (Nancy Loggins Gonzalez)

“KIM!”

I know that cry. It means my dear friend of 20 years, who is easily flummoxed in the kitchen, is in need of a recipe. Turns out her son’s fourth grade teacher decided at the last minute to reschedule the class Valentine’s party to Wednesday, which meant, for Nan, the designated cut-out cookie parent, to act pretty darn snappy.

I can tell she’s on the verge of hyperventilating, so I quickly rifle through a few baking books for a quick fix. “Okay, here’s one,” I say. “Got a pen?”


I assume she knows to bring the butter up to room temperature and to slice it into smaller pieces so the electric beater can go easy on the dough, so I omit that important little tidbit. Nonetheless, she’s breathing more regularly, and I can get on with my airport run.

Flash forward five or six hours, and the phone brrrrrings again.

“Hello?”

“THE DOUGH IS COMPLETELY CRUMBLY! I CAN’T ROLL IT OUT!”

Houston, we’ve got a situation.

By now, it’s 8 p.m. in Chicago, and I know Nan is about to burst a blood vessel.

“I did everything you said,” she said, trying to sound convincing.

"So, tell me about the butter,” I say. “Did you warm it up?”

"No, it was frozen."

"And did you cut it up into smaller pieces before mixing?"

"Well, no," she says sheepishly. “I just let the beater do that.”

"NAN. Here’s what you’re going to do. Throw out the other dough. And I’ve got a new recipe for you to try. Start by taking out more butter to warm up, and slice it into several smaller pieces.”

And so we did another round of dictation, using a recipe from “Recipe of the Week: Cookies” by Sally Sampson, and I made sure my exasperated pal was equipped with all the necessary know-how and little tricks of the trade to make the second batch a delicious success.

Wednesday: 8 a.m. PT: I receive an e-mail with the subject line: “Sugar cookies.” Apparently, the heart-shaped beauties “turned out fabulous!” Whew.

I couldn’t resist testing a batch here at Casa Appetite, and sure enough, these cookies do the job. Of course, mine weren’t nearly as pretty as Nan’s (see photo, above), but I reckon we found ourselves a winner. Better still, I’ve got edible Valentines to deliver this weekend.

For those of you who just don't get all the hype about sugar cut outs, you've got company; Comedian Gary Gulman shares his thoughts on the sugary matter.


Vanilla Bean Sugar Cookies
From “Recipe of the Week: Cookies” by Sally Sampson
KOD notes in parentheses

Instead of vanilla extract, Sampson uses an entire vanilla bean and pulverizes it in a food processor. I found it a tad gritty for my taste, so I scraped the insides of the bean instead to flavor my dough. You can forego the bean and use vanilla extract. Details on substitutions below.

Ingredients
1 vanilla bean, split down the middle lengthwise and coarsely chopped (Or a split bean, using a spoon to scrape insides, or 2 teaspoons vanilla extract)
1 cup granulated sugar, plus additional for sprinkling
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into slices (I use half butter, half Earth Balance spread with good results)
1 whole egg, at room temperature
1 large egg yolk, at room temperature
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt

Method

Place vanilla (whichever form you decide) and sugar in bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade and process until mixture turns a very pale brown and vanilla is almost completely incorporated into the sugar, 3-5 minutes.

Transfer mixture to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (I kept everything in food processor and used “pulse” function; you could also use an electric mixer), add butter and mix until smooth and creamy. Scrape down sides of the bowl, add egg and egg yolk, one at a time, mixing well between additions. Scrape down sides of the bowl, and add flour, baking powder and salt. Mix until everything is well incorporated. (When it was time to add dry ingredients, I incorporated by hand, using a rubber spatula.)

Form dough into two balls. Place each ball into the center of a large resealable plastic bag. Place each bag on the counter, and using a rolling pin, roll dough from center toward edges until it is between 1/8 and ¼ inch thick. Refrigerate for at least one hour and up to two days.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Remove one sheet of dough from the refrigerator at a time. (If you have trouble pulling dough out of bag in one piece, place on lightly floured work surface, place bag on top of dough (which can be sticky) and roll dough out using bag as buffer. It works really well.)

Using any shape cookie cutter, punch out cookies and place two inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheet (I used parchment to line pan.) Bake until cookies are just starting to turn golden brown on edges, 8-10 minutes.

Cool on cookie sheet. Transfer to a wire rack and repeat with remaining dough.

Makes 3-4 dozen cookies (depending on size of cutter).


By Kim ODonnel |  February 12, 2009; 7:00 AM ET Baking , Valentine's Day
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We made cut-out cookies for my son's birthday party this year. I used the recipe from the Joy of Cooking, and added food coloring to some of the dough.

What really made a difference was rolling out the dough between two sheets of parchment paper. I didn't have to add flour to the rolling pin or the countertop, which can lead to overly dry cookies.

We cut out the cookies right on the bottom sheet of paper, then peeled the excess dough from around the shapes. Slid the parchment right onto the baking sheet and put it in the oven. It worked great. In the past, my cut-out cookies have always stuck or fallen apart when I lifted them off the countertop.

An added bonus: We wrote each kid's name on the paper next to their cookies, so we knew whose were whose when they came out of the oven.

Posted by: jwolzie | February 12, 2009 10:38 AM

Kim - This post reminds me of your wish for handed down recipes. I've got my great- great- great- grandmother's recipe for sugar cookies. I've been making it since I was about 4 and would help my mom. It uses sour milk (my earliest chemistry lesson) and my grandmother changed lard to Crisco in the recipe. No one ever believes that the cookies could possibly be good but they are the best. A soft crumb, a great taste, and terrific structural integrity. It is the only time I use Crisco for anything (I'm tempted to switch back to lard but I haven't tried it that way yet).

The best part, both when I was 4 and now in my 40s, is that you mix it with your hands. That's right, you put your hands in the Crisco, eggs and muck and squish it around until you've got consistent dough. I always feel connected to my childhood and the literal "hands-on" approach makes me feel connected to all those grandmothers who didn't have electric mixers and food processors and such.

Posted by: esleigh | February 12, 2009 11:11 AM

What I love about this story is how we all sort of tend to "skip the steps" that we think everyone should know.

I helped my husband edit a cookbook that was published by his former employer; it was cookbook that featured a lot of wild game recipes that were sent in by readers. The problems became evident as I read the recipes. They would say things like "put the pheasant into a casserole."

Um, is that cooked or raw? Whole or cut up? What size casserole? Does the casserole need to be prepped in any fashion?

Or it would say, "bake until done." And that might be in approximately how long? Or there would be a huge list of ingredients, but no directions on when to add them, etc.

It gave me a whole new insight into recipe development and testing, and how dependent we have become on recipes being fairly specific in their directions. People with good knowledge of cooking/baking can get away with omitting what appears to be "obvious" steps themselves, but sometimes things do get lost in translation.

However, did she really need to ditch the original dough? Couldn't they have been rolled into balls and cooked, even if just for house cookies and not presented for cookie perfection? I'm too cheap to dump a whole batch o' dough.

Posted by: khachiya1 | February 12, 2009 2:11 PM

I'm making Spritz cookies for my son to take for their V-day celebration tomorrow and to give out to friends. Kids love them, and they're small. They're so easy and you can fit 2 dozen on a sheet! And my Wilton comfort cookie press is so much easier to use than my mom's old metal one (although it the Mirro does have its own retro appeal).

Posted by: MPAmom | February 12, 2009 4:18 PM

I always love a new sugar cookie recipe and this one was very good--I liked that they didn't spread and were crunchy and strong enough to frost without being hard. I thought they were a little sticky and found it hard to peel the bag off the dough (I cut the edges off the bag and peeled it back). I only needed 1/2 the amount, so I rolled the second bag out, refrigerated until firm, then tossed it into the freezer. I'm sure the bag will peel off better frozen and it's nice to have for emergencies. Next time I'll probably roll it out the regular way, but with powdered sugar instead of extra flour. Thanks!

Posted by: auntiemare | February 17, 2009 9:35 PM

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