Granny's Sugar Cookies :: Simple, Humble, Perfect

The sugar cookie is a simple thing, there's not too much too it, and yet it is one of the most sweetly satisfying treats, when made right. When you want to make a sugar cookie right, Granny's recipe is the one, the only. This cookie is legendary in my family, my dad's very favorite. These cookies are also a great metaphor for my Granny, who died in early 2009 at 89 and a 1/2. 89 and a 1/2! We should all get such a life. Granny was one of the wisest, humble, loving people I have ever known. She lived her life with great simplicity and one of her sayings that I love, passed onto my dad and then onto me was "kill them with kindness." This is something I'm constantly trying to achieve - but I have many good models in my family for how it works. If you need to kill someone with kindness, you should bake them a batch of Granny's simple, humble, and perfect sugar cookies. Go ahead, see what happens. I bet it will be good.

Granny's Sugar Cookies 

Happily for you, this recipe requires no unusual kitchen equipment except a rolling pin and cookie cutters. If you don't have a rolling pin, you could use a large can, though that might drive you slowly insane. You could definitely use an clean, empty can as a cookie cutter, if you don't own any traditional cutters. You will need a cookie sheet, but I'm pretty sure most people over eighteen own at least one, for bagel bites if nothing else. You can mix this dough by hand, as I'm sure my Granny did for many years; however, a mixer will allow you to aerate the sugar and butter, which results in a far lighter, crisper cookie. 

This is a pantry staple recipe, so long as you have ever baked a thing in your life. If not, you're probably not a reader of food blogs, but if you are indeed reading this and planning it for your first baked good ever, get yourself to the grocery store. You will need unsalted butter. It's important to use unsalted butter in baking, unless you want a salty cookie - this could work in certain situations, but it doesn't here. You will also need all purpose flour, white sugar, a large egg (did you know that all baking recipes use the large egg as a standard size? A recipe will call for a larger size, if its necessary. You will end up with a very different cookie if you use the wrong size egg. Maybe you always thought you were a terrible baker, but as it turns out, you've just been using medium eggs. Voila, begin anew.), milk (whole vs 1% vs skim makes a difference - I think skim is the milk of the devil, and I drink 1%, which usually ends up in my recipes, but I had some half and half in my fridge when I made these last week, and I used that with some 1% milk, and I was quite pleased. See what you like best.), baking powder (not soda!), and salt. I just learned something about salt from a friend: table salt, because it is such a small grain, is more soluble and incorporates more quickly and thus is less in your face, while kosher or sea salt is a larger flake and doesn't dissolve well, which makes for noticeable salty pockets in a cookie: this can be effective, as I found it to be in a citrus shortbread, but in this sugar cookie, I'd go with table salt. Cooks Illustrated can tell you even more about salt, should you be on the tip of your seat reading about the stuff. Actually, you could probably also read Mark Kurlansky's Salt, though I haven't read it. Someone read it and let me know if I should. Oh, and you need powdered sugar, but we'll get to that later.

Okay, sugar cookies! 

This recipe is weird about its butter. 2/3 cup. Why is that weird? How many of you cut your butter based on the numbers on the wrapper? Ever noticed that 1/3 cup of butter is 5 and 1/3 tablespoon? Bringing it back to 4th grade fractions, you can't get 2/3 cup out of one stick of butter. So you must use one stick of butter plus 2 and 2/3 Tablespoons of butter from another stick. Or at this point, you could decide to double the recipe, which would make your butter halving much easier. 

2/3 cup butter + 3/4 cup white sugar go into a mixing bowl. Beat it, beat it, and beat it some more, on a medium or medium high speed. Start on a low medium speed though, otherwise you will have butter bits all over your kitchen. If you're familiar with how long you aerate butter and sugar for a cake, think that way, and if not, just mix until it almost looks whipped. 

Beat one large egg, one teaspoon of vanilla, and four teaspoons of milk into this mixture. Think light and fluffy thoughts. 

In another bowl, combine your dry ingredients. Pro-tip: whip your flour in its container or bag with a whisk to lighten it up before measuring. When you dip your cup into the flour, don't pack it in, and level it off with the back side of a knife, you want the light touch with flour measurements, otherwise you're going to get a dense, overly floury cookie. Add two cups flour, one and a half (1&1/2) teaspoons baking powder, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Whisk these together, then add to the rest of the ingredients. 

Incorporate the flour mixture with a spoon, then once it's slightly blended, use your mixer on low-medium to combine the wet and dry completely, or just finish this step all by hand. Don't over mix here, but make sure all the flour is mixed in. I usually mix for about fifteen seconds, turn off the mixer, use a spatula to turn over the dough and get all the flour off the bottom of the bowl, then mix it for another fifteen or so seconds. 

Dough is done and delicious, but soft! Stick it in the fridge for about an hour, covered, to stiffen up a bit. It will still be sticky when you take it out, but you'll remedy that. 

In the meantime, prep your work area. Clean a counter top space, or tape down parchment or lay out foil, whatever works for you. Mix equal parts flour and powdered sugar in a bowl. I never measure this, I just eyeball it. Sprinkle a lot of this mixture over your workspace, and make sure it covers the surface completely - nothing will annoy you more than rolling out your dough and cutting your cookies just to find you can't lift them off the work surface onto the cookie sheet, because they are stuck to the counter. 

When your dough is chilled, scrape a hunk of it out of the bowl, put it on your work surface, lightly pat the flour / sugar mixture all over it, then roll it out into a thin (maybe 1/4" thick or even slightly thinner if you can) circle-ish shape. Cut out your shapes. Use a spatula to get under your cookie and move it to the cookie sheet. Sometimes this is challenging. Deep breaths. It might help you to pull the unused dough off the shapes first.

Put your cookie sheet in a 375 degree oven for 6-8 minutes. I always find they take eight minutes, if you want that light brown edge, which you most definitely do. Remove them to a cooling rack with a very skinny metal spatula.

Enjoy. They are amazing. Thanks Granny, for helping people like me everywhere kill with the kindness of perfectly simple sugar cookies. You were a great lady, thanks for leaving stuff like this to help us keep your spirit alive. 


Anonymous said...

Table salt does have a smaller grain and so it does incorporate better, however most table salt also has iodine which can affect baking chemistry. Sea salt and kosher salt are more pure. I make my own table salt by putting kosher salt in a food processor and taking it for a spin. Result- more consistent (and better tasting) baking without the possibility of the leavening ingredients not working.


Anonymous said...

But at least with iodized salt, one will not get a goiter.


Trish said...

This appears to be quite contested in the cooking world. Some chefs and home cooks seem to believe that iodized salt can impart a metallic taste, but others note that the better the quality, the less likely the iodized salt is to impart that flavor. I haven't found mention of iodized salt altering baking chemistry in my baking science book (in can inhibit yeast, but does not interact with baking powder), but you do bring up a good point that should be noted, which is that if you are subbing kosher for table salt, it's important to grind the salt finely, so that the measure remains the same. My general thought though, is that at measurements of 1/4 tsp, any possible metallic taste would be imperceptible. The CI article mentions this too, though it's hard to account for individual taste. This is all interesting to consider. At any rate, Morton's can be purchased without iodine (just called Morton's Salt), should bakers wish to avoid it in their cooking, and if they don't wish to use kosher or sea salt.