The Best Rolled Sugar Cookies

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This holiday season I went on a hunt to find the perfect sugar cookie recipe. This was by no means an easy task since cookbooks and blogs alike are littered with recipes purporting to be the best sugar cookie. I settled on making a few adaptations to a recipe I found on Allrecipes that had a whopping 5,897 reviews with a 4.5 out of 5 star rating.

There are a few things that I really like about this recipe. So often sugar cookies are bland and tasteless, and when this happens we rely on cloyingly sweet frosting to make up for this deficit. These cookies pack an extra punch of flavor with both vanilla and lemon extract. Many times when I’ve worked with sugar cookies the dough was simply too warm to roll out and cut shapes. I’ve found that the best solution is to simply refrigerate the dough overnight. Many recipes say you can get by with only an hour or two, but I haven’t found this to be the case. It’s best to just plan ahead and make the dough the night before.

I know this recipe comes a little belatedly for any holiday cooking, but I hope that you tuck this one away. This will certainly be my new “go-to” recipe for all things sugar cookie related! On a different note, I hope that everyone has a wonderful Christmas. Matt and I are finishing up our drive to Minnesota today. I wish safe travels to all of you that are traveling for the holiday. I’m signing off until 2014, so I hope that your New Year’s is wonderful as well!

The Best Rolled Sugar Cookies
Makes approximately 5 dozen

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Ingredients
1 1/2 cups butter, softened
3 cups white sugar
4 eggs
2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon lemon extract
5 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
powdered sugar, for rolling out dough

Directions
In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar until smooth. Beat in eggs, vanilla, and lemon extract. Stir in the flour, baking powder, and salt. Form dough into two balls, cover with plastic wrap, and chill overnight.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Sprinkle surface where you will roll out dough with powdered sugar. Remove 1 wrapped pack of dough from refrigerator at a time, sprinkle rolling pin with powdered sugar, and roll out dough to 1/4-inch thick. Move the dough around and check underneath frequently to make sure it is not sticking. Cut into desired shape, place at least 1-inch apart on greased baking sheet, parchment, or silicone baking mat. Bake 6 to 8 minutes in preheated oven. Cool completely.

Heather’s Helpful Hints
This recipe has a built-in trick that I really love. Instead of using flour when you roll out your cookie dough, the recipe calls for powdered sugar. This solves the problem that has always plagued my baking which is caked-on four after rolling out your cookie dough. I think this tip is ingenious! After all, no one’s going to complain if there’s a little extra powdered sugar on the bottom of their cookie.

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Miniature Chocolate Covered Shortbread Cookies

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Some things are just better coated in chocolate… wouldn’t you agree?

Whether its pretzels, popcorn, potato chips, or coffee beans—chocolate gives ordinary food an extra boost. Back in November, I purchased some mini sugar cookie cutters for my Christmas baking. Since that purchase, I’ve envisioned several different ways that I would use them for my holiday baking. Last week the obvious answer came to me. I would bake shortbread cookies… and cover them in chocolate.

This is a totally indulgent recipe, only made slightly better by the fact that the cookies are miniature in size. At least this way you can eat one without feeling overly gluttonous. These little cookies would be a perfect Christmas gift tied up in a festive bag. They’re certain to be a hit if you bring them to a party arranged on a cookie platter.

Chocolate Covered Shortbread Cookies
Makes approximately 6 dozen miniature cookies

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Ingredients
3 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 egg, beaten
1 tablespoon milk
Powdered sugar, for rolling out dough
Red, green, and white chocolate candy melts
Sprinkles for decoration

Directions
Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside. Place butter and sugar in large bowl of electric stand mixer and beat until light in color. Add egg and milk and beat to combine. Put mixer on low speed, gradually add flour, and beat until mixture pulls away from the side of the bowl. Divide the dough in half, wrap in waxed paper, and refrigerate for 2 hours.

Place a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees F.

Sprinkle surface where you will roll out dough with powdered sugar. Remove 1 wrapped pack of dough from refrigerator at a time, sprinkle rolling pin with powdered sugar, and roll out dough to 1/4-inch thick. Move the dough around and check underneath frequently to make sure it is not sticking. If dough has warmed during rolling, place cold cookie sheet on top for 10 minutes to chill. Cut into desired shape, place at least 1-inch apart on greased baking sheet, parchment, or silicone baking mat, and bake for 7 to 9 minutes or until cookies are just beginning to turn brown around the edges, rotating cookie sheet halfway through baking time. Let sit on baking sheet for 2 minutes after removal from oven and then move to complete cooling on wire rack.

To heat chocolate melts, microwave 1 package Candy Melts at 40% power or defrost setting for 1 minute. Stir thoroughly. Continue to microwave and stir at 30-second intervals until smooth and completely melted. Dip cooled cookies into chocolate mixture and place on a table lined with waxed paper. For decoration you can put a little chocolate in a plastic bag and cut off the tip. Simply drizzle the chocolate over the cookie. When you are finished, you can add sprinkles of your desired color. Cool cookies for approximately 1 hour or until chocolate has hardened.

Heather’s Helpful Hints
You may want to add a little bit of shortening to your chocolate before coating your shortbread cookies. This is because the addition of shortening creates a smoother and more manageable consistency than melted chocolate alone. Doing this helps to make a more evenly coated product. The ratio between shortening and chocolate is very straightforward. You simply add 1/2 teaspoon of shortening to each ounce of chocolate, melting the combination and stirring until it is smooth. Remember: Do not use butter or margarine because both of these contain water, which can ruin the melting process.

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Meringue Cookies

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Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

Last Saturday we had our first serious winter snow here in Ann Arbor. It started out lightly in the morning as just a few sprinkles, but picked up by the afternoon and evening. I love snowy days, but I absolutely detest driving around in the snow. That’s why I spent my Saturday tucked indoors doing some of my holiday baking. I made a plate of cookies for our downstairs neighbor as a thank you for collecting our packages while we were out of town. Nothing says thank you like a plate full of Christmas cookies!

Meringue Cookies are so light and airy, sweet and crisp that they seem to just melt in your mouth. I love how the outsides of the meringues are nice and crisp, yet the insides remain wonderfully soft and puffy. There are a few things to keep in mind when making meringue cookies. Cream of tartar is used in the whipping of egg whites to stabilize them and allows them to reach maximum volume. Also, it is a good idea to use parchment paper or aluminum foil to line your baking sheets, not wax paper, as the meringue will sometimes stick to wax paper. Baking the meringues in a slow oven allows for gradual evaporation of the moisture from the meringues. If the oven temperature is too high, the outside of the meringue will dry and set too quickly.

Meringue Cookies
Makes 5 dozen

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Ingredients
4 egg whites, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Food coloring, optional

Directions
Preheat oven to 225°F. Beat egg whites in large bowl with electric mixer on medium speed until frothy. (If using a freestanding mixer, use wire whisk attachment.) Add cream of tartar; beat until soft peaks form. Increase speed to medium-high. Add sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating until sugar is dissolved and stiff peaks form. Beat in extract and food color until well blended. Gently stir in chips, if desired.

Drop by rounded measuring teaspoonfuls about 1 inch apart onto 2 large foil-lined baking sheets sprayed with no stick cooking spray. Bake both sheets of meringues at the same time 45 minutes. Turn oven off. Let meringues stand in oven 1 hour or until completely cooled.

Heather’s Helpful Hints
Make sure your beater and mixing bowl are spotlessly clean. Any grease in the mixture will deflate the meringue.To make different shapes of meringue, spoon meringue mixture into large resealable plastic bag. Snip off a corner of the bag and gently squeeze to pipe meringue onto baking sheets. Pipe into various shapes, such as hearts, “kisses,” letters, numbers, etc.

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Peppermint Meltaways

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Last weekend Matt and I traveled to Minnesota for our annual family weekend “up north” on the Gunflint Trail. For those of you that aren’t familiar with the area, the Gunflint Trail is a 57-mile roadway that begins in Grand Marais, Minnesota and ends at Saganaga Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, near the U.S. border with Ontario, Canada. The weather during our stay was chilly to say the least. On Saturday the high was a balmy negative three degrees.

The weekend was the perfect get-away amidst the hustle and bustle of the holiday season. We managed to keep ourselves busy making wreaths, singing Christmas carols, hiking in the woods, and gorging ourselves on walleye chowder. Since our cabin was outfitted with an oven, I took the opportunity to do some baking. These peppermint meltaways really do melt in your mouth. The little morsels also look very festive and would be perfect displayed on a cookie platter.

Peppermint Meltaways
Makes approximately 3 dozen

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Cookie Ingredients
1 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/2 teaspoon peppermint extract
1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cornstarch

Frosting Ingredients
2 tablespoons butter, softened
1-1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons 2% milk
1/4 teaspoon peppermint extract
2 to 3 drops red food coloring, optional
1/2 cup crushed peppermint candies

Directions
In a small bowl, cream butter and confectioners’ sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in extract. Combine flour and cornstarch; gradually add to creamed mixture and mix well. Shape into 1-in. balls. Place 2 in. apart on ungreased baking sheets. Bake at 350° for 10-12 minutes or until bottoms are lightly browned. Remove to wire racks to cool.

In a small bowl, beat butter until fluffy. Add the confectioners’ sugar, milk, extract and, if desired, food coloring; beat until smooth. Spread over cooled cookies; sprinkle with crushed candies. Store in an airtight container.

Heather’s Helpful Hints
Always use unsalted butter for balanced flavor in your baked goods. Unsalted butter allows you to control the amount of salt in the cookies. Although salt is a flavor enhancer, the flavor can be overpowering in a delicately flavored cookie.

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Russian Tea Cakes

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Russian Tea Cakes are a melt-in-your mouth shortbread-like cookie that goes by many names; a Mexican Wedding Cake, an Italian Butter Nut, a Southern Pecan Butterball, a Snowdrop, a Viennese Sugar Ball and a Snowball. They are very popular, not only during the Christmas season, but also at weddings, christenings, and other festive occasions.

These little morsels are also easy to make and don’t require any special ingredients. As much as I love trying new recipes, I truly enjoy making (and eating) the classics most of all. I remember making these cookies with my mom when I was younger. I’ll be bringing these cookies to work today for our “cookie day” to celebrate the last day of classes for students on campus.

Russian Tea Cakes
Makes about 4 dozen

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Ingredients
1 cup (2 sticks or 8 ounces) butter, room temperature
2 cups powdered sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup pecans, toasted and finely ground

Directions
Using electric mixer, beat butter in large bowl until light and fluffy. Add 1/2 cup powdered sugar and vanilla; beat until well blended. Beat in flour, then nuts. Divide dough in half; form each half into ball. Wrap separately in plastic; chill until cold, about 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Working with half of chilled dough, roll dough by 2 teaspoonfuls between palms into balls. Arrange balls on heavy large baking sheet, spacing 1/2 inch apart. Bake cookies until golden brown on bottom and just pale golden on top, about 18 minutes. Cool cookies 5 minutes on baking sheet. Gently toss warm cookies in sugar to coat completely. Transfer coated cookies to rack and cool completely. Repeat procedure with remaining half of dough. (Cookies can be prepared 2 days ahead. Store airtight at room temperature.

Heather’s Helpful Hints
Make sure your cookies aren’t too big when you are rolling your dough. When the cookies are closer to two inches, they dry out easily when you’re baking them. You definitely want one inch balls so don’t be afraid to whip out a ruler to make sure. The smaller balls get a little larger while they are baking and are just perfect.

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