Make superfine sugar
Use a cookie sheet
Boost the flavor
Are roll-and-cut sugar cookies a fun, festive project? Not in my kitchen: They’ve always been a maddening chore with nothing but floury, shapeless disappointments to show for the effort. Most recipes require you to haul out a stand mixer to cream sugar and softened butter before mixing in the remaining ingredients and then to refrigerate the dough before rolling, cutting, and baking. The lump of dough is always stiff after chilling, so it’s challenging to roll. Many of the cookies puff during baking, which leaves them uneven or with indistinct outlines. What’s more, they’re often hard and dense rather than simply sturdy.
I wanted to turn things around with a dough that would be easy—maybe even fun—to work with. It would be firm enough to shape with cookie cutters and to carry frosting and other decorations after baking. The cookies would bake up crisp and flat, with sharp edges, and they would have a satisfying, buttery flavor.
The Way the Cookie Crumbles
I began with a recipe that had decent flavor. It called for beating 2 sticks of softened butter with 1 cup of sugar; mixing in 2½ cups of flour, an egg, salt, and vanilla; and then chilling the dough before rolling, cutting, and baking. The resulting cookies were buttery, with just enough sweetness. However, they had a slightly granular texture and a tendency to puff in the oven, which left them bumpy and uneven.
Graininess can come from an excess of sugar, but reducing the sugar by ⅓ cup upset the flavor. Instead, I tried replacing the granulated sugar with confectioners’ sugar, but this turned the cookies somewhat chalky and hard rather than crisp. However, superfine sugar, which is granulated sugar that has been ground to a fine—but not powdery—consistency, was just the ticket: fine enough to smooth out any graininess but coarse enough to maintain a slightly open crumb. And happily, superfine sugar is a cinch to make by pulverizing granulated sugar in a food processor.
To address the cookies’ puffiness, I examined the creaming step, the goal of which is to incorporate air. It makes sense for a soft, cakey cookie, but was it detrimental to one that I wanted to be flat and even? To find out, I made another batch in which I briefly mixed the sugar and butter until just combined. Sure enough, these cookies baked up entirely flat.
But they were now a little dense, begging for a tiny amount of air. I turned to baking soda and baking powder; ¼ teaspoon of each produced flat cookies with a crisp yet sturdy texture.
Rolling in Dough
Now it was time to address my other issue with roll-and-cut cookies—the need to chill the dough before rolling it, which inevitably leads to strong-arming a cold, hardened lump into submission. Refrigerating the dough for a shorter time wasn’t an option, since it wouldn’t have time to chill evenly. And rolling the dough straightaway was out of the question because I was using softened butter—a must for easy combining in a stand mixer—which produced a soft dough that would cling to a rolling pin. I needed a dough made with cold butter.
That meant I would need to “plasticize” the butter, or soften it while keeping it cold, so that my dough would roll out without ripping or sticking. Croissant bakers plasticize blocks of butter by pounding them with a rolling pin. I certainly didn’t want to beat butter by hand, but I realized that the solution was already on the counter: the food processor. Unlike the paddle of a stand mixer, which would struggle to soften cold butter quickly, the fast, ultrasharp blades of a food processor could turn it malleable.
For our Easy Holiday Sugar Cookies, we soften cold butter while keeping it cold, a technique called “plasticizing.” We accomplish this by whizzing the cold butter with sugar in a food processor. Malleable but still cold, the soft paste registers about 50 degrees and can be turned into a dough that is firm enough to be rolled straightaway. This replaces the usual technique of creaming room-temperature butter with sugar (a roughly 60-degree mixture) and then chilling the dough, which produces a hard, difficult-to-roll consistency.
I processed the sugar and then added chunks of cold butter. Thirty seconds later, the two had combined into a smooth paste. I whizzed in the egg and vanilla, plus a smidge of almond extract for an unidentifiable flavor boost, and then added the dry ingredients. The dough was pliable but not soft or sticky.
I halved the dough and placed each portion between sheets of parchment paperto help prevent sticking. It rolled out like a dream. To ensure easy cutting and clean, well-defined edges, I still needed to chill the dough, so I placed it in the refrigerator for 1½ hours. By eliminating the need to bring the butter to room temperature, skipping creaming, and making the dough easy to roll, I’d shaved off some time—and plenty of effort—from the recipe.
I’d been baking the cookies at 350 degrees on the middle rack, but the edges of the cookies around the perimeter of the sheet were dark brown by the time the center ones were golden. The fix was three-pronged. One: I reduced the oven temperature to 300 degrees; more-gradual baking evened the color. Two: I lowered the oven rack, so the cookies baked from the bottom up. This meant that they browned nicely on their undersides (for hidden flavor) while remaining lighter on top. Three: I swapped the rimmed rimmed baking sheet I had been using for a rimless cookie sheet. This promoted air circulation, so the cookies baked more evenly.
A Royal Finish
All that remained was to come up with an icing that tasted good and firmed up nicely. It was the perfect opportunity for a classic royal icing. Named for its use on Queen Victoria’s cake at her marriage to Prince Albert in 1840, this mix of whipped egg whites and sugar sets into a dry, matte surface. I added vanilla and salt to my version. Piped or poured onto the cooled cookies, it was a joyful finish to the best—and easiest—cut-out cookies I’d ever made.
Revamping Sugar Cookies
A number of updates to the usual approach resulted in better, easier cookies.