A Modern Tradition
This my mother’s sugar cookie recipe, from her mother before her. I don’t know who my grandma got it from or when it acquired the name “old fashioned.” It can’t be older than mid-19th C. because it calls for chemical leaveners. The whole point of the sour cream is to provide an acid to react with the alkali baking soda and produce a tender, puffy cookie. That makes them completely unlike really “old-fashioned” cookies, which were usually unleavened and baked until they were completely hard and dry (for more on cookie history, see foodtimeline.com). However, now that chemical leaveners have been around long long enough to be part of recipes handed down for three generations or more, I suppose they can be “modern” and “old-fashioned” at the same time.
I like this particular recipe for Christmas cookies because it’s not as sweet or rich as most sugar cookie recipes—the ratio of fat : sugar : flour in the dough is 1: 1: 3. Compare that to the “Classic Sugar Cookies” in Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio, which are 1: 1: 2, or Dorie Greenspan’s Sablés, which are 4: 3: 8. I’d go with one of the other recipes if I were going to leave them plain or just sprinkle them with colored sugar before baking, but I think the slightly less-sweet base makes them a better vehicle for frosting.
Frosting presents bakers with something of a dilemma: either you can make something gorgeous, sleek, and stylish, or you can make something delicious. In the cake world, that dilemma is primarily represented by fondant vs. buttercream. In the cookie world, it’s largely royal icing vs. buttercream. Behold Royal Icing:
Even though those are really pretty, and royal icing also has the benefit of setting up hard enough to handle any amount of stacking or transport, when it’s a choice between butter or no butter, I’m almost always going to choose butter.
There are basically two kinds of buttercream—cooked and uncooked. However, there are varying techniques, and they’re referred to by nation. Italian buttercream is made by beating egg whites to stiff peaks and then cooking them by gradually adding a hot sugar syrup. Then you add softened butter, which will initially look curdled as it mixes with the hot meringue but eventually emulsifies. Swiss buttercream is similar, but instead of drizzling in a syrup, you cook the meringue by holding it over boiling water while you beat the egg whites and sugar together. French buttercream is made using the same technique as Italian buttercream, but with yolks instead of whites (a base called pâte à bombe).
For cakes and fillings, cooked buttercreams can’t be beat. All three versions are smooth and airy, pipe like a dream, and—most importantly—are totally delicious. They’re kind of like a custard or mousse made with butter instead of cream. But they’re not great for cookie decorating because they’re not very firm at room temperature. They’ll harden if chilled (just like the butter they’re largely composed of), but you wouldn’t be able to stack them first—you’d have to refrigerate or freeze them in single layers, which is a pain. And you’d have to keep them chilled in order to transport them without the frosting melting into goo. I make these primarily to send them to people who live across the country, so I need something with a little more structural integrity.
The usual answer for cookies is American buttercream, which is just butter and powdered sugar thinned with a little milk or cream and beaten until smooth. It’s acquired a bit of a bad reputation because most grocery store bakeries use that technique, but they substitute shortening for the butter. The result is the flavorless, waxy, tooth-achingly sweet frosting you get on most grocery store cakes, which usually gets eaten around or scraped aside and left on the plate. But the method isn’t really the problem, it’s the shortening and the ratio of sugar: fat.
Most recipes for homemade American buttercream call for nearly 4 : 1 sugar: fat. I cut the sugar by more than half. That makes it a little softer at room temperature, and if you’re going to use piping bags, you have to use small portions in the decorating bag to prevent the heat from your hands from melting it. But once it air dries, it’s just hard enough to stack (gently). Depending on how elaborate and delicate your decorations are, and what kind of abuse they have to withstand, they might arrive at their destination slightly squashed, but at least they’ll still taste terrific.
Recipe: Old-Fashioned Sour Cream Sugar Cookies
(makes approximately 3 dozen)
- 1/4 c. melted butter
- 1/4 c. melted shortening or lard
- 1 c. sugar
- 1 egg
- 1 tsp. vanilla
- 2 2/3 c. all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp. baking powder
- 1/2 tsp. baking soda
- 1 1/2 t. kosher salt (or 1 t. regular table salt)
- 1/4 tsp. nutmeg or 1/2 t. cinnamon, or a dash of both
- 1/2 c. sour cream
1. Pre-heat oven to 425F
2. Combine the melted fat, sugar, egg, and vanilla in one bowl. Whisk together the dry ingredients in a separate bowl.
3. Add the dry ingredients to the wet in 3 additions, alternating with three dollops of sour cream. Stir until well combined.
4. Divide dough in half, and cover one half with plastic wrap. Roll the other out to approximately 1/4” thick and cut in desired shapes and place 1” apart on cookie sheets lined with parchment paper.
5. If you’re not planning to frost them, sprinkle them with coarse or colored sugar. Otherwise, leave plain. Bake 8-10 minutes or until just beginning to darken slightly at the edges.
Recipe: Vanilla Buttercream
(makes approximately 3 cups, which is enough to frost about 3 dozen cookies)
- 20 T. butter, softened (2 1/2 sticks)
- 3 1/2 cups powdered sugar
- a pinch of table salt
- 2 t. vanilla extract
- 2 T. heavy cream
1. Using a stand mixer or a spatula, beat the butter until smooth and creamy—about 1 minute.
2. Add the salt and gradually add the sugar, beating slowly until incorporated. Add the vanilla and heavy cream and beat until combined.
3. Increase the speed to high and beat for 4-10 minutes, or until no lumps remain and it’s satiny smooth.