Every once in a while, it occurs to me that it’s been a long time since I first started this here blog (July 2007, to be exact, whaaaaat). I’ve not always been the most, er, consistent of bloggers, but it’s kind of amazing to have a record of life both in and out of the kitchen nonetheless. It’s most fascinating for me to look back through the archives and see the recipes I was drawn to at certain points along the way, what I had time for or interest in learning and discovering throughout the years. And much like my life from about 1994-2000, there’s plenty of cringeworthy moments among the entries (although any regrets here don’t involve ill-fitting plaid or intentional visible bra straps).
But! Sometimes a recipe is just so completely perfect, so part of my personal fabric, that it’s worth updating and telling you about it all over again to make sure it doesn’t get lost. In fact, when I first posted about this recipe, I just realized that it was exactly on this day, nine years ago. How about that? So indulge me a little, won’t you? It’s the holidays, after all.
This recipe has been in this site’s Recipe Box since 2007, though I’ve made them multiple times every single Christmas for much longer than that. I’ve talked before about my love of heirloom recipes, and this one fits the bill beautifully. Copied from a yellowed strip of newsprint, tucked into a recipe box full of Gramma’s Greatest Hits. Up until about three months ago, I always thought of this recipe as Super Secret and Special. I mean, along the way I’d seen a few Amish recipes that looked similar, but nothing exact. Then in my research for my latest book, I discovered “Mary Todd Lincoln’s Sugar Cookies”, identical to Gramma’s recipe, and BAM. The bottom fell out I realized my whole life was a sham. A delicious, buttery sham, but still. However, Mary Todd Lincoln was one hell of a baker, the Dorie Greenspan of First Ladies, if you will, so there’s that.
It is the crispest of sugar cookies, sandy-textured but tender with a gorgeous pale golden color that begs for a smattering of colored sugar and sprinkles galore. You never knew the humble ingredients of butter and sugar could have so much flavor until you’ve had this cookie. Making the whole thing that much more interesting is the addition of vegetable oil and confectioners’ sugar to the usual fat and sugar combination, both of which help to keep the cookie’s tender crispness for days on end, a perfect candidate for cheery cookie tins to give as holiday gifts. And both the dough and the finished cookies stash away in the freezer like a dream, giving you another reason to make them the first baking project on your list–they wait in delicious patience while you get the other elements of your cookie tins together.
For last-minute cookie baking urges, this dough is perfect as well, as there’s no chilling time needed. It’s also a good one to have in your back pocket for when your kids start begging to make cookies, but you just don’t have in you to make a big production out of the whole thing. I find just there’s enough “activity” here–mixing, scooping, flattening, sprinkling–to make for a delightful little project without the hassle of rolling and cookie cutters and icing and all that jazz. And if an adult is taking the charge with no singing, circling, tiny people underfoot, you’re a mere 30 minutes away from sugar cookie bliss, right this very second.
You might recognize version of this recipe from my second book Pure Vanilla, with vanilla paste added for extra panache. It’s an easy way to make them extra special. And over the years, I’ve also learned to add more salt to get the same craveworthy quality that Gramma’s cookies always had. It didn’t occur to me until a few years ago that she always baked with salted butter! Duh. So I’ve tweaked the recipe below to turn out cookie just like the original, but made with unsalted butter, which is my preference.
When making these cookies, I keep them like the ones I grew up loving from Gramma’s cookie plate by lining up walnut-sized balls of dough onto baking sheets and flattening each with a drinking glass dipped in granulated sugar before baking. Gramma always sprinkled hers with kitschy, coarse rainbow sugar, so I always have that on hand. But I’ve also become partial to a mixture of white chocolate vermicelli and festive nonpareils like in the photo above.
Heirloom Sugar Cookies
With its insanely high yield, this recipe is a great one for making lots of cookies to give away as gifts, but it works just as well when halved to make a smaller batch. You can also freeze any leftover dough for up to a month, wrapped tightly.
Makes 8-9 dozen
1 cup (8 ounces/226 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup (7 ounces/200 grams) granulated sugar, plus extra for flattening the cookies
1 cup (4 1/4 ounces/120 grams) confectioners’ sugar
1 cup (8 ounces/226 grams) vegetable oil
2 large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract or vanilla paste
5 cups (22 1/2 ounces/640 grams) flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
Preheat the oven to 350°F and position your oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven. Line two baking sheets with silicone baking liners or parchment paper.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, soda, cream of tartar, and salt and set aside.
In a large glass measuring cup or similar vessel, whisk together the oil, eggs and vanilla until well-combined and set that aside as well.
In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or with an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugars on medium speed until fluffy and pale in color, scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl every so often. Reduce the mixer speed and gradually pour in the oil and egg mixture, beating until the resulting mixer is smooth and somewhat uniform in texture, like a thin cake batter. Stop the mixer, and in three batches, add the dry ingredients, mixing on low speed and scraping the bowl before each addition. Mix on low speed until all the dry ingredients are incorporated. The dough will be very soft.
To form the cookies, roll walnut-sized balls of the dough (depending on my mood and how many cookies I need, I use either my 1 tablespoon or 2 tablespoon-sized cookie scoop) and place on the prepared baking sheets, one dozen to a sheet. Pour about 1/2 cup of granulated sugar (or vanilla sugar) onto a plate. Ever so slightly dampen the bottom of a drinking glass with water on your fingertips, dip it into the sugar to coat the bottom of the glass and flatten each cookie to about 1/4 inch thickness, dipping the glass with more sugar in between each cookie (you should only need to dampen the glass with water at the beginning of the process; the butter from the dough will keep the glass a bit sticky after that).
Sprinkle the flattened cookies with coarse rainbow colored sugar or other decorative sugars. Bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes, rotating the sheets from top to bottom and front to back about halfway through, until pale golden and just beginning to turn golden brown at the edges–don’t overbake. Cool on the baking sheets for two minutes, then transfer to a wire rack and cool completely before storing or serving.
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