My choice of Cookie of the Month for February 2013 is the old-fashioned sugar cookie. These are one of the plainest cookies yet they have endured throughout time and are often counted amongst the favorites in many families. These cookies are aptly named given the amount of sugar in them in proportion to the amounts of other ingredients. Despite the amount of sugar in most sugar cookie recipes, they are not really an overly sweet or rich cookie.
Growing up on PEI, sugar and molasses cookies were a standard staple in many Island homes. My grandmothers always had them on hand yet their cookies varied significantly because, of course, they used different recipes and probably some different ingredients or proportions. One grandmother always made round cookies while the other always cut her cookies into squares. One made soft cookies while the other made cookies that were quite hard.
I remember visiting one grandmother and, as soon as I’d get in the door, I’d always ask for cookies to which the response was ‘you don’t have to ask, just go and help yourself’. I’d trot into her pantry and there were always two large cookie tins on the counter – one for molasses cookies and the other for sugar cookies. I’d return to the kitchen to find Gramma, with a big, happy smile on her face, having taken up her position in her Boston rocker beside the stove, waiting for me to occupy the companion rocker and have a visit. I’d rock away munching on the cookies — a sugar in one hand and a molasses cookie in the other — and we’d chat about this and that and nothing in particular. I think it made her day to have me pop in for a visit and to see little fingers fishing cookies out of the tins! I never remember visiting that there weren’t cookies in those tins! Gramma really was a cookie-type grandmother! Great memories!
Both molasses and sugar cookies were considered wholesome and substantial cookies that didn’t take ingredients homemakers would not be likely to have in their pantries. So, they were quite an economical cookie to make. No matter the recipe, sugar cookies have common ingredients – some kind of fat (butter, shortening, or lard), sugar (white or brown or a combination), eggs, flour, leavening agent (baking soda, cream of tartar, and/or baking powder), vanilla, and often a small quantity of milk. Sugar cookies can be rolled and cut into desired shapes or they can be drop cookies, depending on the recipe used.
The recipe I use is for rolled sugar cookies. They are neither soft nor hard. The batter is quite dense. These cookies hold their shape well. I chill the dough for a couple of hours before rolling it out and then chill the cut cookies on the baking sheet for 10-15 minutes before baking them. This helps to contain their shape and keep them from spreading. I add just small amounts of two spices – cardamom and nutmeg – not enough to change them from sugar to spice cookies but sufficient to give the flavour a bit of complexity for the taste buds. I also add the seeds from one-half of a vanilla bean as well as 1 tsp pure vanilla. I like the flavour from the vanilla bean seeds and I especially like the little black specks in the appearance of the cookie. My recipe calls for butter but some will use half shortening and half butter. Butter, of course, will make a richer cookie.
The key to baking cookies that will determine if they are soft or hard is the baking time. For softer, more chewy cookies, remove them from the oven when they are ever-so-slightly undercooked.
So, on this blustery and stormy day when PEI is getting pummeled with a good old-fashioned “Nor-easter” snow storm, and the Island is virtually shut down, I introduce you to my old-fashioned sugar cookies.
Old-fashioned Sugar Cookies
1 cup butter (no substitutes), softened at room temperature
1 cup white sugar
2 large eggs
1/4 cup milk
1 tsp. vanilla
seeds from 1/2 vanilla bean
3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. cream of tartar
1 tsp. soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. cardamom
1/8 tsp. nutmeg
Preheat oven to 375F
Using the tip of a sharp knife, split open the vanilla bean lengthwise. Using the edge of the knife blade , scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean. Set aside.
Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs and beat well. Add milk, vanilla, and vanilla bean seeds. Beat just until combined.
In separate bowl, combine and stir flour, cream of tartar, soda, salt, cardamon, and nutmeg. Add to liquid ingredients and stir just until flour mixture is combined with liquid ingredients.
Chill dough for 1-2 hours.
On floured surface, gather dough together and roll out dough to a scant 1/4″ thickness. Cut into desired shapes.
Decorate with raisins and/or sprinkle of sugar, if desired.
Place on parchment-lined baking sheets about 1 1/2″ apart. Chill cookies in refrigerator for 10-15 minutes. Remove and bake for 8-10 minutes. Immediately transfer cookies to wire racks to cool.
Makes about 3 dozen – 2 5/8″ cookies. Yield will vary depending on size of cookie cutters used.
Store cookies in an airtight container and keep at room temperature or store in freezer.