Because one cannot simply have a single sugar cookie recipe for all occasions, here’s another winner to add to the collection!
You know those supermarket holiday sugar cookies? The crisp ones sold in the clear plastic containers, cut in festive shapes, decorated not with icing but instead with a sprinkling of colored sugar? Admittedly, as a kid, I often passed over these comparatively minimalistic cookies to opt for something with a bit more sugar, a bit more color, and approximately an inch of frosting. Let’s just say my juvenile palette was not what I would call refined.
Though I didn’t often seek out these simple sugar cookies, whenever I did have one, I would always think, “Wow, these are actually really good!” However, my short attention span would soon be recaptured by confections featuring icings of such garish colors that no caveman would recognize them as food. In fact, most cavemen would probably avoid such vividly colored items, assuming they were poisonous. Me, not so much.
I recently passed a shelf of these classic cookies at the grocery store, and I decided to make some myself. I happened to have some whole vanilla beans on hand, and I figured that the pure, natural vanilla bean flavoring would be perfect. A good sugar cookie has only a few simple ingredients, something that’s taken me a long time to appreciate.
Using vanilla from the actual bean yields a more intense vanilla flavor than the bottled extract (or, God forbid, the imitation vanilla extract). Full disclosure: I do sometimes use the imitation vanilla extract…I’m only human and frequently in the market for shortcuts. But really, for a good sugar cookie, using real flavorings (lemon zest, real vanilla extract, dried lavender, etc.) is TOTALLY worth the effort.
All you have to do to harvest the intensely fragrant vanilla specks from the bean is to slit the bean open lengthwise and run the flat side of the knife along the inside of the pod to scrape out all of those tiny little flecks. Yes, those are the same flecks you see (and taste!) in your Breyer’s Natural Vanilla ice cream (you know, if your into that kind of thing).
To maximize the vanilla experience, rub the vanilla bean specks into the granulated sugar, and allow it to sit, undisturbed, for at least 30 minutes before proceeding. This step allows the vanilla to infuse into the sugar, giving you even more vanilla bang for your baking buck!
Since these cookies aren’t frosted — honestly, they don’t need it — the colored sugar is added prior to baking to help the sugar adhere to the cookie. To aid in sugar retention, I put little grooves in the cookies and coaxed the sugar into the grooves before baking. Get creative with your grooving! I did some with differently-sized wine glasses, forming concentric circles, and I did others by gently pressing the tip of a hand-mixer beater into the surface of each cookie, leaving an “X” indentation in the surface. Other groovy options are potato mashers, spatula tines, apple-corers, really anything with a fun pattern! Briefly freezing the unbaked cookies prior to sugaring the tops helps you steer the sugar where you want it (i.e. into the indentations) without getting stuck in undesirable places.
As with most cookies, these babies are the perfect addition to any sort of ice cream sundae 😉
Crisp Sugared Sugar Cookies
1 vanilla bean pod, sliced lengthwise, & all of the caviar scraped out (hang on to the stripped pod, too!)
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
2 sticks unsalted butter, room temp, cut into cubes
1 egg, room temp
2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup bread flour (sub 1 cup A-P flour, if you don’t have bread flour)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
In a medium mixing bowl, use your fingers to rub the vanilla bean caviar into the granulated sugar. Submerge the scraped pod into the sugar as well, cover the bowl, and allow to rest for at least 30 minutes.
Remove the vanilla bean pod. Add the butter to the mixing bowl containing the perfumed sugar, and cream on medium speed, until light & fluffy, 3-4 minutes. Add egg, and beat for another 2 minutes. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, & salt. Turn mixer to low, and gradually add dry ingredients, mixing only until JUST combined. Use your hands to quickly form the dough into a cohesive ball. On a large sheet of plastic wrap, use your palm to flatten the dough ball into a large disk, wrap tightly in plastic wrap, & chill 1 hour (if you have pungent things in your fridge, place the wrapped dough inside a ziptop freezer bag for extra flavor protection).
Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and remove chilled dough from fridge, allowing it to sit at room temp for ~30 minutes, until dough is soft enough to roll out. Line a baking sheet with silicone baking mat or parchment paper. Tear off half of the dough, and use a rolling pin to roll out dough (between two sheets of plastic wrap, to prevent sticking) to ~1/4 – 1/3″ thickness. Use your desired cookie cutters to cut out your shapes, and place them on the baking sheets, allowing at least 1/2 ” between cookies (they won’t puff much during baking). Make shallow indentations in the top of each cookie (see *Note, below for suggestions). Place cookie sheets in freezer for 10 minutes. You can continue cutting out your shapes and chilling them on a spare tray or large plate as you freeze/bake each batch.
Remove cookies from freezer, and sprinkle a small amount of colored sugar over the cookies. Use your finger to gently brush the sugar into the indentations, brushing any excess onto another cookie. Bake for 8-10 minutes – depending on the size/thickness of your cookies – rotating sheets halfway through bake time. Tops and edges should appear set but not yet be browning. Allow to sit on hot sheets for 3 minutes, then remove to wire racks for complete cooling. Store cooled cookies in airtight containers, at room temp, for up to 5 days.
*Note: Get creative with these cookies! You can make interesting indentations using even the most mundane of kitchen implements. Good options include, but are not limited to: assorted-sizes of wine glasses, hand mixer beaters, potato mashers, apple corers, spatulas (spatulae?) with interesting tong patterns, and even just a humble fork.