Here We Go Again: On Letting Go and Sugar Cookies

At work

No, it’s not the earthquakes.  And certainly nothing to do with ABBA.

It’s birthday time in the Fagan household. Again. And, in fact, from now through until some time in September.

Francesca has just turned 9.  I am left wandering and wondering.  Where did my little baby go? Will the next 9 years go just as quickly?  Will she still need me then?

But no time for existential crises, because the birthday party is on Saturday.

(Or could it be that the purpose of children’s birthday parties is really to distract mothers from the grief of watching their children progress along the inexorable journey to independence and their own impending redundancy?  OK, maybe not, but I’m glad of it just the same.)

Francesca would like a garden fairy party just like the one her 5 year old sister had.

If you find this at all odd, let me tell you, right here and right now, how glad I am that my little girl still wants to be a little girl, and how vast my relief that the influence of all the tweenie garbage we try hard but still fail to avoid has been negligible.  Ditto the influence of some of her more worldly friends.  Let me tell you how good it feels when she still likes to climb up on my knee for a cuddle, or gives me her hand to hold as we walk along the road together, both literally and figuratively.

So go the fairies.  Long may they last.

If you’ve been with me from the beginning (not quite two months ago), you may remember my 24 hour crisis before Lydia’s birthday. For a reminder, please read here for the crisis, or here for the aftermath.

This time I have a full three days to go.  Left to my own devices, I would almost certainly find a way to fall behind into the exact same 24 hour crisis. I always do. But, Gentle Reader, with you as my conscience, I might just manage the sensible approach this time around.

So I started this afternoon with the item I always mean to make, but seldom get around to: cut sugar cookies.

When I was a toddler my great grandmother used to make these all the time.  She would bring out her green-rimmed enamel bowl (which I still have) and a wooden spoon.  She sat in the corner of her kitchen on a stool made out of an old fruit crate with a neatly sewn cloth cover (move over Eames, we call it refugee chic).  With the bowl on her lap she would get to work creaming the butter and sugar.

My babushka’s lap was the perfect height for me.  I loved watching that mixture grow fluffier just beneath my nose.  She would even let me taste a little. Then came my favourite part, watching the eggs going in, one at a time:  the crack of the shell, the egg slopping around the bowl, separating the butter and sugar into ever increasing layers, until at last the orange of the yolk was assimilated and the two became one.

When Francesca was very small I made a batch of little doggie cookies for her party. They were white with black spots and a red collar, just like our own Brutus, the world’s friendliest dog.

Brutus

The next time I went to make them, Brutus had lost a leg after trying to make friends with a car in a 70km zone.  In addition to the fiddly icing job, there was really no choice but to go around and snap the hind legs off all the little mini-Bruti. It was a matter of solidarity. I think my husband got the off-cuts. One trusts similar arrangement did not apply at the vets.

I just managed a batch for Lydia’s party, but ran out of time to ice them. It made for a great impromptu party activity, so much so that this time cookie icing is a planned activity.  I’ve stocked up on all kinds of sprinkles and writing icing, and a big polka dot oil cloth for the kitchen table.  I’m even looking forward to it myself.

In life there are recipes you come across and then keep going back to.  Like the stereotypical adulterer, you stray once in a while, but at the end of the day, you always go home.

By the time I became a young wife, my great grandmother’s recipe was long gone, but a random honeymoon purchase while visiting my husband’s family in the US provided a very serviceable replacement.  Same smell, same taste, same texture. The dough is well behaved, you won’t need to roll out between sheets of baking paper. I still like them best slightly burnt at the edges.  And I still haven’t found a recipe to beat it.

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This book is out of print.  New copies are advertised on Amazon at ridiculous prices, but a reasonably priced second hand copy would make a worthwhile addition to the collection of a baker with an interest in Americana.

As these cookies are both very popular and keep very well, I have doubled it. My version follows. If you have a stand mixer, this is a good time to use it.

Sugar Cookies Just Like Babushka’s

A recipe with notes for the uninitiated.

  • 225g (2 sticks) butter
  • 2c sugar regular, or for a more refined result, castor
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2-3 tsp vanilla extract or essence
  • pinch of salt
  • 3 1/2 c plain flour

1. Warm the butter until it is well softened but not melted.  Beat until light in colour, then add the sugar and continue beating until the mixture is light and fluffy.

2. Add the eggs one at at time, beating after each egg until it is completely assimilated.  Add the salt and vanilla and beat them in.

3. Beat in the flour and work until you have a soft homogeneous dough.

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4. You have likely observed that this dough is so soft that it is unworkable.  Don’t worry, 1/2 an hour in the fridge is about to fix that.  First tip the dough out onto a board, divide into four even sections.  Flatten each section, wrap in glad wrap and pop in the fridge for anywhere between 30 minutes and two days.

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I emphasis this flattening part.  It is important because:

  • Your dough chills more quickly and more evenly.
  • Anyone who has ever gone up against a cold ball of dough armed only with a stubborn nature and a rolling pin can tell you this will make the rolling a whole lot easier.
  • Finally, if you are going to leave the dough in the fridge for longer than 30 minutes, you may need to let it warm up a little bit before you try to roll it (you want the dough firm, not rock hard).  This also goes more quickly and more evenly if you’ve made a disc.

5. When you are ready to roll, preheat your oven to 160 C or about 320 F.  Unless you have completely lost your mind, line your cookie sheets with non-stick baking paper.

6. Roll the dough.  You want to do this using the bare minimum of flour you need to stop the dough from sticking.  This is because the extra flour works its way into the dough and will dull the flavour and texture. Since you are working from nice flat discs, this will be easy. Dust your rolling surface lightly.  It should look something like this:

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You can add more as you go along if necessary. Rub a little flour over the rolling pin too.

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Roll in gentle increments.  Rotate dough 90 deg every few strokes, sprinkling a little more flour if it looks like it’s thinking of sticking.  Stop when it’s about 5mm or 3/16th” thick.  And yes, of course you can roll between layers of baking paper or cling wrap if you really want to, you just don’t have to.

7. Time to cut out.  This goes much more easily if the dough doesn’t stick to the cutter. Shapes with very tight angles or narrow sections are the enemy.  But regardless the shape of your cutter, dipping it in flour regularly will help.

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The other thing you can do in the war against adding too much flour is to reduce the number of times you re roll your dough scraps. Some people just throw them out, but I can’t countenance the waste.

Take care how you position each cut and you can cut down the amount of scrap and re-rolling a lot. Some shapes also make it easier.  Hearts and Christmas trees are good shapes for cutting efficiency.  Stars and shapes which are irregular or have a protruding outline, not so much.  I can see that this shoe cutter shaped cutter is going to be another good one – there’s not going to be much waste except for the gap between sole and heel and for the border around the edge of the dough..

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8.  Lay the shapes out on your baking tray well spaced in an even pattern.  This is not just because of my disturbing love of order.  It does actually help them to bake more evenly.  If you can, bake just one shape per tray. If you can’t, at least try to keep to cookies of similar size and shape.  Smaller cookies tend to brown more quickly than the big ones (yes, even when the dough is all the same thickness).  Likewise little bits around edges (things like bunny tails) will brown more quickly than plain shapes like circles.  Keeping like with like will save you a lot of uneven baking.

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9. Was a time I used to throw the first tray into the oven as soon as I could and let it get started as I frantically rolled out the next one.  And I still do if I’m in my usual last minute flap.  Be warned.  These cookies have a high sugar content.  They will look raw for so long, all of a sudden they are ready and then a moment later they are burned.  So take the pressure off yourself and get as many trays as you can ready first so that you won’t be distracted.

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10.  At this point I would like to mention my cookie sheets.  A few years ago I needed a couple of extras, and bought a couple of these Chicago Metallic trays from Moore Wilson. Since then I only use the old ones in emergency (don’t ask).

A set of 5 works well (three in the oven and two at hand), particularly when I’m doing a lot of yeast baking (it needs to rise on the sheet), or when there’s a lot of cookie baking going on.

They are relatively heavy making for more even cooking.  The rim means that baking around the edge of the sheets doesn’t catch as quickly as it otherwise might.  You can use them for jobs like roasting vegetables for big family dinners or salads. The other bonus is that you can stack them up on top of each other when bench space is at a premium.  See above.

When I’m not looking, the Sainted Husband has been known to use them to cook bacon. This has not improved the non-stick properties of the trays.  Luckily for all concerned I use the non-stick parchment anyway.  (The Sainted Husband points out that he has seen the error of his ways and no longer subjects my cookie sheets to these horrors.)

11. Bake for about 10 minutes or as long as it takes to get a pale golden cookie.  You may need to rotate your trays part way through. If your oven has hot spots you are about to find out exactly where they are.

I usually put in three trays at once. Once the top one is done, I move the lower two trays up, turning them as I go, and pop a fresh tray in the bottom rack.  Works as well as anything.  If they come out a bit over done, try and get them off the tray and on to a cooling rack as soon as you can.  They do keep cooking on the trays.

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I don’t think I turned this tray.  Cookie front right is pallid, cookie left back is overdone. Cookies in columns 2 to 4 of rows 4 and five, and in columns 1 and 2 of rows 2 to 4 look about right (columns counted left to right, rows front to back).

12.  I used to re-roll as I went,taking the scraps from my current lot and adding them to the next lot of fresh dough.  Not surprisingly my first couple of lots would be the best and by the time I got to the end, it wasn’t looking so good.  Now I put aside all the scraps as I go and re roll them together once all the first time dough has been used. I think the dough holds up much better this way.

13.  When the cookies first come out of the oven they might be quite soft.  Give them a few minutes to set, then transfer to a cooling rack.  When they are quite cool, put them into an airtight container until you are ready to eat or ice.  I like them better without any icing, but three people in my household say otherwise.

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I think these matriyoshka shapes could make good mummies come Halloween. And if I ever see more of these high rise cooling racks I’ll buy them.  Another bench space saver during baking seasons.

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Explaining the mystery of the unicorn: this is what happens when you get called away to something else.  They taste really good, but the guests won’t be seeing any.  Should we start a petition to stop the slaughter now?

14. According to the original, this recipe should make about 8 dozen cookies.  Clearly it depends on the size of the cookie.  I find it easier to think that each quarter portion should about fill a tray, and to count on about 1 1/2 trays worth out of the re-rolled scraps.

This time around the recipe yielded:

  • 16 crowns
  • 9 unicorns
  • 16 shoes
  • 12 flowers  (to form bottom half of sandwiched biscuit)
  • 12 flowers with holes cut out (to form top half of sandwich)
  • 13 small mushrooms
  • 4 teapots
  • 7 cupcakes
  • 5 medium sized matriyoshka (babushka) dolls
  • 8 little matriyoshkas

102 or 8.5 dozen cookies – one of the few recipes ever known to stipulate anything resembling an accurate yield.  Respect.

Hopefully this should be enough to keep a dozen kiddies and assorted adults out of trouble for a while.

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