Sugar and spice and all things nice
That's what little girls — and cookies, and pies, and cakes, and tarts, and ice cream, and candy bars — are made of.
True enough, Mother Goose, but cookies, pies, cakes and tarts weren't popular in the Weight Watchers home of my childhood, though my mother considered ice cream and Hershey bars, in particular, to have infallible medicinal qualities. I always thought she was cuckoo, but as my hormones careened through adulthood, I actually began to understand her philosophy.
Sugar plays a more complicated role in my own household. When Type-1 diabetes came into our lives, all of a sudden, sugar in all forms was not just fattening, but dangerous. I became a label reader, and found sugar everywhere. Twenty-five years later, though, we've learned to live with sugar and to recognize the important roles it plays in the kitchen, especially in baking.
As a notorious bake-o-phobe, I've never really understood the role of sugar in the whole baking equation. Sugar adds volume, texture, color and tenderness. Because sugar holds moisture, it is also a preservative, extending the shelf life of baked goods; that's why many artisan breads, made only with yeast (or a biga), flour, water and salt do not last more than a day.
I learned on Joyofbaking.com that when a recipe calls for creaming butter and sugar together, the idea is to get air into the batter. Mixing causes sugar granules to rub against the fat, producing little air pockets. When a leavener is added, the leavening gases enlarge the air pockets and cause the batter to rise with the heat of the oven. The length of time you cream the butter and sugar determines the amount of air incorporated into the batter.
By the way, one pound of sugar equals, approximately, 2-1/4 cups. One pound of flour is close to 4 cups. One pound of cookies is a pound added directly to your hips, no matter how you look at it.
Drop In & Decorate sugar cookies
Makes 16-20 large cookies; see note below for making multiple batches.
3-1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1-1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1-1/4 cups best quality unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 Tbsp milk
2-1/2 tsp best quality pure vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 375°F. Line a couple of baking sheets with a Silpat or parchment paper.
In a large bowl, stir together flour, baking powder and salt.
In another large bowl or the bowl of a heavy-duty stand mixer, beat together the butter and sugar, until fluffy. Add egg, milk and vanilla, and continue to beat until well blended and smooth. Beat flour mixture into the butter mixture until smooth.
Divide dough in half. Place one half on a sheet of parchment paper or wax paper; cover with another sheet and roll to 1/4 inch. Repeat with second half of dough. Refrigerate dough for at least 30 minutes, or up to a couple of days (or, if making far in advance, you can freeze at this point. Wrap sheets tightly in plastic wrap).
Remove one sheet from the refrigerator; peel off the top wax paper, then replace paper and invert dough. Peel off and discard what is now the top sheet of paper, and cut out the cookies. (cookies will spread, so do not place too close together on the baking sheet). Reroll scraps, refrigerating if necessary to firm the dough.
Bake for 6-9 minutes, or until just lightly colored on top and slightly darker at the edges. Rotate sheets halfway through for even browning. Remove pans from oven and let cookies cool 2-3 minutes. Then remove cookies to a rack and let cool completely. (At this point, the cookies can be stored in an airtight container for up to two weeks, in layers separated by parchment or wax paper.)
After the cookies are completely cooled, decorate with Royal Icing. Place the decorated cookies on a tray and leave out overnight, uncovered, to harden. The next morning, package in food-safe cellophane bags or cookie tins.
*Note: to make multiple batches, do NOT double the recipe. It’s hard to control proportions. Instead, make multiples of the original recipe, one batch at a time, for guaranteed success!
*Another note: Rolled sheets of cookie dough can be made ahead and frozen (or, if you're going to use them within a day or two, you can stack the rolled sheets of dough on a cookie sheet in the refrigerator). Let defrost until dough is pliable enough to be cut without breaking cookies, but not necessarily completely defrosted.
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