Of Love and Cookies

Make some frosted sugar cookies for your sweetheart. Hands down, baking batches (and batches and batches) of cookies is our second favorite dessert-related pastime.

What’s our first favorite pastime? Why, eating cookies, naturally.

The cookie is the perfect little indulgence. Rumor has it that cookies shared are twice as delicious as those eaten alone, and National Cookie Day is the perfect excuse to put this to the test.

National Cookie Day was first observed by the Blue Chip Cookie Company on December 4, 1987. Folks use National Cookie Day as an excuse to get together, drink coffee, bake cookies, and exchange recipes old and new. Based on the sheer number of cookie swaps organized around December 4th, this minor American holiday is rapidly becoming a nationwide institution.

The English edition of Sju Sorters Kakor,
translated by Melody Favish.
Americans are not the only ones famous for their cookie love. In Nordic households, no celebratory gathering is complete without an elegant selection of cookies.

The custom of serving trays of assorted cakes and cookies is found throughout Scandinavia, but this traditional cookie service is so much a part of Swedish culture that Sju Sorters Kakor (Seven Kinds of Cookies) has been Sweden’s best-selling cookbook since 1945.

“Seven Kinds of Cookies” (“Swedish Cakes and Cookies” is the English version) is a compact, neatly organized book filled with cookie recipes (along with recipes for cakes, quick breads, tortes, and other Swedish baked delights). Crisp or chewy, sweet or spiced, filled, rolled, pressed, or dropped, plain or iced, there’s a recipe to please everyone’s palate.

Why seven kinds? No one knows for sure. Perhaps the Swedish principle lagom — the virtue of moderation and balance — considers seven types of cookies just right. Any more, the host would seem too pompous; any less, the host seems too stingy.

No matter where you live, presenting a varied cookie tray doesn’t have to be a difficult task. Most cookie recipes can be prepared and frozen ahead of time, putting them within easy reach of anyone willing to do a bit of advance prep.

Instead of making multiple recipes, we like to make a big batch of our favorite sugar cookie dough, then refrigerate (or freeze) portions for future shaping and baking. This very versatile dough is ideal for classic rolled cookies, spritz cookies, and jam-filled thumbprints. By kneading additional ingredients into the prepared dough, we can also turn it into tea cakes, mocha drops, rum-raisin bars, or fanciful pinwheels to round out any cookie tray.

Butter-based cookie doughs are very easy to make. For perfect dough that yields tender cookies, simply follow these guidelines:

  • Start with fresh ingredients. Butter, flour, and eggs all deteriorate with age.
  • Use a quality unsalted butter. High-fat (European) butters can be used in traditional baking recipes, yielding a slightly richer flavor and more tender crumb.
  • Softened butter should be cool (around 60-65°F), not warm or melted.
    • Let the butter rest on the counter for 30-60 minutes in a 70-75°F room.
    • If you have one, use a digital thermometer to check the temperature.
    • See About Creaming, below, for the reasons behind all this fussiness.
  • Over-mixing, or mixing butter and sugar on a too-high or too-low speed will negatively affect your dough.
    • Use the paddle blade (not the whisk) of your stand mixer, and cream butter at medium speed (typically speed 3-4).
    • If using a hand mixer, cream butter on High for about 5 minutes.
  • For cookie perfection, weigh dry ingredients instead of measuring them.
    • 1 cup of flour weighs 4 1/4 ounces.
    • 1 cup of sugar weighs 7 ounces.
  • And finally, chill butter-based cookie dough 2 hours before shaping.

All set? Let’s gather together butter, flour, sugar, and all the rest, and start mixing some dough!

Basic Sugar Cookie Dough

Makes enough for four batches of cookies.

Basic Sugar Cookie Dough
makes the following:

Sugarplum Linzer Cookies
More coming soon!
This simple dough is very forgiving of novice hands. It can be rolled, pressed, and flavored, making it an obvious choice for anyone looking to quickly fill up a tray with assorted cookies. Don’t need this much? This recipe can be halved without further adjustment.
  • 2 cups (4 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 cups (14 ounces) sugar
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract (see note)
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 5 cups (21 1/4 ounces) all-purpose flour
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle blade, cream butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.

Add eggs, vanilla, and salt; mix on medium speed until well combined.

With mixer on low speed, add flour in 2 batches, mixing until just incorporated.

Divide dough into 4 equal portions. Place each on a piece of plastic wrap; flatten into 6-inch disks, then tightly wrap. Refrigerate until firm, at least 2 hours. Chilled dough can be kept in refrigerator up to 1 week.

To freeze: Wrap dough in double layer of plastic; freeze for up to 3 months. To use, thaw in refrigerator overnight.

Note: This recipe specifies 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla per portion. For a less vanilla-y taste, reduce the overall amount to 4 teaspoons.

About Creaming

When making cookies, the purpose of creaming is twofold: to mechanically add fine air bubbles to the butter by punching it full of little holes with the sharp sugar crystals, and to evenly distribute the sugar — the essential base of a cookie’s structure — throughout the dough.

While baking, those tiny air bubbles expand with steam and help hold the dough aloft. As a cookie cools and sets, the bubble's footprint is what gives it that light texture and tender crumb.

And now, some kitchen chemistry

Butter is an emulsion of fat, milk solids, and water, with a temperature-dependent plasticity. This plasticity — butter’s ability to be molded without separating — allows it to stretch and expand in such a way that when pierced by sugar crystals during the creaming process, the emulsion doesn't break, but rather adheres to itself, thereby capturing air bubbles within its structure.

In order for this to happen — and to keep those tiny air bubbles intact — the temperature of the butter needs to be 60-65°F throughout the creaming process.

Properly creamed butter will be pale yellow (but not white), fluffy with visible peaks, and will feel moist and light, with very little grittiness. The resulting cookies will be light and crisp.

Butter that’s too cold (say, straight out of the fridge) will not expand and stretch enough to capture many air bubbles. Creamed this way, it will be a chunky and grainy mass, and will feel like clumpy wet sand. The resulting cookies will be hard and dense.

Butter that’s too warm (over 70°F) begins to separate and lose its plasticity. Although it will capture air bubbles, the structure will be too weak to hold them for very long. Creamed this way, the butter will cling to the sides of the bowl, look very wet, and will feel oily and gritty. The resulting cookies will be flat and greasy.