Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Soft Cutout Christmas Cookies

I don't particularly like crisp, buttery cookies with frosting on them. I feel like the sugary coating takes something away from the simplicity of that type of cookie. In other words, if it's a good butter cookie, I don't want to disguise it with icing. But Christmas cookies deserve to be decorated as much as the tree and there is only so much that one can do with sprinkles alone (which are, incidentally, a fine addition to butter cookies). Frosting can allow you to be a lot more creative. Christmas cookies just want to be frosted.
I like to use simple sugar icing for frosting cookies, since it's not as rich or gooey as a buttercream, but still adds a nice, sugary taste. It is also easy to control the consistency of, so I can make it thin, for flooding large areas, or stiff, to draw the details. The frosted cookies themselves should be soft but firm, neither too sweet nor too buttery and they have to stay fresh for a few days. Gingerbread cookies are a good choice and easy to decorate, but whiter cookies give you a bit more color versatility, as well as less pressure to make ony gingerbread men.
Made with buttermilk, these cookies are soft and stay moist and fresh tasting for several days without getting too cakey or stale. They have a light vanilla flavor with a subtle tang from the buttermilk. The dough can be rerolled once or twice and holds it's shape well in the oven, though it does puff up a bit. The dough is sticky when it isn't cole, so be sure to have the dough well-chilled and your work surface floured. And the most crucial point? They hold up well to decorating and actually taste much better with the icing and sprinkles.
I'm already making another batch. After all, it's still a few days until Christmas and, while these will stay fresh until then, I don't expect them to last that long.

Soft Cutout Cookies
2 3/4 cups ap flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter, very soft
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp almond extract

In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
In a large bowl, cream together sugar and butter. Beat in buttermilk, egg and extracts. With the mixer on low speed or by hand, add in the flour mixture, mixing until no flour remains.
Divide dough into two pieces. Wrap in plastic wrap and freeze for at least 2 hours.
Preheat oven to 375F.
Working with 1 piece of dough at a time, roll out to 1/4-inch thick on a lightly floured surface and use a floured cookie cutter to make desired shapes. Transfer cookies to a parchment lined baking sheet. Reroll remaing dough, chilling for a few minutes if it becomes too warm to handle easily. Repeat with second piece of dough.
Bake for 6-7 minutes at 375F, until the edges are slightly firm to the touch but cookies are not browned (The bottom of the cookies will be light brown).
Cool completely on a wire rack before icing.
Makes 4-5 dozen, depending on cookie cutter size.

Simple Colored Icing
4 cups confectioners sugar, divided
2 tbsp milk or light cream per bowl
1/2 tsp vanilla extract per bowl
white, red, green and blue food coloring

Place 1 cup of sugar in each of 4 small bowls. Add 2 tbsp milk or light cream, 1/2 tsp vanilla and a few drops of your desired food color to each bowl. Mix thoroughly with a fork, until smooth and a good consistency: thin for filling in large spaces and thick for making clear lines. Add extra milk if necessary.
Scrape each color into a small zip-lock plastic bag.
Snip the corner of the bag to ice cookies.