Cut-out sugar cookies is something I have wrestled with for many years. I don't know why, but something always seems to go awry. Either they are too dry and crack, or they spread out too much and lose their shapes, or they crumble easily. It always seems to be something. I've tried many different sugar cookie recipes, and I've experimented with adapting them. I've tried shortening or butter, powdered sugar or granulated sugar; baking powder or baking soda. I've just never been extremely pleased, but I always make them because, well, cut-out sugar cookies are a Christmas tradition and (should) look nice on the cookie tray.
I think this year I finally got it right, and I wrote down what I did so I wouldn't forget! This dough was so easy to handle, and the finished cookies are just right. I think the winning combination is to use butter (not shortening or margarine), granulated sugar, and baking powder. And, you know, I think, just maybe, the fresh eggs from my free-range chickens might have something to do with it too!
My Best Cut-Out Sugar Cookies
Yield: Six dozen cookies
1 1/2 cups softened butter
2 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar together until smooth. Beat in the eggs and vanilla extract. Mix in the flour, baking power and salt. Divide the dough into three portions; wrap each in parchment paper and refrigerate for at least one hour.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Roll out dough on a floured surface 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick. Cut into shapes with cookie cutters. Place cookies 1 inch apart on parchment-lined cookie sheets.
Bake for 6 to 8 minutes until the edges are just starting to turn golden brown. Remove cookies from sheet and cool on cooling racks completely before decorating.
Don't over-mix dough.
Divide the dough before refrigerating to make it easier to handle when rolling.
Flatten each division of dough in parchment paper to shorten chill time and make it easier to roll later.
If you refrigerate the cut-out shapes on the parchment lined cookie sheet, they won't spread out as much when baking.
Bake same-sized shapes together for even doneness.
Rotate cookie sheets half-way through baking if your oven bakes unevenly.
Royal Icing (egg-free)
2 cups powdered sugar
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
4 teaspoons milk
2 teaspoons light corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
Mix all ingredients together with a knife or spatula. You can try different flavorings, like vanilla, almond, or orange extract. Add liquid or paste food coloring a little at a time until you have the color you desire. If the icing is too thin, add a little more powdered sugar. If it is too thick, add milk a teaspoon at a time. This icing will dry hard and shiny.
You can use a small, clean (washed) sponge brush to "paint" the color on the cookies. (It has the effect of stained glass.) Or you can do as I did: Use an icing bag and a small tip to outline the cookie shape.
Then use a larger tip to add icing to the center of the cookie. Use a toothpick to spread the icing to the piped outline. As the icing dries, it will "settle" into the shape. (Cover remainder of icing in the bowl with plastic wrap to keep it from drying out.)
While the icing is still wet, you can shake some sprinkles on the cookie. When the icing is dry, you can use the icing bag and a small tip to pipe designs on the cookie in a coordinating color.