Recipes

Cookie Corner: Bake a batch of holiday butter cookies

Dorie Greenspan’s recipe for butter cookies is a cinch for holiday baking.
Dorie Greenspan’s recipe for butter cookies is a cinch for holiday baking. kmorrison@sacbee.com

This is the season of butter. From mashed potatoes to buttercream frosting and pie crust, a lot of the flavor we associate with holiday food comes from butter.

Dorie Greenspan and her new cookbook, “Baking Chez Moi,” inspired this year’s Cookie Corner with her butter cookie recipe. It’s such a simple recipe in terms of ingredients and the results are so satisfying. Try it for a cookie-decorating session with kids or a batch for the office potluck.

For the past few years, I’ve tested recipes to give home cooks tips and alerts on different holiday cookies – something to get attention at the annual cookie swap, perhaps.

My test recipe here is a more-adult butter cookie with a definite holiday spin: buttered rum meltaways, from Martha Stewart. Put some dough in the freezer this week and you’ll have oven-ready cookies-in-waiting all month.

My testing notes, plus tasters’ reactions, follow the recipe.

Cookie-baking tips

Dorie Greenspan, chef and cookbook author, offers these tips on making butter cookies:

Flavor: My go-to recipe has very few ingredients, so each one counts, especially the butter. Butter provides most of the flavor and plays a big role in giving the cookies their crisp-on-the-outside and flaky-on-the-inside texture. Don’t even think about using margarine or shortening. And even though there’s just 1 teaspoon of vanilla in the dough, its flavor comes through, so be certain to use pure vanilla extract.

Mixing: The dough for these cookies is almost like French tart dough and, like almost all cookie recipes, it benefits from being mixed as briefly as possible once the flour goes in. There’s a lot of flour in this recipe – you need it for structure – so I like to mix the dough just until it forms moist clumps and curds. Then I turn it out onto the counter and, working with a small amount at a time, I smear each portion along the counter with the heel of my hand to complete the blending. In French, this technique is called fraisage, and it’s not only effective, but fun.

Rolling: The easiest way to roll this (and most other doughs) is to start as soon as it is mixed (a heresy in classic baking, but hey, it works). Work with half the dough at a time, placing it between two large sheets of kitchen parchment or waxed paper. Roll on both sides (your dough bakes more evenly when you do) and, from time to time, peel away the papers to be sure you’re not rolling them into the dough and creating creases. When you’re finished, keep the dough sandwiched between the papers.

Chilling: The freezer is your best friend when you’re working with a butter-rich dough. Chill the dough after rolling it and, if it gets soft after you’ve cut it, chill it again before baking.

Cutting: To get the cleanest shapes, be sure to use cutters with thin, sharp edges. Press down firmly on the cutter – don’t turn or jiggle –then carefully release the dough using your fingers to push it out of the cutter, if needed.

Baking: For an even bake and a super-easy clean-up, I like to line the baking sheets with parchment or silicone baking mats. Arrange the cookies 1 inch apart and bake in a heated oven until they are golden brown around the edges. Remember, color equals flavor. Leave the cookies on the sheet for a couple of minutes after they come out of the oven.

Cooling: Transfer the just-baked cookies to a rack and let them come to room temperature. I think of cooling as the last step in baking because cookies don’t develop their true texture until they’re cool. Also, you can’t decorate warm cookies, so just wait it out.

Storing: In order to maintain the texture of your cookies, always store crispy cookies with their crispy mates and chewy ones with other chewies. Mix them up and they all go soft lickety-split.

The Associated Press

Foolproof holiday butter cookies

Start to finish: 1 hour 45 minutes (45 minutes active)

Makes 40 (2-inch) cookies

Recipe adapted for The Associated Press from Dorie Greenspan’s “Baking Chez Moi” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

Greenspan offers these tips for making the cookies:

Flavor: Use only real butter (not shortening or margarine) and pure vanilla extract.

Chilling: The freezer is your best friend when you’re working with a butter-rich dough. Chill the dough after rolling it and, if it gets soft after you’ve cut it, chill it again before baking.

Cutting: To get the cleanest shapes, use cutters with thin, sharp edges.

Cooling: Transfer the just-baked cookies to a rack and let them come to room temperature. I think of cooling as the last step in baking because cookies don’t develop their true texture until they’re cool. Also, you can’t decorate warm cookies, so just wait it out.

Storing: Always store crispy cookies with their crispy mates and chewy ones with other chewies. Mix them up and they all go soft lickety-split.

INGREDIENTS

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Decorating sugar, for sprinkling (optional)

INSTRUCTIONS

Working in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or in a large bowl with a hand mixer, beat the butter, sugar and salt together at medium speed until smooth and creamy, about 3 minutes. Reduce the speed to low and beat in the vanilla. Add the flour all at once and pulse the mixer on and off a few times to start blending it in.

With the mixer on the lowest speed, continue to mix in the flour, scraping the bowl as necessary, until you have what look like nuggets and curds. Turn the dough out onto a work surface and finish blending the dough by pulling off small hunks of it and pushing each hunk across the work table with the heel of your hand. Then gather the smooth dough into a ball, divide it in half and press each half into a disk.

Working with one piece of dough at a time, roll the dough between 2 sheets of kitchen parchment or waxed paper to a thickness of 1/8 inch. Slide the paper-sandwiched dough onto a baking sheet or cutting board (you can stack the pieces of dough) and freeze for at least 1 hour. At this stage, the dough also can be wrapped airtight and frozen for up to 2 months.

When you’re ready to bake, set a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment or a silicone baking mat.

Remove 1 piece of dough from the freezer, remove the parchment from the dough and cut out cookies. As you cut them, place them on the lined baking sheet, about 1 inch apart. If you won’t be decorating the cookies, lightly sprinkle them with sugar. Save the scraps to combine with the scraps from the other piece of dough.

Bake for 11 to 13 minutes, or until the cookies are golden brown around the edges and on the bottoms. Transfer the baking sheet to a cooling rack, wait a couple of minutes, then lift the cookies off the sheet with an offset spatula and transfer to the rack to cool completely. Repeat with the remaining dough, cooling the baking sheet between batches. Gather any scraps together, reroll them, chill and make more cookies.

Per serving: 80 calories; 40 calories from fat (50% of total calories); 4.5 g fat (3 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 10 mg cholesterol; 8 g carbohydrate; 0 g fiber; 2 g sugar; 1 g protein; 30 mg sodium.

TESTING AND TASTING

Dorie Greenspan has such specific tips for these cookies that I had to give them a try. Here are some things I learned:

▪ The “heeling in” of the dough was easier than I had figured. I put the dough on my largest smooth cutting board. You could also do it on parchment paper on a counter or table.

▪ It can be hard to get the thickness right. She very specifically calls for 1/8 inch. I used a small ruler to check, then rolled some more – measure twice, cut once! – after I took it out of the freezer before cutting.

▪ Parchment paper is a must; don’t use wax paper when rolling. If the dough starts to stick to the paper when you’re cutting out the cookies, it’s warming up – pop it back in the freezer for a minute or two.

▪ An oven thermometer is nearly essential. Since the cookies are rolled thin, they can overbake quickly in a too-hot oven, even starting from frozen. (Greenspan believes “Color equals flavor,” so some brown is good.) I used regular, not insulated, cookie sheets.

These cookies remind me of spritz: buttery and crunchy, with a bit of sweetness from the sparkly sugar on top.

Kathy Morrison

Buttered rum meltaways

Prep time: 20 minutes, plus at least 30 minutes freezer time

Bake time: 15 minutes per batch

Makes about 4 dozen

Adapted for The Bee from “Martha Stewart’s Cookies” (Clarkson Potter, $24.95, 352 pages paperback).

INGREDIENTS

1 3/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons cornstarch

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

2 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

3/4 teaspoon coarse salt

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter

1 1/3 cup confectioners’ sugar, divided

1/4 cup dark rum OR 1 1/2 tablespoons imitation rum extract plus 1 tablespoon water (see testing and tasting notes)

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Up to 2 tablespoons water, optional

INSTRUCTIONS

Whisk flour, cornstarch, spices, and salt in a bowl. Put butter and 1/3 cup sugar into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on medium speed until pale and fluffy. Mix in rum and vanilla. Reduce speed to low, and gradually mix in flour mixture. If mixture seems too powdery, blend in a little water, a teaspoon at time, until dough can be gathered together.

Divide dough in half. Place each on a piece of parchment paper; shape dough into logs. Fold parchment over dough; using a ruler, roll and press into a 1 1/4-inch log. Wrap in parchment. Chill in freezer 30 minutes (up to 1 month).

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Unwrap logs. Cut into 1/4-inch-thick rounds; space 1 inch apart on parchment-lined baking sheets. Bake until just golden, about 15 minutes.

Transfer cookies to wire racks; let cool 10 minutes. Gently toss warm cookies with remaining 1 cup confectioners’ sugar in a resealable plastic bag. Cookies can be refrigerated in airtight containers up to 2 weeks.

TESTING AND TASTING

This is an ideal recipe for holiday make-ahead. The dough can be frozen up to one month, so you can go from dough to cookies in less than 30 minutes.

I don’t have any problem baking with liquor, but some people do – or they don’t want to pay for a whole bottle when they just need little. So my test with this recipe involved splitting the dough and flavoring half with real rum (Bacardi gold in this case) and the other with imitation rum extract. I also added a little water to the latter to make up for the lost liquid.

The difference was not dramatic, but the cookies with the imitation rum tasted more “rumlike” – at least what we think of as rum – than the real deal. They’re both spicy and crunchy, not too heavy but with a definite buttery taste.

The other change I made was to add a little water to the dough at the end to be able to gather it into a ball. My kitchen was very dry, and the dough was quite powdery. But as with pie dough, a little liquid goes a long way, so add just a bit at a time if needed.

One more hint: Put four or five cookies at a time to shake in the bag of confectioners’ sugar. I used a fork to pull each one out and put it on a plate.

Most of the newsroom tasters knew only that there was 1 ingredient difference between the two plates of cookies. The blue plate had the cookies with rum, the green one held the cookies with rum extract. Both types had their fans:

Of the real rum cookies, tasters said “thumbs up for the blue plate – like the flavor – richer”; “I like the spicy kick of this one”; “better flavor”; “spicy.” Of the green plate cookies, “taste more like ginger snaps”; “best! better texture, more flavorful”; “nicer texture and flavor”; “tastes more complex.” One taster admonished: “Always more rum.”

Kathy Morrison

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