Sugar cookies remain a crowd-pleaser. I feel like their popularity has even risen over the last decade or so thanks to the ubiquitous thick and soft frosted sugar cookies found at every grocery and convenience store. You know the ones—round with pink or another pastel-colored frosting and sprinkles? In true 100 Days of Real Food fashion, I’ve taken one of my family’s favorite recipes and given it an upgrade. Yes, these sugar cookies contain refined sugar, but allowances can be made for special occasions, right?
My family’s recipe is a little different than traditional sugar cookies. They are a little lighter, less doughy and soft, with crisp edges, and a chewy middle. If baked a little longer, they become irresistibly crisp like shortbread.
The first swap is to use white whole-wheat flour instead of white flour. Alternatively, whole-wheat pastry flour could be used. These sugar cookies have more fiber and a lovely golden color.
The second swap is to use organic evaporated cane juice in place of refined granulated sugar. Evaporated cane juice is less processed, and usually fair trade, which is important to me. I also cut the amount of sugar in half—the frosting adds plenty of extra sweetness.
Third, use pure extracts, flavorings, or essence. Artificial extracts and colors contain unwanted chemicals and don’t taste nearly as good as the real thing. My recipe calls for pure vanilla and almond extracts. I sometimes mix things up by adding a bit of fresh, finely grated citrus zest. The combination of the three gives the cookies a “bakery” type flavor. They can certainly be omitted or substituted with other natural extracts to change up the flavor. We will sometimes add ground nutmeg, cinnamon, or cardamom, or even lavender buds to the dough.
The last swap is the decoration—I’ve been so excited to find all-natural food colorings and sprinkles in stores and online. I’ve pulverized freeze-dried strawberries, raspberries, cranberries, blueberries, and mango to both tint and flavor the frosting. We also use naturally colored chocolate candies (Trader Joe’s are our favorite), sunflower seeds, and chocolate chips as “sprinkles.”
Don’t be tempted to add more flour to the dough when mixing. I know no-chill cookies are a huge time saver and almost always contain extra flour. However, I prefer to chill the dough several hours, or overnight if possible. The flour will hydrate as the dough chills, and it won’t be as sticky. (This sugar cookie dough is a dream to work with. It’s not very sticky, but still soft.)
Chilling the dough also helps prevent the cookies from spreading too much and in maintaining their shape if a more intricate cookie cutter is used.
I like to roll the dough out between sheets of parchment paper. Not only does it make cleanup easier, but the dough also doesn’t stick and I can use less flour.
The oven temperature is set higher than in other recipes. The higher temp and shorter baking time yield sugar cookies with lightly crisp edges and tender, chewy middles.
For softer cookies, add 2-3 teaspoons of honey along with the sugar during the creaming step. Honey is a humectant and will keep the cookies moist and soft. Or, the dough can be rolled slightly thicker, or the cookies can be slightly under-baked. All of these things will yield softer cookies.
If you prefer not to cut the cookies into shapes, the chilled dough can be rolled into balls and baked at 350°F for 10-12 minutes. They are good with or without frosting.
Of course, we can’t make sugar cookies without talking about sugar cookie frosting! The best sugar cookie frosting, in my opinion, is made with 100% real butter and a touch of cream cheese. That little bit of tang and texture from the cream cheese gives the frosting richness and a little extra zing.
Another difference between my frosting and others is that I use half-and-half, or cream, for the liquid instead of milk or water. I also like to add those same extra flavors to the frosting as I do with the dough. The lemon zest is the perfect addition for spring and summer—I tend to omit it during the colder months.
Piping frosting onto cookies is hands-down the easiest way to decorate them. These days there are tons of different tips to create beautiful decorations—I prefer the simplicity of a round or open star tip. Save the small piping tips for intricate work and utilize the big ones. They make everything easier. Bonus: kids also love manning a piping bag.
Some things don’t come naturally to me. Can I make a decent looking cake and batch of sugar cookies? You bet. But I will probably always be an amateur when it comes to cookie decorating—Ha! But that doesn’t mean what I create can’t still look nice. So, I have a few tips to help make cookie decorating less intimidating and easier.
When filling the piping bag, be sure to poke down into the bag to help release any large air bubbles and roll or twist the bag (think: toothpaste or ointment tubes) in order to stay in control of the bag. It does take practice, but it’s not too difficult to figure out if you’ve never used one before.
To make simple flowers, I most often use either an open or a closed star tip, squeezing with gentle, but firm pressure for smooth piping.
To make leaves, I use a small basic leaf tip. But there are so many different leaf tip styles and sizes.
There are hundreds of tutorials online that demonstrate how to pipe more intricate or complicated flowers and designs. I received a hand-me-down set of piping tips and have had fun playing around to create different flowers, but I still need LOTS of practice. Ha!
One of my kids’ favorite things is to make sandwich cookies. These sugar cookies are perfect for sandwich cookies. I will under-bake them just a bit so they are softer. It helps keep the frosting from squishing out with every bite.
I hope you enjoy these as much as we do. Let us know how it goes in the comments!
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Lindsey Rose Johnson is a food photographer and writer based in Boise, Idaho. When she’s not in the kitchen or behind the camera, she can be found outside playing with her two dogs, swinging in a hammock, reading, gardening, or listening to music. Lindsey and her husband are the parents of two teens and a tween, all of whom love to cook.
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