Jazz great, Dave Brubeck, passed away yesterday just one day shy of his 92nd birthday after giving us decades of soulful music. I will admit that he did not appear in my iTunes library until about a year ago. I wasn't familiar with the name. "What?!" you say - and deservedly so. But let me interject that, although I wasn't familiar with the name, as soon as I took a listen, I knew that his music had been part of the fabric in the background of my life. Take Five is classic - a must own. My son-in-law is the one who brought the Brubeck name to the forefront. I don't know why I was surprised to learn that he liked to listen to Jazz but I was - I think it involved a birthday or Christmas wish list. Nevertheless, whenever I hear a name of an artist with which I'm not familiar, I go browsing. And this Christmas album was one that ended up in my library. The beginning of the song suggests that wandering you do while hunting down this year's perfect tree. When the familiar melody begins it is, musically, that "moment" when you've found "the one." You stand there envisioning it with the star on top and all your precious ornaments sparkling between its branches with lights twinkling all around. The moment deserves a Dave Brubeck song.
My grandson called me yesterday while I was figuring out today's post - experimenting with different ideas. He asked, "Grandma, what are you doing?" Just then my oven timer went off and I asked if he could hear the beeping. He said he could. "Do you know what that means?" Silence. "It means that Grandma is baking cookies!" (Oh, that he lived close enough to beg his mom to drive him right over for a taste!)
Then he asks me, "Grandma, do you have cookie cutters? We do!" And, with his 3 year old mind, in which all things are possible, he runs to the kitchen and "shows" me their cookie cutters - over the phone. No - we were not on Face Time! I listened to him as he rummaged through, showing me various ones. I "wowed" and "oohed" like a good grandma. Throughout the conversation he "showed" me how he brushes his hair and something else about playing ball. It was a lovely afternoon chat that, for a moment, erased the 600 miles separating us.
Back to the question - do I have cookie cutters?!
This is a two-gallon jar! This is my strictly Christmas cookie shapes. I have five other jars in my pantry filled with cookie shapes for various occasions. My friend tells me that three or more of anything constitutes a collection. I suppose you could say I have a collection!
I wanted to do something with sugar cookies today. 'Tis the season, right!?
I have a curious mind - always have. It drove my father to distraction sometimes with all the questions I'd ask. I think it drove my teachers in school a little crazy as well.
Now, one thing that has given me hours of contemplation are those store-bought slice-and-bake sugar cookie tubes with the fun little designs in the middle. How do they do that?! Back when they were a brand new commodity I had very little baking or cooking experience so it took MANY "sessions" of pondering to try to come up with a possible solution. None of them seemed very plausible. Now I have a vague idea and realize that these factories have equipment that neither you nor I have access to that can do all sorts of tricks. But I REALLY wanted to figure it out so I could try to do it on my own.
On a very simple scale, I've been able to come up with these Christmas tree sweeties. The idea can transfer to any occasion. I looked over my vast "collection" and came up with, what I think are, the best sizes and shapes.
You can have fun doing the same with your cookie cutters! That scalloped oval set are called Fat Daddios. I believe I bought both of these sets at Sur La Table. You can find them in my Amazon store for a quick shop, if you'd like.
All this process entails is cutting out the exterior casing shape and then removing the center with another shape. Then you mix and match! A dusting with baker's sugar
before baking gives the cookies a sweet sparkle, making decorating any further unnecessary if need be. You can find it right next to the regular granulated sugar in the baking aisle. It's finer than granulated sugar but not as fine as powdered sugar.
See how it sparkles?
I found that the temperature of the dough is key in getting the shapes to come together nicely. A chilled center fits into a slightly warmer dough so much easier than trying to fit a room temp center into a room temp casing. Putting chilled centers into chilled casings works fine but you do run the risk of one or the other breaking.
Another helpful hint is to cut your cookies no less than 1/4" thick. Thin cookies will fold and break. And thicker cut cookies are just better!
If you have a small roller, it can help to give a slight roll over the top to help the new pieces come together better. But it's not necessary. A small spatula, however, is very helpful in handling the cookies so they don't stretch out of shape.
Designer Sugar Cookies
makes about 3 dozen
3 1/4 c. all-purpose flour (400 g)
1 c. granulated sugar (200 g)
1 1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1 c. unsalted butter, softened (227 g)
1 egg, beaten
3 T. cream or milk
2 t. flavoring extract
1 t. food coloring
In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt and mix well. Add the soft butter in pieces and mix until crumbles the size of peas form. Add the egg, cream, and extract and mix until it comes together. I am a little heavy-handed with the flavoring. I just think it really makes the cookies stand out - and the option of leaving them plain after baking even nicer! Divide the dough and add the food coloring and mix until color is uniform. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and chill at least 30 minutes.
I actually flavored my dough after dividing so I could have some contrasting flavors as well as colors. The dough that I left plain in color was flavored with peppermint. The other dough I used a cinnamon extract. I really like the combination of those two flavors. But, to make it easier, next time I'd probably just do it all one flavor!
After the dough has chilled, roll it out to 1/4" thickness on a lightly floured surface. Make your initial shape and set aside. Work quickly so dough handles easier.
Use the smaller cookie shape and cut out the center. Place the center cuts on a sheet tray and chill for about 20 minutes. If you have space in a freezer for your trays, this really speeds up the process! Just blast them for a few minutes!
Insert the chilled centers into the cookie shapes. If they have become too soft, a quick chill will help. Once they are all assembled, give them a quick chill as well.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Fill a tray or plate with about 1 cup of the baker's sugar. Carefully remove the chilled assembled cookies from the tray and place them in the baker's sugar, giving them a coating, front and back. Place on a parchment-lined sheet tray spaced about 2 inches apart.
Bake for 5 minutes, giving the pan a turn halfway through baking time. You do not want these to get brown! Remove from oven and let cool. Leave plain or add little touches with those tubes of store-bought gels or icings and sprinkles!