In Saving Southern Recipes, Southern Kitchen’s Kate Williams explores the deep heritage of Southern cooking through the lens of passed-down, old family recipes.
There's likely a different sugar cookie recipe for every home baker in the country. But when the recipe comes with a 100-year-old pedigree, it certainly merits notice.
"You probably don't need another sugar cookie recipe," Southern Kitchen reader Penny Harrison wrote to me in an email last month. Harrison's recipe comes from her grandmother's friend, Mossie Booth, and the cookies made a regular appearance on her grandmother's table. "We never decorated ours," she said. They were just "plain — very plain — cookies," rolled thin and baked for a little extra time to develop a slight bittersweet caramel flavor and crisp, light texture.
These holiday treats also go against much of what I've known about proper cookie baking, and they're all the better for it.
But, first, a quick primer on sugar cookies. They have their origins in 7th century Persia, one of the first places to cultivate sugar after the Indian subcontient. Crusaders from Europe got a taste for sugar, brought it back with them, and eventually started using it in small bite-sized cakes. These cookies made many appearances in cookbooks dating back to the Renaissance. Both Dutch and Scotch immigrants brought cookies to the American continent, but the Dutch, especially those that were part of the Moravian church, are given the most credit for introducing the sweet treat to the United States.
Much of the early American recipes were fairly similar to the sugar and shortbread cookies we eat today; however, they typically included warm spices and lacked eggs. Amelia Simmon's "American Cookery," which was published in 1796 and is said to be the first published American cookbook, includes two cookie recipes: one a basic sugar cookie and one a "Christmas cookie," which is said to improve after months of storage:
"Christmas Cookery – To three pound of flour, sprinkle a tea cup of fine powdered coriander seeds, rub in one pound of butter, and one and half pound sugar, dissolve one tea spoonful of pearl ash [an early commercial leavener] in a tea cup of milk, kneed all together well, roll three quarter of an inch thick, and cut or stamp into shape and size you please, bake flowly fifteen or twenty minutes; tho’ hard and dry at first, if put in an earthern pot, and dry cellar, or damp room, they will be finer, softer and better when six months old."
We've come a long way since these early Christmas cookies. And while what we bake in our kitchens every holiday season isn't offically Southern, the abunance of butter and sugar certainly helps satiate Southern sweet teeth.
Harrison's recipe certainly doesn't skimp on the sugar, but the resulting cookies are far more complex than what you typically taste in a sugar cookie. They are also far easier and less finicky than any other sugar cookie I've made:
Break eggs in a bowl and beat. Add sugar and butter (melted). Beat well - I use an electric mixer but I know Mossie did not! Add vanilla, flour, and baking power. Beat well. Put dough on a well floured space and work in a little flour to make it easy to roll out. Roll very thin and thin cut into shapes. Sprinkle with sugar (I use a small sifter). I put the sugar on after they are on the cookie sheet (then scrape the cookie sheet before the next use). You can put the sugar on first if you prefer. Cook at 350 degrees, until lightly browned - but I think they are better if they are a little more brown. I never time mine - but it probably takes about 10 minutes.
The recipe only requires one bowl, and can be stirred, mixed and re-rolled with abandon. You don't need a stand mixer. It is perfect for pulling out when you need to entertain the kids. The cookies can be baked plain, as Harrison instructs, or cooled and decorated with as much royal icing as your five-year-old desired.
The secret is melted butter, which was initally baffling. Wouldn't the cookie dough spread across the baking sheet? Wouldn't it need hours in the fridge to become stiff enough to roll? Even with the melted butter, wouldn't Harrison's directions to add the flour and then "beat well" result in tough cookies?
After doing a bit of research and just thinking practically about the relationship between fat and gluten, the recipe makes a lot more sense. See, when you use melted butter, you're helping to impede gluten development (and a resulting tough texture) in the final cookie. The fat coats each speck of flour, making it far more difficult for those gluten strands to link up. When your goal is a crisp, thin cookie, this state is ideal. You don't need the fluff, lift and structure that results from a creaming step.
Of course, I wouldn't let that theory just stand on its own. I tried very, very hard to find a way to screw the cookies up. I re-rolled scraps over and over again. I baked the cookies while the dough was warm and while it was chilled. I underbaked and overbaked the cookies. They were great each and every time, which counts as a foolproof recipe to me.