3 cups (390 grams) all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup (227 grams) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup (200 grams) granulated white sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Royal Icing Using Egg Whites:
2 large (60 grams) egg whites
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
3 cups (330 grams) confectioners (powdered or icing) sugar, sifted
Royal Icing Using Meringue Powder:
4 cups (440 grams) confectioners' (powdered or icing) sugar, sifted
3 tablespoons (30 grams) meringue powder
1/2 teaspoon almond extract (optional)
1/2 cup - 3/4 cup (120 - 180 ml) warm water
Food Coloring (I use Gel Pastes that can be found at cake decorating and party stores or else on-line)
For Sugar Cookies: In a separate bowl whisk together the flour, salt, and baking soda. In the bowl of your electric mixer (or with a hand mixer), beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy (about 3 minutes). Add the eggs and vanilla extract and beat until combined. Add the flour mixture and beat until you have a smooth dough. Divide the dough in half and wrap each half in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for about one hour or until firm enough to roll.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (177 degrees C) and place rack in center of oven. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Remove one half of the chilled dough from the refrigerator and, on a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to a thickness of 1/4 inch (1 cm). (Keep turning the dough as you roll, making sure the dough does not stick to the counter.) Cut out desired shapes using a lightly floured cookie cutter and transfer cookies to baking sheet. Place the baking sheets with the unbaked cookies in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes to chill the dough which prevents the cookies from spreading and losing their shape while baking. Note: If you are not going to frost the baked cookies, you can sprinkle the unbaked cookies with sparkling sugar.
Bake cookies for about 8-10 minutes (depending on size) or until the edges are just starting to brown. Remove from oven and let cookies cool on baking sheet for a few minutes before transferring to a wire rack to finish cooling. Frost with royal icing, if desired. Be sure to let the royal icing dry completely before storing. (This may take several hours or overnight.)
Frosted cookies will keep several days in an airtight container. Store between layers of parchment paper or wax paper.
Makes about 36 cookies.
For Royal Icing with Egg Whites: In the bowl of your electric mixer (or with a hand mixer), beat the egg whites with the lemon juice. Add the sifted sugar and beat on low speed until smooth. If necessary, to get the right consistency, add more sugar or water. Add food coloring, if desired. The icing needs to be used immediately or put in an airtight container as it hardens when exposed to air.
For Royal Icing with Meringue Powder: In the bowl of your electric mixer (or with a hand mixer), beat the sugar and meringue powder until combined. Add the water and beat on medium/high speed until glossy and stiff peaks form (about 5 minutes). If necessary, to get the right consistency, add more powdered sugar or water. Add food coloring, if desired. To cover the entire surface of the cookie with icing, the proper consistency is when you lift the beater, the ribbon of icing that falls back into the bowl remains on the surface of the icing for a few seconds before disappearing. The icing needs to be used immediately or transferred to an airtight container as it hardens when exposed to air.
Sugar Cookies are a sweet and tender cookie with wonderfully crisp edges. They are an American favorite and although they were once made primarily during the Christmas season, they are now a year round favorite. They are delicious whether dressed simply with a sprinkling of colored sugar or frosted with royal icing.
Royal icing is not the same as the confectioners' frosting commonly used by home bakers to cover cakes and cookies. Royal icing is different in that it dries to a wonderfully smooth and hard matte finish that has long been a favorite of professional bakers to cover wedding and Christmas cakes. It can be made two ways; with powdered sugar, egg whites and lemon juice or with a mixture of meringue powder and water. I prefer the taste of royal icing made with egg whites, but if you are concerned about the risk of salmonella, I have also included a recipe for royal icing using meringue powder. If you are unfamiliar with meringue powder, it is a fine, white powder that contains dried egg whites, sugar, salt, vanillin and gum. It can be found at most cake decorating and party stores or else on-line.
Now, the royal icing recipe I have given is for covering or "flooding" the entire surface of the cookie. If you want to pipe a border around the outside edge of the sugar cookies (as I have done in the picture) the royal icing needs to be thicker, so it is of piping consistency. To make a small batch, beat together one large egg white, one teaspoon of lemon juice, and about 2 - 2 1/4 cups (230 - 285 grams) of confectioners sugar until the frosting is stiff (like a meringue) and of piping consistency. Color if desired. Place in a piping bag with a small plain tip and pipe a border around the outside edges of the cookies. Let it dry completely before covering the surface of the cookie with royal icing.
Lastly, let's talk about which type of food coloring to use. Personally, I like the concentrated gel paste dyes that are sold in small 1/2 or one ounce (14 - 28 grams) containers. Only a very small amount is needed to color the icing, and I measure it out using the end of a toothpick. Make sure to thoroughly mix the paste into the icing as you do not want streaks. You can buy gel pastes at cake decorating stores or stores like Michael's.
Note: It is important to bake these cookies until the edges are brown, especially if you are going to frost them with royal icing as you do not want the icing to soften the cookies during storing. Also make sure the baked cookies have completely cooled before frosting.