Perfectly Imperfect

QuestionableBaking Christmas cookies; yet another example of a holiday tradition that sounds like a lot more fun than it sometimes ends up being with three young children. It’s right up there with carving pumpkins, dying Easter eggs and decorating the Christmas tree. These are all activities that sound dreamy and special, yet almost always turn bad rather quickly. At least that’s the way it goes at my house with two strong-willed perfectionists who insist they don’t need any help, until they do. Throw a mischievous two-year-old into the mix and you’ve got big trouble. Nonetheless, this year once again, I put on my Little Miss Sunshine face, hoped for the best and set out on what I hoped would be a fun adventure in baking that we would look back on with happy thoughts years from now.

If I only have time to make one batch of Christmas cookies, Iced Sugar Cookies are it! If you haven’t made yours yet, I want to share my favorite recipe with you. Normally I like to take family recipes and those from my favorite cookbooks and celeb chefs and make them my own, by transforming them to be “cleaner” and healthier. This one is too perfect to mess with. You know the saying, “If it ain’t broke…”! Christmas goodies are one place where I don’t cut corners. This time of year, I do splurge a little and eat the real thing. Of all the sugar cookie recipes I’ve tried, these are the BEST! They taste incredible and they look just as beautiful. They don’t lose their shape or puff up during baking so they are great for decorating.

The recipe comes from the classic Joy of Cooking cookbook. My mom gave me a copy as an engagement gift back in 2004 and wrote a sweet little note inside of it that I will always treasure. Indeed today I did “enjoy it” (well, parts of it) as she suggests I should do. I’m certain I will always remember making cut out cookies for the first time with my baby boy, just him and me. I will also remember when he dumped the sugar all over the floor and the tantrum he had later when I asked him not to pour out any more jars of sprinkles on his plate while decorating. Quite memorable.

On a side note, I also happen to have Andy’s Grandma Jane’s Joy of Cooking cookbook that was printed back in 1964. His mom passed this along to us years ago and it’s fun to open it up to see her signature on the inside cover. I wasn’t lucky enough to meet Grandma Jane before she passed away. From the stories I have heard about her, she was an amazing woman. I feel honored to have this cookbook in my home that she used to prepare meals for her own family. I haven’t been able to find the same Iced Sugar Cookie recipe in her book, but I’m sure it’s in there. Perhaps Andy’s Grandma made cookies with her children for the Jewish holidays out of this same cookbook. Fun to think about and to carry on traditions.

Without further ado, here’s the recipe!

ICED SUGAR COOKIES

Whisk the following together thoroughly. If your sous chef is a bull-headed two-year-old, like mine, don’t be surprised if some ingredients end up on the floor.

  • 3 1/4 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Beat the following on medium speed until very fluffy and well blended:

  • 20 tablespoons (2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened (Yeah, it’s a lot. But it’s ok now and then.)
  • 1 cup sugar

Beat

Add and beat until well combined:

  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tablespoon milk
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1/4 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest (optional)

Gradually stir the flour mixture into the butter mixture until well blended and smooth. Divide the dough in half. Place each half between two large sheets of wax or parchment paper. Roll out to a scant 1/4 inch think, checking the underside of the dough and smoothing any creases. Keeping the paper in place, layer the rolled dough on a baking sheet and refrigerate until cold and slightly firm, about 30 minutes.

If you’re like me, you don’t have enough time to do ALL of these steps at once. Our dough sat in the refrigerator for a few HOURS. We came back to it after I made dinner, cleaned up and did baths. After everyone was clean, each of the kids took turns cutting out a few shapes and getting nice and messy again.

Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease cookie sheets. Working with one portion at a time (leave the other refrigerated), gently peel away and replace one sheet of the paper. (This will make it easier to lift the cookies from the paper later.) Peel away and discard the second sheet. Cut out the cookies using 2 or 3 inch cutters. With a spatula, transfer them to the cookie sheets, spacing about 1 1/2 inches apart. Roll the dough scraps and continue cutting out cookies until all the dough is used; briefly refrigerate the dough if it becomes too soft to handle.

If you’re not planning to ice all of the cookies, decorate some with colored sugar or nonpareils. We decorated a dozen or so before we baked them so we didn’t have quite so many to decorate with icing later on. I find that the kids get bored after doing a few.

Decorate

Bake, one sheet at a time, just until the cookies are lightly colored on top and slightly darker at the edges, 6 to 9 minutes; rotate the sheet halfway through baking for even browning. Remove the sheet to a rack and let stand until the cookies firm slightly. Transfer to cookies to racks to cool.

Cut Out Cookies

After I put everyone to bed I baked the rest without any sprinkles for the kids to decorate later. After school the next day, I let the kids have at it and decorate the rest of the cookies. For a quick yet tasty icing, simply combine 2 cups of powdered sugar with a few tablespoons of water or milk.

I was surprised by how pretty the girls’ cookies turned out. They had fun being creative and were sweet as pie, or Iced Sugar Cookies, as it were. But this is where things went south for John. He decided to swipe two or three jars of sprinkles and empty them onto his plate. When I asked him not to do anymore and took the rest of the sprinkles away, he lost it. The crying, kicking, screaming and drooling came next. Not surprising I suppose, as I recall it’s about the very same sequence of events that occurred during pumpkin carving, the tree decorating and Easter egg dying. John was “redirected” and went off to chill with his daddy while the girls and I finished our masterpieces.

Now, I should  mention that one of these plates of cookies is perfectly safe to eat, the other may be… well questionable. SOME of the cookies on one plate MAY have been coughed on and the icing spoon MIGHT have been licked in between spreading. Perhaps you might guess which ones. I suppose the kids don’t care. I love that in their eyes, the more sprinkles, colors and decorations, the better.

And, with that, another year of cut out Christmas cookie decorating was complete. While it did not go exactly the way I had hoped it would, it went pretty much exactly the way I expected it to go and is still one of my favorite holiday traditions. Our cookies are certainly not the most beautiful ones you’ll see this holiday. They don’t at all resemble the cookies on the cover of Martha Stewart Living. They won’t be popular on Pinterest. But they are real. They are us. In fact, they are virtually a spot-on metaphor for our life at this present time. Messy, busy, yet colorful and oh so sweet. Like our life, these cookies are perfectly imperfect.

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