Sometimes you just want what Mom made! Here are the frosted cut-out cookies we clamor for at Christmas, a perfect recipe anytime you want a cut-out. The cookies are crisp yet hold shape and taste wonderful, and the frosting is easy, three-ingredient buttercream heaven.
I’m really of two minds when it comes to traditional recipes. I mean, a big part of what I like to do is re-envision a recipe and make it new. Cranberry Sauce with Rose Water and Pistachios? Nut-Free Baklawa? POUR-OVER Baklawa? Yes, yes, and yes.
That’s one mind. The other one is like:
I want my mom’s _____ and if I can’t have hers, I won’t eat any.
Fill in the blank with any number of things, but this time of year there is one in particular, and the sentiment is shared fiercely with any one of my mother’s offspring + others (Dan).
Our devotion is to my mom’s frosted cut-out cookies. Her recipe for this crisp, thinner sugar cookie comes from her Betty Crocker cookbook (the one she covered with wallpaper to match the kitchen in the ’80s + hold the falling-apart book together. Is that not the cutest?). I’ve been a silly girl, having spent an inordinate amount of time and inquiry trying to find a soft cookie. Many of you have given me recipes, and so have my people around here. I realized something profound this year when I made my Mom’s recipe yet again: this is the cookie I love. A soft thick cookie is fine but the flavor of those, at least the recipes I’ve auditioned to date, has never captured my heart.
The crisp cookie, Mom’s crisp cookie, well that one is perfection.
Mom’s simple but incredibly perfect buttercream comes from Mom herself. It’s just like her chocolate buttercream, sans cocoa powder. Three ingredients: softened butter (very softened), confectioners’ sugar, vanilla. Sometimes you may need a teaspoon or two of milk to loosen things up.
The recipe takes patience in that you have to go through a real stirring process to incorporate the butter and the sugar. The mixture seems too dry, but keep at it and suddenly, you’re stirring a smooth buttercream. The result is a thick, spreadable, perfect (have I said that enough yet?) frosting that hardens just enough after the sprinkles are added. We use this buttercream to frost cakes, cupcakes, etc. Adding flavorings as in my raspberry buttercream cake works beautifully.
Speaking of sprinkles, here I stick with old school too. I won’t even look at jazzy sprinkle blends for our Christmas cut-outs. Give me grocery store colored sugars in red, green, yellow and blue. Light blue and yellow aren’t as easy to find, so sometimes I go rogue to find these (this year I found the light blue at HomeGoods). Red hots are necessary. Brown sprinkles for the Christmas tree base also necessary. I use my mom’s whose recent bottle of brown sprinkles has lasted years. Also, multi-colored tiny balls. One year when I was home sick for a month in 10th grade (mono), I channeled my energies into making garland-level swags of the colored balls on the Christmas tree cookies, herding the runaway balls into place with my fingers and a tiny flat toothpick. Imagine.
The cut-out shapes—shocker—never change (don’t make me change!): trees, bells, stars, and my personal favorite, the wreath. I use my mom’s from way back, but if I take them from her kitchen I’m sworn by my sister to promise I’ll bring them right back.
Some things about this recipe I will say I don’t mind changing and will change it without hesitation. These are:
- The rolling method. I’ve been using a huge silpat made for bread dough (thank you Patti, you gave me this years ago…) to roll out the cookie dough, and it’s a game-changer to reduce the amount of flour needed (which affect flavor if too much is used).
- The amount of vanilla. I double it.
- The dough chill. I pat it out flat and wrap it in plastic, to make the start of rolling the chilled dough easier. Sometimes I’ll divide it in two first in case I don’t want to make them all at once, but that situation is rare.
- The thickness of the roll-out. Mom always, always encourages thinner. “Keep rolling,” she’ll say. I roll just a tad, just a hint thicker than she does. Say about between 1/8″ and 1/4″ thickness.
Mom's Frosted Cut-Out Cookies
This is a crisp cookie with dough that handles beautifully--it must be cold, so chill in the refrigerator and if you are working with half the dough at a time, put the other half back in the refrigerator until you're ready to roll. A silpat makes rolling much easier and less flour is needed, which is better for the flavor of the cookie. Store the cookies in an airtight container for up to one week. Rather than making a double batch, Mom always made, so I make separate single batches.
For the cookies:
- 3/4 cup unsalted butter, very softened
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 2 1/2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
For the buttercream frosting:
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter, very softened (1 stick)
- 2 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- 1 teaspoon milk (any), if needed
- Decor: Red, green, multi-colored, yellow, and blue sugar sprinkles plus brown sprinkles and red hots. Gold and silver ball sprinkles are also nice.
In a mixer, or by hand, beat the butter, sugar, eggs, and vanilla until very well combined and fluffy. This takes a few minutes so if you're not sure, keep going.
In a smaller bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder and salt. Add to the butter mixture and stir/mix until well-combined.
Lay two long sheets of plastic on the counter, overlapping eachother. Scrape the cookie dough onto the plastic and fold the plastic over the dough, shaping the dough into a 2-inch thick rectangle. This helps get the rolling started more easily with the chilled dough. Chill for at least one hour.
Make the buttercream. In a medium bowl, combine the very soft butter with the confectioners' sugar. This takes plenty of doing if stirring by hand. A rubber spatula works well. At first the mixture looks dry and as though it needs liquid. Add the vanilla and keep stirring. the butter. will hydrate the sugar and a smooth, thick mixture will form. The idea is to have a thick butter cream that will dry well on the cookies. If the frosting needs thinning, add a teaspoon of milk.
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Line sheet pans with parchment paper. Line the counter with a silpat, or use a board covered with a thin bread towel (that's what Betty Crocker recommended). Or, just flour the counter well (this is not preferred, as you need a lot of flour to prevent the dough from sticking and the cookies don't taste as good with all that flour).
Work quickly through the rolling and cutting process to keep the dough cold. Remove the chilled dough from the plastic and cut it in half. Put one half back in the refrigerator. Place the other half on the silpat/board/counter and dust the dough and a rolling pin lightly with flour. Start the rolling by pounding the pin across the dough evenly. Then start rolling, moving the dough after every few rolls so that it won't stick to the work surface, adding more flour underneath as needed. Roll to 1/8- to 1/4-inch thickness.
Dip the cutters in flour. Like a puzzle, figure out the way to cut the dough so you get as many cuts as possible. Carefully transfer the cut-outs to the sheet pans. Repeat the rolling with the scraps, but don't knead the scraps together. A light touch combining the scraps will result in better, more tender second-rolled cookies. Just pat the pieces together and let the rolling pin combine as you roll.
Bake the cookies for about 8 minutes, or until light golden brown. Keep an eye on the cookies to determine how long they need in your oven.
Cool the cookies on racks. Place sheets of wax paper on the counter. Set out a plate to catch the sprinkles as you decorate the cookies. Use a small cheese knife to frost the cookies, and sprinkle them immediately after frosting them so that the sprinkles will stick. Let the cookies dry on the wax paper, then eat, and store extras in an airtight container. Separate layers of cookies in the container with wax paper to protect the frosting.
Thank you, Mom!