Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Tastiest, Easiest, and Most Gift-able Ripped-Off Lemon Sugar Cookies

Welcome to the second edition of Family Recipe Theatre. Today's topic: Lemon Sugar Cookies. I am just digging deeper and deeper through the old recipe cards to sell out share my husband's family recipes for your enjoyment. In fact, I highly encourage you to take five minutes and dig through your own old box of family recipes. There's greatness in there, I promise. So much history, so many great frugal combinations, so many incredible recipes. (And if you can find a way to modify them then the selling out part won't make you feel quite as dirty all over.)



My original recipe, for instance, called for shortening and the dreaded rolling out of the dough. First, I don't have any shortening and can't buy any because it's not Friday night. That's grocery night. So turning to butter was a pantry necessity and a darned tasty one. Second, nobody likes rolling out cookie dough except kids (okay, and adults on the weekends) and all they're really interested in is cutting out Christmas trees to smother in fake frosting that turns your gums green and those little silver balls that break your teeth. In which there is no shame; however, this recipe is tastier than that and manageable on a weeknight. Besides, if you're like me, clearing off and cleaning your countertop in order to roll out cookies in order to bake cookies in order to eat cookies is just one or two steps too many. Let's start with clearing the countertop and go from there.

Or as clear as you can manage.

You will need:
(Click here for slightly more printable recipe)

1 and 1/2 cup sugar, divided
1 T lemon zest
3/4 cup butter
2 eggs
1 t lemon extract
2 1/2 cups flour
1 t baking powder
1 t salt

I do not plan ahead (yet hate myself for not doing so) therefore my butter was not sitting out coming to temperature. And because I do not have the patience to let it come to temperature (and doing so would mean I may have no excuse but to actually finish washing all the dishes, heaven forbid), I'd like to remind you of this little trick:

The very first thing you do when you begin this recipe is get your butter out of the fridge or freezer and cut it into little chunks. Then you get out all the rest of your ingredients and tools. By the time you're ready to start mixing, the butter will be soft enough to deal with. Resist the urge to put it in the microwave to soften. You will go too far and you will have melted butter and you will not have the most incredible cookies that I promised you. RESIST!

Next I want you to combine a half a cup of sugar and about a tablespoon of lemon zest. This is the magic that removes the need for rolling and makes these cookies too good to frost.

Mix, mix, mix. Spoon, fork, whisk, fingers, whatever. (Inherent bonus to fingers: you get to clean them manually, if you know what I mean.)

This is one batch of yellow snow you WILL want to eat.
Have I introduced you to my lemon? He's been through three batches of lemon sugar cookies, one batch of lemon pound cake and two cosmos. I venture he has one more batch of something left and a couple good squeezes. Whether you've cut or zested (or both) your lemons, keep them tightly wrapped in plastic. They won't dry out as quickly. Seran Wrap and a rubber band is good, Ziploc bags are best. But then you'd have to either wash them or buy them, and I can't seem to bring myself to doing either.

Now, cookie making has a few important steps that really do affect the texture. First, you do need to cream the butter and sugar. Which means mix it together quickly until it fluffs up a bit. This is sketchy though, because if you beat too hard for too long (stop sniggering) you will melt the butter at which point you will have to find a place in your fridge for your big mixer bowl while it cools off. Consider yourself warned.
Now add the lemon extract. At our house, Matty prefers the "glug" approach, which works well for cocktails and really well for this recipe. For the more compulsive folk [secret handshake] I use 1 full teaspoon.

Then you add the eggs. And yes, you really must add them one at a time. Why? Because America's Test Kitchen says you must and that should be reason enough for the likes of you and I. However if that answer is as unsatisfying as a blog that only updates twice a week *ahem* then you'll be interested to know that we're actually creating an emulsion. One egg, then beat for one minute, then the other egg, beat for one minute. And if it were me, I would crack my eggs into a bowl first. There is no cooking disaster worse than using up the last of your white sugar for somebody's birthday cookies and cracking a bad egg right into the batter.

After the eggs go in, you have a beautiful, fluffy-looking batter.

Now, because we've worked so hard to get a nice batter, we want all the dry goods mixed into it at the same time without overmixing or giving the baking powder a chance to go nuts. However, it is perfectly acceptable to resist the urge to go nuts yourself and calmly stir the flour, salt, and baking powder together in one bowl.

Ack.

Now, you know I'm a fan of procedure. I LOVE structure. This is how I'd lay out my rolling area. Because my house was warm and the dough also warming and I do not care to wait for anything, I use the "Chill a Beer Can in 5 Minutes" approach to keeping the dough cool. A bowl of ice, a little water, and a handful of rock salt will keep the bottom of the bowl chilled so you can keep grabbing firmer dough that won't mush all over your hands. Just make certain you can move the mixing bowl around and not spill salt water all over the table.
 


And if you've ever made peanut butter cookies, you know the drill. Take a ball of dough, roughly an inch in diameter, and roll it in the sugar mixture.

The dogs LOVE this part. Is there any hope more earnest than that of a dog in the kitchen?

This is an excellent step to have your children or your spouse help with. You can pull the dough from the bowl, they can roll the dough balls in the sugar. Of course, if you do not have help, it will take longer, but you will--incredibly--find yourself with a few more cookies than you had, say, the weekend prior when you made the same batch with help.
Curiouser and curiouser.

You have at least three options for baking shape. If you like, you can hit these with the double fork tine top (press the fork tines half-way into the cookie ball, then turn 90 degrees and press again for a nice cross-hatchy pattern). But I for one feel that is a look owned by the also great peanut butter cookie. You can bake these as little balls, in which case they will stay cakey and puffy. You can also flatten them slightly with three fingers and they will end up slightly chewy, slightly crispy.

Between cakey or chewy and crispy, you can imagine my favorite.

Bake at 400 degrees. I always wonder just exactly what recipe writers are expecting cookies to look like when you take them out of the oven. So here you go: take them out when they look like this:

Somewhere around 9 minutes. You'll want the edges just barely starting to brown. If you do two pans, like I did (40 cookies, plus four in the freezer for a rainy day), do me a favor and bake them for five minutes, then turn the trays around front to back and swap them on the racks, top to bottom. Even my superbad convection oven still browns the back corner more than the front.

These are appropriate for birthday, wedding, baby, funeral ("hand me the lilies"), Wednesday, or my favorite, mailed treats. They keep well and who doesn't like digging into the mailbox, moving aside all the bills printed on angry red paper to find a box of something delicious?

The sugar was a stroke of genius. I had wanted to sprinkle it on top as you would with rolled-out-but-frosting-less cookies but the lemon zest and oil makes the sugar quite clumpy. My brilliant husband suggested we roll the cookies in the sugar like peanut butter cookies. Eureka! The zest mixes with the melting sugar and becomes candied. The bottom will be just a little chewy, just a little crispy. And the lemon makes the bottom of the cookie tingle just a little bit on your tongue.

Or maybe that was the vodka spritzer I made with the rest of my lemon.

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