Is there any more perfect dessert at Christmastime than the simple sugar cookie? The confection is delicious, yes, but also fun to make: you can cut them into trees, stars, or sleighs, and festively frost them any which way. They satisfy your sweet tooth and spread holiday cheer.
Kelly Fields would know. The owner of Willa Jean Bakery, she sells more than 10,000 cookies a week from her New Orleans shop. (Yes, they’re really that good: in 2019, Fields won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef.) So when she published her critically lauded cookbook, The Good Book of Southern Baking, she made sure to feature lots of cookies, including the recipe for her signature sugar cookie. “These are literally an all-occasion cookie for celebrating,” she says.
Whereas parties are out of the question this December, baking scrumptious treats (even if it’s just for one or two) is an easy way to make holidays feel, well, like the holidays. Below, we share Fields’s recipe. It makes 48—which is a lot nowadays. But, as Fields explains, “If you don’t need it all, leftovers freeze really well and can be saved for the next holiday cooking-decorating bonanza.”
5 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1⁄4 cups unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1⁄4 cups granulated sugar
3 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1 egg, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 egg whites
1⁄2 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
2 tablespoons water
1. Make the cookie dough. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour with the baking powder and salt. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or in a large bowl using a handheld mixer, cream the butter and sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy. Mix in the cream cheese until combined. Decrease the speed to low and slowly beat in the egg and vanilla, incorporating well. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Mix in the dry ingredients on low speed until a dough forms.
2. Turn the dough out onto a work surface and knead it a few times by hand. Divide the dough into two equal pieces and wrap each piece in plastic wrap. Refrigerate the dough until ready to roll out, at least 15 minutes or up to overnight. You can also freeze the dough for up to 1 month.
3. Preheat the oven to 325°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners. Remove one piece of dough from the refrigerator. Dust a work surface with flour and roll out the dough to about 1⁄3 inch thick. Use a 2-inch round cutter (or a cookie cutter of your choice) and cut out as many cookies as possible; transfer to the prepared baking sheets. These cookies won’t really spread much, so fitting 18 to 24 on a tray is completely reasonable. Re-roll the dough scraps and cut out more cookies. Bake for about 15 minutes, rotating the baking sheets after 8 minutes, until the edges of the cookies are just starting to turn lightly golden.
4. Let the cookies cool on the baking sheet as you roll out and bake the second batch. Transfer the cookies to a wire rack and continue, baking the remaining cookie dough.
5. Make the royal icing. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or in a large bowl using a handheld mixer, whip the egg whites and vanilla on medium-high speed until they start to froth, about 1 minute. Decrease the speed to low and slowly stream in the powdered sugar. Once incorporated, stream in the water, return the mixer to high speed, and whip until the icing is shiny and smooth. This icing should be used immediately. You can divide it up, add food coloring as desired, and fill pastry bags to decorate your cookies. If you don’t have pastry bags, place the icing in heavy-duty resealable bags and cut off one corner to pipe the icing onto the cookies.
6. Let the cookies rest until the icing is set, about 1 hour. The cookies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days.
To get nice clean edges when decorating cookies, it’s always a great idea to pipe an outline around the cookie, let it set just slightly, and then fill in the middle. Ice the cookies solid white, then use paintbrushes to paint and decorate! You can hand-paint the iced cookies with food coloring slightly diluted with any clear spirit (don’t worry, the alcohol evaporates as it dries).
Reprinted with permission from The Good Book of Southern Baking by Kelly Fields with Kate Heddings, copyright (c) 2020. Published by Lorena Jones Books, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.