Simple Rolled, Iced Sugar Cookies

I love hearing little bits about people's holiday traditions, don't you? Whether it's donning gaudy sweaters or midnight Mass or a certain brunch casserole, it seems like everybody's got their something that makes them breathe deep and say to themselves, Okay, now it's the holidays. For me, that's baking up a batch of Heirloom Sugar Cookies. They just taste like Christmas to me. And I know I'm not the only one getting the sugar cookie itch this time of year. When I asked you to tell me about your favorite holiday cookies, the humble cut-out sugar cookie, decorated with icing and colored sugars, popped up again and again. It's the kind of thing that everyone can agree on during the holidays--even those with pudgy, impatient little hands.

Though my Heirloom Sugar Cookies can be rolled out and cut for decorating with a little extra doing, I usually don't gild the lily--buttery and delicate, they're perfect just flattened into rounds and unadorned. But this time of year, everyone needs a sturdy sugar cookie recipe that is designed for rolling and cutting and rerolling and cutting some more, something that bakes up flat and crisp, a perfect canvas for frosting and glittery decors. You know, the kind of cookie you can play with, like a totally delicious, edible craft project. Perfect for gifting and impromptu holiday cookie parties of all sorts. If you're feeling especially crafty, you could even make them into ornaments. Really!

Now, in my pre-toddler-rearing heyday, I could spend hours crouched over sheets of cut-out cookies with a piping bag, surrounded by little bowls of royal icing in a bunch of carefully blended colors, like some kind of deranged Martha disciple. And trust me, if I could dislodge this tiny person from the leg of my jeans, I would still be perfectly happy doing just that. But that sort of fanciful celebration of frosting is just not likely to materialize during this holiday season. Sad face.

However. I will be baking festively-shaped cookies no matter what in the name of holiday spirit, dammit! And baking sugar cookie cut-outs and not decorating them at all would be sick and wrong and just basically depressing. So instead of dealing with gel food coloring and a bunch of piping bag hysteria, I opted to go the elegant-and-sophisticated-by-way-of-doing-half-the-work route. And nothing looks more slick and elegant on a cookie than royal icing, which whips up in less than five minutes if you can get your hands on a package of endlessly useful meringue powder, which I recommend you do as soon as humanly possible. I love this stuff.

Just flood the surfaces of the cookies with plain white royal icing, wiping the edges of the cookies clean of any wayward icing as you go, and generously coat them with white jimmies, sanding sugar, or, like I did with my snowflake cookies (that doubled as Stars of David depending on which way you looked at them, two concepts in one!) a nice coating of sweetened flaked coconut that made them look extra snowy and added a nice flavor punch.

Wrapped in a big cellophane bag with a nice silver bow, these white-on-white iced cookies would make a perfect hostess gift--the kind of thing that people charge exorbitant amounts of money for and make the recipient ooh and ahh over your thoughtful generosity. Now that's some holiday magic for you.

Simple Rolled, Iced Sugar Cookies

Working with the dough one half at a time will make it easier to keep the dough cool, making it easier to roll and cut clean shapes. The meringue powder for the icing can usually be found in gourmet groceries, kitchenware and craft stores. This icing recipe will make an icing that can be spread cleanly over the entire surface of a cookie; to make it thick enough to pipe, leave out the additional teaspoon of water.

Makes 2-3 dozen, depending on size

For the cookies:

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour 1/2 teaspoon baking powder 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature 1 cup granulated sugar 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract 1/4 teaspoon almond extract 2 large eggs, at room temperature

For the royal icing:

1 1/3 cups powdered sugar 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon water 1 tablespoons meringue powder (see note) 1/4 teaspoon clear vanilla extract (optional) Various sanding sugars, jimmies, etc. for decorating

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together the butter and sugar on medium speed until light in color, about 2 minutes. Beat in the vanilla and almond extract. Scrape down the bottom and sides of the bowl and beat in the eggs one at a time. Stop the mixer and scrape down the bowl again. With the mixer on low speed, stir in the dry ingredients until the dough it smooth--it will be soft. Turn the dough out onto a work surface, gather it into a ball and pat it into a disc. Wrap the disc in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, at least 1 hour.

When you're ready to bake, position an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly dust a work surface and a rolling pin with confectioners' sugar or flour. Divide the dough in half (leaving one half covered in the refrigerator) and working with one half of the dough at a time, roll it out to about 1/4 inch thick. Cut into desired shapes with cutters and place them on the prepared baking sheets. Bake one sheet at a time, rotating the sheet halfway through baking time, until the cookies just begin to turn golden on the edges, about 10-12 minutes. Let the cookies cool on the sheets for two minutes before transferring them to a wire rack to cool completely.

While the cookies are cooling, prepare the icing. Whisk together the confectioners' sugar, 2 tablespoons water, meringue powder and vanilla, if using, until smooth. Beat on medium speed with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form. Stir in the additional teaspoon of water--the icing should be thick enough to be controlled, but still thin enough to spread cleanly across the surface of a cookie without leaving a track when spread. If necessary, add a bit more water to thin the icing.

When the cookies are completely cool, ice them with the royal icing and decorate as desired. Set the iced cookies on a wire rack to allow the icing to dry completely before storing in an airtight container.