It started with a need for a holiday dessert. Something I could do the day before the dinner party for eight that I was hoping to have between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
My mother-in-law was visiting during the planning stage of this dinner. When I asked her thoughts on a festive end of the meal, she suggested rollout cookies.
“Oh, I can’t do those,” I said. “The rolling out business makes me crazy. I can never keep the dough from sticking to the rolling pin.”
“Put the dough between two sheets of floured wax paper,” she said. “It’s easy that way.”
What an epiphany. I’ll admit that even with the wax paper, it took me several rounds of practice before I got the technique down, but once over that hurdle, I rolled wild and free.
It’s become a habit now, this connection in my mind between celebrations and rollout cookies. When friends say they’re having a Super Bowl party, I start thinking about team colors on star shapes. A group of my hubby’s college friends plan a reunion in Austin, and I picture cacti bristling with emerald-green jimmies, cowboy hats in white or blue-black sanding sugar, and red or green jalapeños with brightly colored icing.
Now that I have grandchildren, I make regular trips to the post office with tins for Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter. Everyone thinks I make these cookies out of love and a generous spirit.
But the truth is that I’m a sprinkles junkie – so much so that the house we built here has a special closet just for sprinkles and cookie cutters. Although I’ve grudgingly allocated some space to spices, it’s the sanding sugars, jimmies, sugar pearls, edible glitters and nonpareils of all sizes and colors that make my heart swell and my fingers itch to decorate.
And then there are the dragées. The ne plus ultra of the sprinkles world, they are those little silver and gold balls that look like BB’s or rifle shot. I sprinkle them liberally or sparingly, as the mood strikes me, in gold or silver and in sizes from the diminutive 2 mm pin-dots to the hefty 7 mm orbs. They’re the bubbles on my Champagne glasses, the balls on my Christmas trees, the eyes on my black cats. They make my stars shine and my moons glow.
I wasn’t a baker as a child, but my San Antonio grandmother was known for her brownies and apricot tarts. I remember standing at her side, apron-clad, learning to stir the pecans into the flour-and-cocoa mixture before we blended the dry ingredients with the wet, and using a demitasse spoon to deliver the right size dab of stewed apricots to the tart rounds.
Now the magic has come full circle as my own grandchildren jump at the chance to work the rolling pin, to press the cookie shapes into the dough and to cover the finished cookies with icing and sprinkles. We don’t worry about perfection — with two or three kinds of decorating sugar as well as dragées on a single cookie, each one looks as if it’s having a party.
As in life, I tell them that the beauty comes from a mix of colors and shapes, all sparkling and smiling together.
Best Rollout Cookies
Makes about 6 dozen, depending on the size of the cookies.
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup shortening, such as Crisco
1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 1/2 cups (325 grams) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
Cream together sugar, shortening and butter, letting the mixer run for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the eggs, mixing in one at a time, then the vanilla and lemon juice.
Sift together the dry ingredients and add them to the wet in thirds. Mix until the dry is completely incorporated, then wrap the dough in wax paper and refrigerate at least 3 hours, or overnight.
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Line 2 half-sheet pans with baker’s parchment. Divide the dough into 3 parts for rolling, refrigerating the parts you aren’t working with. Roll out the dough to a thickness of about 3/8 inch.
Bake 8 minutes at 400 degrees. Let the cookies cool completely on racks before icing them.
Powdered Sugar Icing
1 cup sifted powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon water
Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and stir well. Use more or less water depending on how thick you want the icing. Add food coloring to suit your mood or the holiday.
TIPS FOR A BETTER ROLLOUT COOKIE EXPERIENCE
1. Use a combination of fats. I prefer butter for flavor and Crisco because it has a higher melting point, which keeps the cookies from losing their shapes.
2. Keep the dough cool. Refrigerate it overnight, and work with a third of it at a time. Keep “idle” dough in the fridge, including scraps. You can re-roll the scraps twice. And after some 10,000 cookies, I still roll between two sheets of floured wax paper.
3. Invest in a roll of baker’s parchment. You won’t have to grease the cookie sheet, and you can reuse the parchment for the entire batch of cookies.
4. Unless you’re really artistic and handy with an icing tube, choose cookie shapes that telegraph their meaning without a lot of drawing.
5. Plan your icing colors. White icing can become yellow, which itself can be turned into orange or green or brown. Make black last, as black food coloring covers any other color.
6. Think outside the sanding sugar box. Dragées can make the halo on an angel or the clapper on a bell; jimmies can be cactus spikes or leaves on a pine tree. Nonpareils will mimic fur on a cat or a lamb, snow on a snowman, or dinosaur skin.
7. In the decorating, plan out each cookie before you start. Once the icing dries even a little, it’s difficult to get nonpareils or sanding sugar to stick to it. Work in order of size: larger balls go on first, sanding sugar or edible glitter go last.
8. Work over a rimmed baking pan with a cooling rack inside it. You’ll have a place to rest the cookies as you work on them, and the pan will contain any errant sprinkles, runaway dragées or drips of icing.
9. Special tools? Try an artist’s paintbrush (1/4-inch mini-mop) for sprinkling edible glitter, and wooden toothpicks for correcting mistakes. I like a 4 1/2-inch offset spatula for spreading icing. For the serious fanatic, cake decorating sites sell special tweezers with indentations for dragées and other small sugar balls.
10. Don’t stress over mistakes – a plateful of hand-decorated cookies will be beautiful regardless.