Seasonal Flavors: Barbara’s Sugar Cookies

Iced sugar cookies. Photo: Denise Zito.

The classic sugar cookie is the epitome of Christmas. Recipes abound, but I am convinced that my friend Barbara’s sugar cookie recipe is the very best. And of the (at least) ten types of cookies I bake every year, the sugar cookies are gone first. In fact, I have to hide some to ensure that there will be a few left for the holiday dinner dessert.

I usually just decorate with a swirl of colored sugar crystals, but a few years ago I decided I wanted to emulate those gorgeous, brightly colored cookies you see in magazines. You know the kind I mean: the “who-has-time-to decorate-cookies-like- that?” kind. I had always used the grocery store food coloring dye. But no matter how much I added to the cookie icing, I could never get the intense colors I was seeking. 

Then I discovered Wilton dyes (available in specialty cooking stores and online). They produce rich, vivid colors and make your cookies WOW. 

Another secret: royal icing. It’s perfect for cut sugar cookies, allows you to dye those eye-popping colors, and hardens/dries quickly. But really, any white icing will do.

Barbara’s Sugar Cookies

  • 1 cup butter (room temperature)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs (room temperature)
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 1 tsp almond extract
  • 3 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • Colored sugar or royal icing (see below for recipe)

In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time and beat till incorporated. Add the vanilla and almond extract.

In a second bowl, combine the flour and baking powder.

Add the dry ingredients to the butter/sugar/eggs and mix to combine into a stiff dough.

Refrigerate for at least an hour—or overnight—it doesn’t matter.

Remove from fridge and knead slightly to soften. This is a very stiff dough, so be patient.

Roll to ¼ inch thickness and cut with your favorite cookie cutters. If simply decorating with colored sugar, apply it now.

If using icing, bake first, cool and then apply the icing.

Bake cookies at 375°F for 8 minutes. The first batch will tell you whether you need more or less baking time. It all depends on the size of your cookies and the thickness of your dough when you roll it. This is why I always bake all the trees, then all the santas, then all the snowmen at the same time. It’s easier to get the baking time right.

Royal Icing for Sugar Cookies

  • 3 egg whites (room temperature)
  • 4 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla

Using a standing mixer or hand mixer (or a whisk for the valiant), whip the egg whites for 1 minute, until frothy. Add the vanilla and mix to combine. Slowly add the powdered sugar, incorporating bit by bit until all four cups are added. Turn mixer speed to high, beat till stiff peaks form, 5-7 minutes.

Divide the icing into small bowls and color as desired, then the fun part: decorate your already baked cookies! It’s easiest to use a piping device to apply the icing, and then spread with a small knife, if desired.

This icing hardens quickly. Add a drop of water if it becomes too stiff to spread. The icing can be refrigerated for up to three days.

A Jolly Christmas to all! 


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