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Here's a holiday beginner for you. I've been whipping out batches of sugar cookies like never before. That's because my little boy is old enough to help. He's six, plenty old to roll out dough and make cut-outs with cookie cutters.
You can, too.
The best recipe I've used employs the use of an electric mixer to beat 1 1/2 sticks of butter with sugar until extremely fluffy. The butter has to be fairly soft. (That's what we have microwave ovens for -- a stick of cold butter takes about 15 seconds on High to soften.) Many people stop their beating way short of fluffy. You'll know the mixture has reached the level of fluffy when the sugar is dissolved and the butter is smooth -- no lumps. Don't be surprised to be able to turn on the mixer and walk away for a minute or two. Now you'll add three ingredients without beating. First, add an egg. You don't have to beat it first, just crack it into the butter. Next, take a little lemon zest off a lemon and add it. What's lemon zest? It's the yellow part of the skin -- not the white, which is bitter. To get zest-only, rub the lemon on the tiny holes of a box grater. Finally, the dough needs pure vanilla extract, the more fragrant the better.
When you start beating again, the batter will turn very yellow and loose, but it won't be that way for long. In goes 2 1/4 cups of all-purpose flour (remember to measure more, then push off the excess level with your measuring cup) and the all-important salt. If you're tempted to leave out the salt, don't, unless you like flat-tasting cookies. Salt is so important for bringing out the flavors in the ingredients already discussed.
At this juncture, you can put the mixer away. All you'll need to do from here out is stir. Why stir? Because hard beating develops the gluten in flour, which will make your cookies tough. Stir only until the dough is mealy and all the flour is absorbed. Your cookies will be nice and tender.
And now, the secret ingredient -- water, but not an exact amount. Get your hand wet under the faucet and flick whatever water is clinging to it into the dough. This is my most unscientific cooking technique, but it will give exactly the right amount to bind the dough. With too much water, you're up against the tough-cookie thing again.
You'll have better cooperation from this dough if you chill it in the refrigerator before attempting to roll it out and cut shapes. If too warm when baked, the butter could melt right out of suspension.
You've done great up to now. Don't ruin the cookies with the wrong cookie sheet. For the best cookies, stay away from black bakeware. No matter how they're advertised, black cookie sheets get too hot and burn the bottoms of the cookies. Stay with aluminum or stainless steel.
Elaine's Favorite Sugar Cookies
1 1/2 sticks butter
3/4 cup sugar
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
A flick, or two, of water
Glitter or sprinkles of choice
Do this first:
1. Put the butter in a big mixing bowl so it can soften while you pull the rest of the ingredients together.
2. Measure the sugar and leave it in its measuring cup. Measure the flour into a small bowl.
3. Grate the yellow skin off the lemon on the fine holes of a box grater over a sheet of wax paper or a plate. Measure 1 teaspoon of the "zest."
Do this second:
1. Beat the butter with an electric mixer on high speed until it's very smooth, which could take up to 2 minutes, depending on the power of your appliance. Add the sugar and beat again until very fluffy and smooth, which could be nearly another 2 minutes.
2. Crack the egg into the butter, then add the zest and vanilla. Beat just to blend -- then stop! The dough will be loose and yellow.
3. Add the flour and salt. Use a wooden spoon to stir the dough until it looks mealy and you're pretty sure that all the flour is absorbed.
4. Get your hand wet under the faucet and flick whatever is clinging to it into the dough. Mix again as you form the dough into a pliant ball. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and chill it in the refrigerator a couple of hours.
Do this third:
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread about 1 tablespoon of flour into a circle directly on your countertop. Unwrap the dough, set it on the floured circle, and roll it out until it's 1/4 inch thick.
2. Cut out shapes with cookie cutters and arrange the cookies on two UNGREASED cookie sheets. Sprinkle with glitter.
3. Bake 10 minutes. The cookies won't look particularly browned (they're not supposed to!), but if they're not rolled too thick, they really will be baked by now. Lift them off the cookie sheets with a spatula and cool them on a wire rack.
Elaine Corn is a Sacramento-based freelance writer and cooking teacher as well as the author of two books, Now You're Cooking for Company and Now You're Cooking