The “Key” to Shapely Rolled Sugar Cookies

As a follow up to my Oscar night cookies (shaped to re-create the key for the automaton in Hugo), I wanted to talk to you about rolled sugar cookies. Many recipes are out there and they are all pretty similar. They fall into 3 basic categories – 1. cookies with fabulous taste and texture; 2. cookies that really hold their shape; 3. ones that roll out very easily with dough that’s easy to handle in general. I’m  afraid to say that all these things  do not sync in most rolled sugar cookie recipes.

Over the years I have spoken to many people who specialize in rolled cookies commercially, and I have to tell you that they focus on dough that’s easy to handle and that holds its shape well after baking. Then there are those folks who have their family recipes and they are often buttery, crisp and delicious, but don’t necessarily hold a precise shape. The 3rd aspect – that of an easy-to-work dough – is hard to address. Certainly some doughs seem to be easier to handle than others, but this often also varies with the experience of the baker. Doughs that I can handle with no problem might give the new baker a tough time because there are so many variables: temperature of ingredients, length of time dough has been chilled, your rolling surface (wood, metal, laminate, marble, etc.), how much flour you dust on your work surface, your choice of rolling pin (heavy one with ball bearings, French, thick, thin, silicone, chilled marble, etc.) and how you use it (light touch, heavy touch, rolling back and forth, one direction only, etc.). Then there is how much time elapses before you place the cookies on a baking sheet, how you transfer them to a baking sheet, and on and on and on.

When I was writing A Baker’s Field Guide to Christmas Cookies I knew that I had to include a basic rolled sugar cookie recipe. And, true to my baking approach, taste and texture were truly my priority. Of course, being destined to become all sorts of shapes, how they would hold their shape was important too. I tested and tested various recipes. Most rolled sugar cookies have very little, if any, leavener. Too much leavener and they wont hold their shape. The ingredients are always very basic: butter, sugar, flour, a dash of salt and a hint of vanilla. The recipe that I developed has a great buttery flavor and crisp texture, but I admit it is not that easy to work with (it contains a lot of butter) and while it holds its shape, there are other recipes that put that as a priority and result in a cleaner looking cookie.

So, when it came time to make the key-shaped cookie for the Oscars, I was very concerned with shape. I called a dear friend who makes shaped cookies for a living. Would she share her recipe? She told me that she would but also warned me that her recipe was meant for “production”. That the dough was very easy to work with and that the shapes held very well after baking. The flavor and texture, she said, were secondary. This was going against my grain but hey, it was worth a shot just for fun and R&D. As you can see from the picture, the keys are truly very key shaped.  I call them Shapely Rolled Sugar Cookies. The dough rolled out easily. Their “look” wowed everyone. The taste – in my opinion – just okay. Take this recipe with this caveat: use it when shape is a priority. Period. I say no more. Do I think that someday I will find a rolled sugar cookie that hits all the high points in every category? I hope so. Send me ideas if you have them; I’d love to try.