Of all the wonderful things that come with the holiday season, the yearly tradition I’ve come to enjoy the most is the food. As a DIY-gift-giver who loves to bake, gifted goodies are my go-to. And as a sucker for all things sentimental, I’ll always opt for recipes that have been passed down through generations of bakers (and eaters). My favorite recipe that makes an appearance each November and December is one that’s been in my family for almost 60 years: Nana’s classic Christmas cookie recipe, circa 1961.
The name says it all—this long-lived recipe makes the quintessential sugar cookie. Easy to mold and cut into festive shapes, the chilled dough creates a firm but easy-to-bite cookie that is just the right amount of sweet. Sugar sprinkles baked into a golden egg wash add a touch of extra flavor and a pop of color. At the same time, the dough’s firm structure allows room for experimentation with royal icing, drizzles, and other delectable toppings.
No fancy ingredients are needed for this classic cookie: just flour, sugar, eggs, vanilla extract, and shortening. Keep reading after the recipe for more tips, tricks, and new traditions to try!
Cream your shortening and sugar together in a large mixing bowl using a hand or stand mixer. Add eggs and vanilla extract and mix thoroughly.
Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt into the bowl. Mix until combined.
Chill in the bowl, covered, for at least one hour.
Heat oven to 400º F.
Roll out your dough on a lightly floured surface to about ?” thick. The thicker the dough, the cakier the cookie; the thinner the dough, the better the crunch.
Cut with cookie cutters of your choice. If you don’t have any handy, a jar lid or glass rim will do the trick. As your dough gets cut out, combine the scrap dough, re-roll, and repeat until as much of the dough is used as possible. (Or keep a little extra for the family tradition I mention below!)
Place cookies on an ungreased baking sheet.
In a small bowl, whisk together the egg whites of two eggs. Lightly brush the cookies with the egg wash.
Sprinkle with sugar or colored sprinkles of your choice.
Bake 6 to 8 minutes or until delicately golden. Remove from oven and let cool for 5-10 minutes before transferring to wire racks to cool completely.
To quote my Nana’s recipe exactly: “Makes about four dozen—if you don’t eat the dough!” (At least we’re honest in this family, right?)
Chilling the dough is a critical step for creating this sugar cookie’s consistency for two reasons. Chilled dough means chilled fat; by keeping the fat cold until it reaches the oven, the dough will spread less and create a thicker, sturdier cookie. Additionally, as the dough dries in the fridge, the dough’s flavors are concentrated into a delicious, chewy blend of sugar and vanilla. If you’re short on time and need to skip this step, be aware of the potential changes in consistency, flavor, and size (then again, if you like a thinner, bendier cookie, soldier on with no chill!)
Your dough might be a bit too dry and crumbly to roll in the few seconds after it’s left the fridge. Allow the dough to sit at room temperature for a minute or two before rolling out.
My family has always used sanding sugar and nonpareils for our cookie toppings, but this not-too-sweet dough can withstand the additional sugar of jimmies, quins, dragees, and coarse sugar as well.
Another great design option for this sturdy sugar cookie is royal icing. The thick, buttercream-y frosting is made with just egg whites, vanilla, and confectioner’s sugar. It can create a wide variety of holiday designs, from elaborate and colorful to sleek and modern. A frosting newbie? Here is a great beginners’ guide to royal icing.?
A family tradition of mine that I now pass on to you is the ultra-coveted initial cookie. Every year, each member of my family gets their own “special” cookie rolled into their first initial with the leftover scrap dough. These cookies somehow taste better than any other shape — I can’t explain it scientifically, just trust me on this one. Plus, making a special batch of initial cookies uses every last bit of dough and adds an extra touch of fun to the already very fun world of holiday sweets.