I love making Easter baskets for my glambabies and my niece. There is usually a stuffed animal, a small toy, like a ball or bubbles, and some Lindt chocolate (you must get them on the good stuff young)! There are also homemade decorated Easter cookies. Sugar cookies are the standard for cut-out cookies that will be decorated with royal icing.[*] Unfortunately, many of the recipes out there can be quite bland and decorating them with royal-icing just adds sweetness not flavour.
After many attempts, I finally landed on the recipe below for Vanilla Sugar Cookies from Williams-Sonoma. The addition of vanilla bean makes them exceptionally tasty. The dough is also quite easy to work with. It does require some chilling before rolling out (preferably over night, but I have worked with the dough after only a couple hours of chilling). You can also leave the dough in the refrigerator for up to 3 days before rolling and baking.
One of my favourite things about this recipe is that it uses only egg yolks. Using whole eggs can add too much protein which makes the cookies less tender, and the fat in the yolks helps make this a richer tasting cookie. But the best part about using only yolks is that you have whites left over to make your royal icing for decorating!
A simple way to make beautiful Easter cookies without the fuss of royal icing is to paint the cookies. Simply put one or two drops of gel food colouring into an egg yolk and stir together. For a paler colour, add a few drops of water until the desired colour is achieved. Use a pastry brush to paint the unbaked cookies. When they are baked you will have colourful cookies with a finish like fine cracks in old porcelain, perfect for an edible centerpiece at your Easter brunch. (I know you are going to have a bunch of egg whites left over…not to worry! In an up-coming post I will teach you how to make homemade marshmallows from them.) If even that seems like too much work, or you just can’t deal with all those egg-whites, just sprinkle a little sugar (coloured or plain) on top of the cookies before baking.
[*] Royal Icing is a decorating icing that dries hard. It is made with egg whites and icing sugar.
Vanilla Sugar Cookies
227 g (1 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
165g (¾ cup) sugar
3 egg yolks
1 piece vanilla bean, about 4 cm long, or 1 1/2 tsp. vanilla bean paste or extract
325 g (2 ½ cups) all-purpose flour
5 ml (1 tsp) baking powder
2.5 ml ( ½ tsp) Kosher salt
Granulated or Coloured Sugar, for decorating (optional)
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle, beat together the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition. Cut the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and, using a small, sharp knife, scrape the seeds into the butter mixture. If using vanilla bean paste or extract, add it now. Mix well.
Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl with a whisk. Add dry ingredients to butter mixture and beat on low speed until well mixed.
Turn the dough out onto a work surface and divide into 4 equal portions. Shape each portion into a ball, then flatten the balls into disks. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerator at least two hours, preferably overnight. (The dough can be prepared up to 3 days ahead.) Let it soften slightly at room temperature before continuing.
Position a rack in the upper third of an oven and preheat to 350°F. Butter 2 large baking sheets.
On a lightly floured work surface, roll out a dough disk 1/4 inch thick. Using cookie cutters, cut out desired shapes. Transfer the cutouts to the prepared baking sheets. Gather up and reroll the scraps and cut out more cookies. Repeat with the remaining dough disks If using, sprinkle with sugar.
Bake until the cookies are golden on the edges, about 8 minutes. Transfer the cookies to wire racks and let cool completely. Decorate the cookies as desired. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week.