Tired of flat cookies that lose their shape, I did some cookie trials. Of course, prior to experimentation, I spent plenty of time reading up on as much about Christmas cookies as I could. Some recipes suggested shortening vs. butter. Around here, that's a big, fat "no!" We don't like that white, gooey, greasy, blob of questionable origin. We feel the same way about margarine. If it's not real, we don't use it. Butter had to be on the list.
First trial included the removal of baking powder from my sugar cookie recipe. This proved to be a good step, and while the cookies did a better job of holding their shape, the results were far from the goal, still spreading to about double their cut size.
Clearly I would need more trials, and perhaps experiment with a few recipes that were not my own.
Second trial included a recipe touted as a 'no spread' recipe. Results weren't measurably better, so that recipe quickly found the round file.
Any cookie that included too much sugar was out. Truth be told, with a layer of royal icing on top, and all the sweetness that brings, a sugar cookie underneath wasn't all that appealing, so my mind started spinning. I wanted some texture, and crumble, but without too much sweetness. The sugar cookies didn't provide it, not my own recipe, nor the recipes of others. Hum, what to do?
How about shortbread? This would prove to be an excellent choice for this year's Christmas cookies. Hearty, crumbly, good texture, and not too sweet, so as to keep from pushing the cookies off the 'sugar scale'.
As to the type of shortbread recipe? It really doesn't matter, any shortbread cookie recipe will do, provided the ingredients are butter, powdered sugar and flour, and nothing else, which is the case for most shortbread I'm aware of.
What did I learn about cookies holding shape? A lot, as it turned out...
The type of cookie matters:
Shortbread was far superior at holding shape than sugar cookies, and it didn't matter which sugar cookie recipe I tried, they all flattened out and spread far past the point I found acceptable.
Get it super cold:
Once the dough is made, chill it overnight. It will be very hard the next morning. This is good. It will soften up very fast as you work it.
Once cookies are cut, another good chill is in order prior to baking. At least an hour, preferably two.
Heat plays a starring role:
Once the oven is to temperature, keep it there for at least half an hour before you put your well chilled cookies inside. The chill will keep the cookies together longer as the heat works to create a 'crust' to provide further holding power.
Obviously you don't want your cookies to stick to your pan, and with butter in shortbread cookie dough, that's not likely, but lay your cookies out on a parchment paper lined baking sheet, and you will increase the chances of a nice 'release' of the cookies, as well as less spread. The parchment paper will absorb some of the butter, which reduces the chances of spread...the bare baking sheet will not absorb butter, it will pool, and increase the chances of spread.
|Sugar cookie, minus baking powder, on the left. Shortbread on the right.|
|Different view, same two cookies. Both were rolled to 1/4" thickness.|
|Cookie spread with the sugar cookie, as compared to the cutter used.|
|Cookie spread with the shortbread cookie, as compared to the cutter size.|
Lesson learned...shortbread for iced cookies. Perfect level of 'sweet', and they hold their shape well.