Years and years ago, when I was baking at full throttle, I had grand cookie ambitions around Christmas time. I would find pictures of elaborately decorated cookies on the cover of Gourmet magazine, and I would make them. All twelve varieties, each more complicated than the next. And then I would make a batch of puff pastry just for fun.
I'd be lying if I said I don't have the energy to do that anymore. I don't have the desire. I'm not nearly as enamored of trying a million different recipes, but thank God I was once a compulsive recipe tester, because now, thanks to my 16 hour baking marathons, I know definitively what works and what doesn't.
Case in point: Animal Crackers from Nancy Silverton, my pastry idol. I've been making this recipe forever, and I make it whenever cookies are called for at school, or any other event. Even though nothing in the world is perfect, these are. A perfectly balanced, tender sugar cookie, forgiving, easily re-rolled, just lovely and perfect. I sometimes want to hug this recipe. It comforts me like a family member who knows me, and never - not ever - acknowledges my flaws.
from "Desserts by Nancy Silverton"
8 oz. unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 Tbs. cream
1 Tbs. real vanilla extract
4 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
(Note: I add a big pinch of salt to the recipe. Don't tell Nancy)
To decorate cookie tops:
2 egg yolks
Using the paddle attachment of an electric mixer, beat the butter on medium speed until it whitens and hold soft peaks, 3 - 5 minutes. Beat in the sugar until well-blended. Whisk together the eggs, cream and vanilla and beat in, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary.
Sift together the flour and baking powder, and add to the butter in three batches, mixing briefly after each addition. After the last addition of flour, beat until just combined. Make sure any flour on the bottom of the bowl is fully incorporated.
Flatten dough into a disk, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate at least two hours, and as long as several days.
Preheat oven to 325. On a lightly floured surface, roll dough out to 1/8" thickness. Cut dough with your favorite cookie cutter, using as much of the surface area as you can - this will leave less dough for re-rolling. Place on paper-lined or non-stick cookie sheets. If you have enough sheets, place one empty sheet under your cookie sheet. This keeps the bottom from browning too quickly.
Whisk the egg yolks together, and lightly brush the tops of the cookies, then sprinkle the top with crystallized sugar. This gives them a delightful crunch. If you're going to decorate them with frosting, you can omit this part.
Bake for 15 minutes, then turn the sheets from front to back to ensure even baking. Bake for about 7 - 8 minutes more, checking to make sure they don't brown too much. They should just turn light gold.