Not-so-perfect sugar cookies

  • A star-shaped cookie. Contributed photo/Brianna Castillo

  • The not-so-perfect sugar cookies. Contributed photo/Brianna Castillo

  • Raw dough cut-outs.

  • The not-so-perfect sugar cookies. Contributed photo/Brianna Castillo

  • The author, Andy Castillo, trying to make beautiful sugar cookies. Contributed photo/Brianna Castillo

  • A selection of two more aesthetically pleasing sugar cookies.

Staff Writer
Published: 12/18/2019 9:22:16 AM

Every December, my social newsfeed is flooded with photos of cute holiday sugar cookies — little reindeer with perfect red noses; angels with golden robes and perfect halos; snowmen with festive scarves and coal-black hats; green Christmas trees dusted with confectioners sugar. The beauty of a great holiday cookie lies in its simplicity, which should make them easy enough to bake and decorate, right?


A recent sugar-cookie baking attempt left me frustrated, discouraged and with a newfound respect for bakers who can produce beautiful and decadent treats (see this section’s cover story for more on that). My sugar cookies didn’t look like those I strove to imitate. I invested hours into the endeavor: shopping for ingredients, making the dough and royal icing, chilling everything, cutting shapes and baking them, then carefully piped on icing designs.

At first, everything was going as planned. The dough came out well and the shapes were precise. But the baked goods weren’t flat and the icing was too thin — it flooded into depressions and ran down the sides; I tried to layer on colors too soon and it became a disaster.

Eventually, I gave up my piping attempt and, instead, dumped the icing directly from the bowl over the cookies. By the time I finished, it was after midnight and I went to bed in a bad mood.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been as surprised and upset as I was.

Growing up, while baking wasn’t a prominent feature of my childhood, making simplified sugar cookies (sans icing) was a holiday tradition. With flour-covered arms, my siblings and I would mold the dough into dragons and monsters as if it was clay. The finished cookies (often bloated from baking and a grotesque representation of the original ideas) weren’t as important as was the creative process or the act of being creative together.

Manipulating dough in December was just another outlet for our imaginations. At other times in the year, we spent hours bringing to life fictional worlds with Bic ballpoint pens on discarded paper that Dad brought home from TigerPress Print Shop in Northampton, where he worked. It wasn’t about the completed drawings. It was about the process. Likewise, that our holiday-themed efforts produced sweet edible treats was icing on the cookie.

But I grew older and things changed. I became the one making the dough, not the one molding it. Imitation — and conjuring perfection — took precedence over creation.

One by one, my brothers married, moved away and are now scattered across the United States. One is in Texas; another in Chicago; a third is in Pennsylvania; the rest, while local to Massachusetts, are a drive away. Gone are the days of simple creation around a table. Now, it’s a challenge just getting everyone into the same time zone.

Faced with a new phase of life, this year, I tried to create the perfect holiday cookie — as if that would recreate those holiday memories. I became so fixated on the finished cookie that I forgot to enjoy the creation process.

Similarly, while taking stock the next morning following my failed baking attempt, I discovered that I was a lot more stressed than I typically am around this time of year. Somewhere along the line, between shopping and managing the logistics of incoming family members and the overall stress that comes with the season, I’d shifted my attention away from what’s important — for me, that’s spending time with loved ones, cultivating a spiritual practice, getting outside, engaging in the creative arts and keeping myself physically active. I’d forgotten to enjoy the process.

Today, those not-so-perfect sugar cookies are in a jar on my kitchen counter. Next week, my siblings will descend on my parents’ house in Northampton and we’ll all be together again and around the same table.

Meanwhile, the confection snowman’s hat won’t ever be straight and the reindeer will always be a red blob. But instead of worrying about these frivolous details in this holiday season, I intend to spend the next few weeks focusing on more important things — health, God, family and friends.

Besides, my not-so-perfect treats taste just as good as they would if I had perfectly baked and decorated them.

Andy Castillo is the features editor at the Greenfield Recorder. He holds a master’s degree in creative nonfiction from Bay Path University and can be reached at

Healthy Cut-Out Sugar Cookies

For my imperfect cookies, I more or less followed a recipe from Amy’s Healthy Baking, an online blog. The resulting cookies tasted great — not too sweet with an earthy hint, offset against a really sweet icing that is included below. They’ll stay fresh for at least 4 days if stored in an airtight container on the counter, according to the blog.

1 cup + 6 tbsp (165g) white whole wheat flour (measured like this)

¾ tsp cornstarch

¼ tsp baking powder

¼ tsp salt

2 tbsp (28g) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly

1 large egg, room temperature

1 tsp vanilla extract

½ tsp butter extract

¼ cup (60mL) honey

¾ tsp vanilla stevia

Whisk together the flour, cornstarch, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the butter, egg, vanilla extract, and butter extract. Stir in the honey and vanilla stevia. Add in the flour mixture, stirring just until incorporated. Transfer the dough to the center of a large sheet of plastic wrap, and shape into a 1-inch-tall rectangle. Cover the top with another large sheet of plastic wrap. Chill the dough for at least one hour.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and line two baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper.

Leaving the cookie dough between the sheets of plastic wrap, roll it out until it is 1/8 inch thick. Lightly flour your cookie cutter, and press it into the dough, making sure each shape lies as close to its neighbors as possible to minimize unused dough. Peel the unused dough away from the shapes, and place them onto the prepared baking sheets. Reroll the unused dough, and repeat.

Bake the cut out cookie dough at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 8 to 10 minutes. (The rerolled dough may require a little less time.) Cool on the baking sheet for 5 minutes before turning out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

To prepare the icing, stir together the confectioner’s style stevia and milk in a small bowl. Spoon into a zip-topped bag, and snip off the corner. Pipe onto the cooled cookies.

Notes: Whole wheat pastry flour or all-purpose flour may be substituted for the white whole wheat flour. Regular whole wheat flour may be substituted in a pinch, but the cookies will have detectable “wheat-y” taste.

Coconut oil may be substituted for the butter, but the cookies will have a prominent coconut flavor. Vanilla extract may be substituted for the butter extract, but the cookies will not have the same iconic taste. You cannot substitute additional honey for the vanilla stevia because cookies require a precise balance of wet and dry ingredients. However, you may substitute ½ cup plus 2 tablespoons (120g) coconut sugar (or granulated sugar, if you aren’t concerned about keeping these cookies clean eating friendly) for both the honey and stevia, but the cookies will appear “speckled” if using coconut sugar because it doesn’t dissolve as well. Notably, if you re-roll the scraps too many times, the cookie dough becomes tough and the baked cookies won’t have the same soft and chewy texture.

Any milk may be substituted for the nonfat milk. Yields about 28 small heart-shaped cookies

Easy Royal Icing

4 tablespoons meringue powder

4 cups (about 1 pound) powdered sugar

6 tablespoons warm water

1 teaspoon vanilla (optional)

Gel food coloring

In a large bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together the meringue powder and powdered sugar, then slowly mix in the water and vanilla while the mixer is running on medium-low speed. Increase speed to medium and beat until stiff peaks form, around 7 to 10 minutes. This can be done with a hand mixer, but will take a couple of minutes longer.

Divide the thick white icing into individual bowls for however many colors are desired and add gel food coloring, a few drops at a time, mixing well until you achieve the shades you like. From there, you can reserve half of each color at piping consistency for piping borders as described in the post, or thin all the icing to flood consistency.

To thin each color to flood consistency, add 1 teaspoon of water at a time and stir well, continuing to add water by 1/2 teaspoon increments until you reach your desired consistency. Make sure it’s not too thin.

Once your icing is colored and the right consistency, scoop it into a piping bag. Decorate your sugar cookies by first outlining the border, then filling in the middle with flood icing which should settle into itself. Use a toothpick or scribe tool to fill in any gaps by spreading the icing around, then tap the cookie on the counter a few times to help the icing settle into a smooth, even layer.

Dry cookies at room temperature for 6 to 8 hours until the royal icing is completely firm before adding additional layers or design or stacking for transport.

Be sure all bowls and utensils are totally grease-free or your icing will never reach the consistency you are going for.

If you cannot find meringue powder or would rather use raw egg whites, you could just replace both the water and meringue powder with three large egg whites.

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