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KitchenWise: Recipe for vanilla refrigerator cookies with easy variations

11/13/2014 02:42 EST | Updated 01/13/2015 05:59 EST
It really is hard to beat freshly baked cookies. Leave aside for a moment the deliciousness of the finished product; the simple act of cooking them makes your whole house smell like heaven.

But who has the time to whip up a batch of cookies every time a guest shows up at your door? Or every time you get a craving? Actually, if you rely on these refrigerator cookies, you do!

Refrigerator cookies pre-date refrigerators. In the 1920s, they were known as icebox cookies. Whatever they're called, they've survived because they're wonderful: easy to make, easy to store, and delicious. You make a batch of dough, roll it up in a log, then store it in the refrigerator or freezer. When the moment is ripe, you slice off and bake up as many cookies as you want, then return the unused part of the log to cold storage.

This particular recipe is ridiculously simple — a boon to one and all, including the baking-impaired — as long as you follow a few rules.

Always take the butter out of the refrigerator 35 to 45 minutes before mixing the dough, which makes it soft enough to mix easily. Then beat together the butter and sugar until the mixture is light and fluffy, or "creamed," which prepares the batter for leavening. But don't let the butter get too soft or your cookies will flatten out like pancakes in the oven.

I've flavoured the recipe with vanilla bean and vanilla extract. Vanilla beans are fantastic, but they're pricy, so if you don't want to spring for one, just add another tablespoon of the extract. If you do use a bean, don't discard the pod after scraping out the seeds. Instead, you should rinse it, dry it and drop it into your sugar jar, where it will slowly infuse your sugar with the scent of vanilla.

Add the dry ingredients to the dough and mix it all together until the dry ingredients are just incorporated, but no more. When flour is combined with moist ingredients (in this case the butter-egg mixture) and beaten, the gluten (protein) in the flour starts to develop. Beating it too much at this stage will make your cookies tough.

It also is key to chill the dough after mixing it, otherwise it will be too soft to roll. When the dough becomes cold enough to hold its shape, divide it in half and shape each into a cylinder 2 inches in diameter. Then, with the help of a sheet of kitchen parchment, you can smooth out the cylinder. Twisting the ends of the paper, firecracker style, further compresses and smooths the log. Done! Now your dough is ready to refrigerate or freeze.

One final tip: Every time you remove the log to slice off some cookie rounds, rotate it slightly as you slice it so as not to squish the dough flat on one side.

This recipe offers five variations on the basic cookie. These options will come in particularly handy during the holiday season. Show up at the party with a tin of mixed cookies and you'll be greeted like Santa every time.

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VANILLA REFRIGERATOR COOKIES (with variations)

Want to get a jump on your holiday cookies. These easy refrigerator cookies can be prepped ahead, then refrigerated for several days or frozen for several months until the moment (or craving) is right. The recipe also is exceptionally versatile, so I've included suggestions for easy variations on the basic recipe.

Start to finish: 3 1/2 hours (30 minutes active)

Servings: 4 1/2 to 5 dozen cookies

1 vanilla bean

3/4 cup sugar

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

1 large egg

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 cup cornstarch

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon table salt

Powdered sugar (optional)

Using a paring knife, cut the vanilla bean in half lengthwise. Use the tip of the knife to scrape the seeds out of the pod and into a medium bowl. Discard the pod. Add the sugar and butter, then use an electric mixer to beat on medium until the mixture is light and fluffy, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the egg and vanilla extract, then beat for another 2 minutes.

In a second bowl, whisk together the flour, cornstarch, baking powder and salt. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and beat just until combined. Cover and chill until firm enough to be shaped, about 1 hour.

Divide the dough into 2 pieces. Place a 12-inch piece of kitchen parchment on the counter. Set one piece of the dough on the parchment, then use the parchment to shape the dough into a log about 2 inches in diameter and about 10 inches long. Wrap the dough in the parchment, twisting the ends to seal. Repeat with the remaining piece of dough using a second sheet of parchment.

Refrigerate the wrapped dough for at least 2 hours or up to 3 days. The dough also can be frozen for up to 3 months.

Heat the oven to 375 F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment.

Remove the dough logs from the refrigerator and slice into 1/4-inch rounds. Arrange the rounds 1 inch apart on the prepared baking sheets. Bake just until the edges start to become golden, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack and let cool. Pack in an airtight container. Serve lightly dusted with powdered sugar, if desired.

Variations:

Lemon: Use 1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice and 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract in place of the vanilla bean, and add 1 tablespoon vanilla extract and 3 tablespoons grated lemon zest to the flour mixture.

Orange: Follow the lemon variation directions, but substitute orange zest and juice for the lemon zest and juice.

Ginger: Add 1/3 cup finely chopped crystallized ginger and 2 teaspoons ground ginger to the flour mixture. These may not slice neatly once frozen, but just pat them back together on the baking sheet.

Peanut butter: Add 1/2 cup chunky peanut butter to the butter mixture and increase the flour by 2 tablespoons.

Double chocolate: Substitute 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa for the cornstarch, eliminate the vanilla bean and add just 1 teaspoon vanilla extract. Add 2 cups semisweet chocolate mini-chips to the flour mixture. This will make 6 dozen cookies because of the added chips.

Nutrition information per serving: 40 calories; 20 calories from fat (50 per cent of total calories); 2.5 g fat (1.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 10 mg cholesterol; 5 g carbohydrate; 0 g fiber; 2 g sugar; 0 g protein; 30 mg sodium.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."

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