Updated: Mar 1
Do you love Halloween as much as I do? This is a spooky spin on my all-time favorite sugar cookie recipe. The trick to this sugar cookie lies in the butter. For the best flavor, we will take the finest quality butter that we can find and transform it into decadent liquid gold by browning it ahead of time. Browning butter does two things: it cooks out the water; and it causes a chemical reaction between the amino acids and the sugars to alter both color and flavor. The technical term for this "fusion" is the Maillard Reaction, officially discovered back in 1912 by a French chemist named Louis-Camille Maillard. Today, it's a universal trick used literally everywhere to transform the good into the unforgettable. If browning butter sounds intimidating to you, I think you'll find that it's much easier than you might suspect. You might even love it so much that you become a browned butter addict like me and end up using it in your other favorite recipes.
Browned butter will respond to temperature the same way as regular butter does. It will be solid when cold and liquid when warm (again, just like regular butter), except that browning transforms your butter into a flavor Rock Star. Once prepared and cooled to room temperature, you can place it in the fridge to solidify, then proceed as usual. I love browned butter so much, that I keep my refrigerator stocked with it at all times to dress up buttered noodles, roasted potatoes, to melt over hot sourdough English muffins or warm sweet potato pancakes... I even use it in frosting!
“This sugar cookie is crisp, light and flaky, perfectly sweet, and has the exotic undertones of a Market Spice Tea.”
Sugar cookies are an ideal blank canvas of flavor possibilities. For this cookie, I decided to highlight Fall through the citrus bite of orange peel and orange oil, and one of my all-time favorite spices: ground cardamom. The caramelized flavor of the browned butter ties it all together perfectly. These cookies are fantastic on their own, but for heightened sweetness, enjoy them sprinkled with sugar before baking, drizzled with chocolate, or decorated with a festive royal icing.
226 g / 1 c unsalted butter, + a few Tbsp to replenish after browning
200 g / 1 c refined sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp pure orange oil
1/2 tsp orange blossom water
375 g / 3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp cinnamon
1 Tbsp grated orange or tangerine zest
Brown the butter ahead of time.
Take a deep breath. You've totally got this! A few hours or days before preparing your cookies: Prepare your browned butter by boiling 226 g (1 c) of butter over low heat in a medium saucepan. Give it an occasional swirl for even cooking. Shortly after the liquid foams, you will notice your butter begin to darken to a caramelized color with black bits that look like black pepper grounds. The scent will be intensely nutty. Watch it closely. Butter can go from deliciously browned to burned in a flash, so remove it from the heat just before it seems done. The residual heat from the pan will continue cooking the butter, and if you need to stop the process quickly, either (carefully) pour the contents into a liquid measuring cup, or (still carefully) dip the bottom of your saucepan into a bowl of cool water for about 3 seconds (be mindful not to let any water splash into the butter because it will splatter up and burn you)... (On that note, please keep your kids at a very safe distance if they're in the kitchen, and practice extreme care as your butter is currently hot lava).
In the process of browning, the liquid has evaporated, so the weight / volume of your butter has been reduced. It's important to return it to it's original amount using one of these methods:
Measuring by weight: place a container onto your scale and tare to get a 0 reading. Pour the warm butter into the container and add additional butter to reach 226 gr. (Don't miss all the little dark flecks at the bottom of the saucepan, that's where the best flavor is hiding).
Measuring by volume: pour the warm butter into a liquid measuring cup and add enough additional butter to reach 1 cup. (Don't miss all the little dark flecks at the bottom of the saucepan, that's where the best flavor is hiding).
Let it cool to room temp and cover. Place the tightly covered butter in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours and up to 3 days. (I know this may feel like a lot of extra work, but trust me, you will not regret it).
Treat prepared browned butter just as you would regular butter: bring it back to room temperature to soften (not melt) before making the cookie dough. I like to let it sit out on the counter for a few hours (or minutes on a hot day).
To Make the dough:
Sift the flour, baking powder, salt and ground cardamom into a medium bowl, and set aside.
Grate 1 Tbsp of orange peel (avoid the white pith, it is the bitter part of the peel). Set aside.
Cream the butter and sugar together with the paddle attachment of your Kitchen Aid mixer for 4 minutes. Add the egg, the vanilla, the orange oil, and the orange zest. Give it a good stir. Add the dry sifted ingredients and blend just till all the flour has been absorbed and everything looks evenly distributed (about 10 seconds), taking a pause to scrape the bottom with a rubber spatula halfway through. The secret to keeping your cookies from becoming dry is not overmixing once the flour has been added.
Divide your dough into 2 equal portions. Place two crisscrossed pieces of plastic wrap on your clean countertop and lay one portion of dough in the center. Fold the sides of plastic over to enclose, leaving room to flatten the dough into a thick disc with your hands. Repeat with the other half. Place in ziplock bags in the fridge for at least 5 hours. To make ahead: dough can be refrigerated for up to 4 days, or frozen for up to 3 months. Much as you might want to, don't skip this part. Cookie experts came up with the 5-hour minimum rule for good reason. This little respite is an important part of helping your cookie reach its full potential by redistributing the liquid throughout the cookie and ensuring great texture and even browning.
Remove one disc of dough from the fridge and allow it soften slightly, just enough to be able to roll out without breaking.
Preheat your oven to 350°F / 176°C.
Line a baking sheet with a silpat or baking paper.
lightly flour a clean work surface and rolling pin (or PRO TIP: roll the dough out between two large pieces of parchment paper).
Roll the dough to 1/4" (6 mm) thickness. Place your cookie cutter in flour and tap off the excess. Cut your cookies out and carefully transfer to your prepared baking sheet. Leave a few inches between the cookies to avoid them spreading into each other. Bake for 7-9 minutes, depending on the size of your cookie cutter and your oven temperature. (Smaller cookies will bake more quickly than large ones and every oven has hot / cool spots).
Cookies are done when golden brown on the edges and when the centers are firmly set.
These cookies are spectacular naked, but if you'd like to dress them up, you can sprinkle them with sugar before baking, or decorate with royal icing. A dark chocolate drizzle with candied orange peel would also be the perfect pairing to the mild citrus flavor.