This is a story about two of my friends. They are very different, and our friendships are very different, but they both have a connection to these sugar cookies.
In high school, M. was my best friend. We met at the beginning of our 8th grade year, and as a newcomer to the area, I was on the lookout for a companion. Within about three weeks, our friendship was cemented. We were in many of the same classes, we played the same instrument, we lived within a mile of one another, and we had many of the same interests. That’s a pales-in-comparison way of saying we spent at least a chunk of almost every weekend together from eighth grade through our senior year.
We had a number of misadventures in our years together, and though we grew apart a bit during college and fell out of touch for a while in graduate school, these movements punctuated by increasing geographical distance as she went to the East Coast and then to Great Britain, we made little sparkling moments of contact, particularly around food – I sent her a box of Triscuits because she missed American crackers (she was horrified by their saltiness, far more than she remembered), she sent back a box of Maldon sea salt, astounded by its U.S. prices. We weren’t able to attend one another’s weddings, but thanks to the coziness of the internet we can keep an occasional eye on one another, and that feels nice.
The most crucial of our adventures for this post was one chilly afternoon in high school. We were at my house, as was typical, and decided we wanted to bake some cookies. Not chocolate chip this time, though. Plain old sugar cookies. We dug out my Complete Guide to Country Cooking book my nana had sent me when she first learned I was interested in cooking, and went to work.
The problem with sugar cookies is that they have to be rolled out and cut, and that requires workable dough. Our instructions, the same instructions I’m following here, called for the dough to be chilled for at least an hour. But we wanted cookies! We decided it probably wouldn’t require a full hour of chilling. We’d check on it earlier. We may have waited ten minutes. We tried rolling and made a squelchy, horrible mess. Back into the fridge went the dough for maybe another ten minutes. Ad infinitum.
It turns out that when you lug a bowl of dough out of the fridge every few minutes, try and fail to roll it out, and then do the same thing ten minutes later, the butter doesn’t have enough time to harden back up and come to a rollable consistency. I don’t remember exactly what we did with the mess we finally abandoned; it probably went into the trash and we headed up to the computer to entertain ourselves with SimCity or King’s Quest or something. But our handiwork remains both in my mind and on the page bearing that recipe, and it was indelible enough for M. that she coerced a group of her college pals into recreating the cookie-baking episode on VHS (!!) for me as a birthday gift one year.
In graduate school, VV was one of my friends. We weren’t tremendously close, as she entered the program a few years after me and thus circumstances put us at different places in our studies and in our lives, but we always got along, and I remember a lovely afternoon teaching-evaluation-disguised-as-coffee-session during which we chatted about the classroom experience. VV and I, too, stay connected via that simultaneous glory and trash fire that is the internet – her Facebook page gives me a little window into her life and, most importantly to this particular story, another kind of baking: her current adventures in ceramics. Shortly before Valentine’s Day, VV showed off some hearts with inspirational messages she was preparing for the kiln, and being her generous self, offered them up to friends who admired them. A few weeks later, I received a beautiful heart, dark rose in color, with spiraled floral patterns surrounding the encouraging words “Be Brave.”
VV, then, needed a thank you. And inspired in part by another ceramics project in which she pressed lavender stems into clay to create lovely little garden signs (“Welcome Spring!” “Welcome bees!”) I realized it was time to dig out the old sugar cookie recipe and shake it up a bit with the addition of some culinary lavender and a little lemon zest.
I’m calling this a “small batch” recipe because it only makes about 18-20 cookies, if you use my size suggestion of 2×3 inch rectangles. But I really think, unless you are having a party, that’s enough. Almost two dozen cookies is enough to last a few days: it’s not so much piping that your hand cramps up, the cookies don’t get stale, and you don’t get tired of them. Though if we’re honest, with the sharp lemon and the hint of perfume from the lavender, there’s really no danger of that.
A few notes: the cookies taste a touch on the salty side by themselves, because I wanted to account for the sweetness of the frosting – with 4 cups of powdered sugar at minimum, it has the potential to quickly become overwhelming. If you aren’t frosting these, go ahead and halve the quantity of salt I’ve called for.
I’ve also gone a bit overboard on the decorations – I wanted them to reflect their inspiration, so I crafted little portrait frames and piped my best attempt at lavender onto them. I include an approximation of my method below, but you could opt for flowers of any kind, or birds, bees, butterflies, or whatever you’d like. For filling but also delicate detail piping, the best option for cookies is royal icing. It is reasonably easy to make, you can mix it with different thicknesses – firm enough to hold its shape in detail work, or thin and flowing in what’s called “flood” icing – and it dries rock hard. Since I was sending these through the mail and since I didn’t know how VV would feel about a traditional royal icing’s requirement of raw egg whites, I opted for meringue powder instead, which works near miraculously.
Small Batch Lavender Lemon Sugar Cookies
Makes 18-20 2×3 inch cookies
2-3 hours, including time to chill, cool, and ice finished cookies
½ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon culinary lavender
3/8 cup butter, softened
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 3/8 cups flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
For royal icing:
¼ cup meringue powder
¼-½ cup water
¼-½ cup lemon juice
4-5 cups powdered sugar
optional: gel or liquid food coloring
- To make the cookies, first add the sugar, lemon zest, and lavender to your mixing bowl. Use your fingertips to rub the zest and lavender into the sugar, releasing their oils and breaking up the blossoms a bit. Add the butter and use an electric mixer or the stand mixer paddle attachment to cream the butter and flavored sugar together until they are light and fluffy.
- Add the egg and the lemon juice and cream together again. It may look slightly curdled thanks to the acid in the lemon juice, but don’t worry. It will be okay.
- Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt, and gradually add it to the creamed mixture. It will seem a bit dry at first; mix it a few seconds more and you’ll almost see it start to moisten and come together.
- Pat the combined mixture into a ball and then chill the dough for one hour, until it is easy to handle.
- When the dough is ready, preheat the oven to 375F and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, or, my preference, place it between two large pieces of parchment paper. Use a rolling pin to roll it out to a rough rectangle of ¼ inch thickness. It may take a few minutes for the dough to warm up before it becomes rollable.
- Cut the dough into 2×3 inch rectangles (or use a flour-dipped cookie cutter of your choice) and place on the parchment lined cookie sheets. Reroll remaining dough and cut again, and so on until you have used all of the dough.
- Bake the cookies at 375F for 8-10 minutes, until they are just barely golden around the edges. If you’ve cut different sized cookies, you may have to adjust this baking time. Remove to wire racks to cool completely before icing.
- To make the royal icing, mix ¼ cup meringue powder with ¼ cup water and ¼ cup lemon juice. Beat until peaks form and the mixture is glossy.
- Working about 1 cup at a time, add 3½ cups sifted powdered sugar and beat until fairly stiff. This will be approximately the right texture for the “flood” icing, which is useful to fill areas, as I did with the white surface on my cookies. Scoop out about half of this into a separate bowl.
- To the remaining mixture, add another ½-1 cup powered sugar and beat until very stiff – you are looking for something pipeable that will hold its shape.
- Load about a cup of the firmer icing into a piping bag fitted with a small round tip. If you don’t have a piping bag, you can cut off a small piece of the corner from a ziptop plastic bag and fit the tip into that. I haven’t tried doing this without a metal piping tip, but if the hole in the bag was small enough you might be able to make it work.
- Starting from one corner, pipe a thin rectangular border around the top surface of each cookie, as in my photo above. Don’t go quite to the edge – a very thin visible edge of cookie looks nice.
- Using a spoon, a small spatula, or another piping bag loaded with a tip that has a wider opening, fill the space inside your piped borders with the thinner “flood” icing. If this icing isn’t thin enough to spread quite easily, you can add more water and/or lemon juice 1 tablespoon at a time until it is the consistently you want. It should still be thick, but almost flow when you tip the cookie back and forth. Use the spoon, spatula, or piping tip to coax the icing into all crevices until you have a thin but opaque layer of icing totally filling your piped border.
- When you’ve finished filling in the tops of the cookies, it’s time for intricate decorations. If you’re using color, divide up your remaining firm icing. You’ll need as many separate bowls as you want separate colors. If you are using gel coloring, add just a small smear to begin with, as it’s very strong. I used just a fractional bit of green, and a few drips each of red and blue to make my “lavender” purple. When you have the colors you want, load up a piping bag fitted with a small round tip and get started.
- To pipe lavender stems, start with the green. Draw a straight or curved line about 2/3 of the way up the cookie from the bottom edge of the frosted portion. Add a few leaves on either side by piping just a small straight line of icing attached to the main stem.
- To pipe the lavender flowers, using pale purple icing in a piping bag fitted with the small round tip, squeeze small dots starting from the top edge of your green stem up until your flower head seems tall enough. Right next to that column of dots, do another one. Squeeze a final column of dots right in the center, on top of and between the other two, as you can see in my photos above. Lavender sometimes has small, less developed flowerheads sprouting out from just above its leaves, so you can also pipe a dot or two above the leaves here and there, as you can see I’ve done in some of mine.
- When everything is piped to your satisfaction, set the cookies aside. The icing will take several hours to dry, but once it has, it will be incredibly solid – hard enough, in fact, to make it in one piece through the mail from Los Angeles to Eugene, Oregon, yet not so hard that it hurts your teeth.