If any one ingredient signals the holiday season, it’s butter. Of course, cinnamon, caramel, and chocolate will put a twinkle in your eye, but those flavors are always carried on the back of butter. Good butter is an indulgence—double the price of its commodity cousin—and worth every penny for holiday cooking and baking.
Every Christmas, I make a big chocolate cake, often a variation on a Buche de Noel. This year I’ll be making Food & Wine’s December cover recipe (because, you know, I work there), Chocolate-and-Citrus Cassata, rich with vanilla-orange ricotta and glazed in shiny bittersweet ganache, it is absolutely full of butter.
I’ll also be making my wife’s favorite cookies, a version of the soft, buttercream-frosted, cut-out sugar cookies found in plastic clamshells at most grocery stores. Our friend Ashley shared her family’s recipe, one that she brings to parties throughout the year, decorated as Jack-o-Lanterns, Easter eggs, or snowmen and Christmas trees depending on the occasion. The difference between her version and the grocery store ones is, you guessed it, really good butter. With two sticks split between the dough and the frosting, the resulting melt-in-your-mouth cookies are even better the next day and will last in an airtight container in the fridge for several days.
Cut the chilled dough simply into squares or rounds, or punch out festive shapes with cookie cutters and decorate accordingly. The whipped, sweet frosting can be tinted with a few drops of food coloring, and sprinkles are always a welcome addition. The most important key to making these cookies tender is to not overbake them. Watch closely for the edges to puff, and for the centers to form a skin but not become firm or fully rise; the cakey, thick cookies will set to the perfect texture as they cool. Frost the cooled cookies and let the surface of the frosting dry, which will take a couple of hours. If you can control yourself, wait until the next day, once the frosting and cookies have fused; that great quality butter will guarantee the cookies stay soft and rich. Pair with milk or bourbon, depending on your audience.
Arrange oven rack in center of oven and preheat to 400°F (200°C). (If you can’t fit two cookie sheets on one rack, arrange in upper and lower thirds and plan to rotate during baking.) Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment.
Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy with a hand mixer. Add in this order, mixing fully between each addition: the egg, vanilla, salt, and baking powder; beat until fluffy again. Add flour ½ cup at a time, beating to just incorporate each addition, and adding 1 to 2 tablespoons of cold water before last addition of flour to moisten dough. Dough should look like a bowl of pebbles after last addition of flour. Set mixer aside and knead dough in bowl until it just comes together, about 10 turns.
Roll (or pat or smush) dough between parchment to a ¼-inch (6mm) thick 9 1/2-inch (24-cm) wide round. Pop into the freezer for 15 minutes until dough is hard. Remove top sheet of parchment and cut cookies as desired. Place cut dough on parchment-lined cookie sheets. Gather scraps and re-roll dough once (no need to freeze again).
Bake cookies until edges are just puffed and center has a slight crust/skin but hasn’t taken on any color around edges, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and slide parchment onto cooling racks; let cookies cool completely before frosting with a nice schmear. Let frosting firm before serving. Store in an airtight container; cookies are best the next day.
Beat butter until smooth and fluffy, then gradually incorporate powdered sugar. Add milk and vanilla and beat until fluffy and lightened by a few shades and vanilla is evenly distributed.
Cover and keep cool—but don’t refrigerate—until ready to frost cookies, up to a few hours.