A lot of people in this town bake cookies. But when Emily Nabors opened a closet in her kitchen to reveal two dozen plastic tubs of cookie cutters, organized into categories like “Halloween (not pumpkins)” and “Animals (not bunnies),” I knew I was dealing with a different kind of cookie-baker.
Emily wasn’t really much of a cook before college, when she enrolled in a cooking class at Samford University—”for an easy A,” she says. Finding she liked to bake, she started making Christmas cookies for holiday parties, and then graduated to creating cookie centerpieces for a baby shower she helped host. When everyone at that party thought the centerpieces came from a professional, Emily decided to go into business.
From 2006 to 2008, she sold cookies for a living, first at the coffee shop she worked at in Mountain Brook Village, then by special order, and eventually as a fully incorporated small business working out of a borrowed commercial kitchen. That’s when Emily amassed her collection of more than 300 cookie cutters. (Her least favorite? The candy cane, because it’s hard to keep the stripes uniform when icing.)
The siren song of a full-time job and health insurance tore Emily away from her cookie business, but she still bakes them frequently. In fact, there are several bags of frozen dough in her freezer at all times.
Ironically though, Emily doesn’t really like her signature sugar cookies all that much—maybe it’s over-familiarity, but, she says, “I still bake to bring joy to people. Cooking for other people will always make me happy. I can’t really say that about anything else.”
Emily’s classic sugar cookies are rich and crumbly, but still strong enough to hold elaborate cutout shapes and travel or ship easily. The key is keeping the leavening-free dough at the right temperature—warm enough that it can be rolled easily but cool enough that it holds its shape as it starts to cook. There’s also a secret to rolling out the dough to a perfect half-inch thickness: Emily bought two 1/4-inch dowels from a hardware store, puts them on either side of the dough, and rolls with a rolling pin along the tops of the dowels. And her simple icing, which dries hard so you can layer different colors for effect as well as stack and wrap the finished cookies without ruining the decorations, is another gem of a solution.
Shaun’s note: You can find meringue powder at stores like Hobby Lobby and Michael’s, or online from King Arthur Flour.
12 ounces (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
8 ounces (about 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons) sugar
1 egg yolk, preferably at room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 pound (about 3 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons) flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 pound (about 4 1/2 cups sifted) powdered sugar
2 tablespoons meringue powder
Cream butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment until light and fluffy. Add egg yolk and vanilla and mix to combine, scraping down the sides of the bowl. Stir together flour and salt in a small bowl and add gradually to the mixer. Mix until dough just comes together. Form dough into a disc, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate 30 minutes to 1 hour. (You can refrigerate the dough longer or overnight; if you do so, take it out of the refrigerator an hour before rolling.)
Preheat oven to 350°. Unwrap dough and roll out to 1/2-inch thickness. Cut out cookies as desired and place on a baking sheet, then refrigerate 10 minutes. (You can also freeze the cut dough at this point.) Bake 15 to 18 minutes or until golden brown. Let cool on baking sheet 5 minutes and transfer to a rack to cool completely.
To make icing, combine powdered sugar, meringue powder, and 1/4 cup water in the bowl of stand mixer fitted with whisk attachment. Whip on high speed until soft peaks form. Tint as needed with food coloring and use to decorate cooled cookies.