This is my mother's recipe. She's a stickler for details, which plays to her advantage when it comes to baking. Her cut-out cookies are always the thinnest and prettiest and have the most restrained amount of decoration. Contrary to the plump and pale versions you often see, cut-out cookies should be very thin with browned edges, so they're crisp and nutty!
Makes 80 cookies (depending on the cookie cutter size; you can halve or quarter the recipe)
1 1/4 pound unsalted butter, at room temperature
4 cups sugar
4 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
8 cups all-purpose flour
1 egg white
Finely chopped walnuts or sliced almonds (optional)
Sanding sugar (optional)
Dried citron or candied cherries, finely chopped (optional)
1. A day before baking the cookies: In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (or by hand, in a bowl with a wooden spoon), cream together the butter and sugar. Add the eggs one by one, mixing after each addition, then the vanilla. Gradually work in the flour until a dough forms. Wrap the dough in waxed paper or plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
2. Heat the oven to 350° F. Whisk together the egg white and 1 tablespoon water in a small bowl. Cut the dough into quarters and keep three-quarters cold while working with the first quarter.
3. Generously flour your work surface. Lay down the dough. Flour again. Roll the dough into a large circle, about 1/8-inch thick -- and no thicker! Use cookie cutters to cut into shapes. It helps to dip the cutters into flour between every 2 cookies; this will prevent sticking. Place the cookies on ungreased baking sheets. Brush with the egg wash and decorate with chopped nuts, sanding sugar, or diced citron -- whatever you like!
4. Bake the cookies until they are lightly browned on the edges, 8 to 10 minutes -- I like to turn the baking sheet 180 degrees after 5 minutes to help them bake evenly. Transfer to a rack and let cool completely. (Repeat with the rest of the dough.) Place the cookies in a tin or storage container with a tight lid and let age 1 to 2 weeks to bring out the flavor. (I have eaten them at Easter, 4 months later, and they were still delicious.)
Photo by James Ransom