One Dough, Many Cookies
One master recipe for holiday cookies yields a dozen perfectly moist and tender variations. The secret ingredient? Cornstarch.
The challenge: The quintessential holiday cookie can be easily rolled, molded, cut, and handled without breaking, yet retains a buttery quality when eaten. Good holiday cookies should almost melt in your mouth, with a sensation close to that of shortbread. This is a tall order, to be sure, because the dough for tender, buttery cookies is notoriously hard to work.

The solution: In researching the vast number of heirloom holiday cookie recipes, we were struck by the fact that many of them call for confectioners' sugar, which is no more than cornstarch and sugar pulverized together. Confectioners' sugar is particularly useful for icings and decorative dusting because it prevents caking. It also does a good job inside a cookie dough, too, because the cornstarch softens the flour. The trouble is that it is difficult to regulate the sweetening effect, since it carries starch and sugar as a fused partnership. By separating the cornstarch from the sugar, we could adjust the sweetness of the dough by altering the sugar alone, without disturbing the balance of the flour and cornstarch.

For good measure: Having ingredients just a bit cooler than room temperature assists proper blending and results in a dough that is ready to roll. If a dough does begin to get too soft to be workable, simply pop it in the refrigerator for about ten minutes and you're back in business. Chilling the dough prevents you from adding extra flour, which would firm up the dough but can make the final product tough.


Yields approximately 6 dozen single-layer cookies or 3 dozen sandwich cookies
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
2 teaspoons baking powder
Tiny pinch salt
2 egg yolks
3 tablespoons light cream
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup white sugar
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
4 tablespoons vegetable shortening

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment or silicone paper.
2. Mix flour, cornstarch, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Mix yolks, cream, and vanilla together in a measuring cup.
3. Cream sugar with butter and shortening until lightened and pasty. Beat yolk mixture into creamed butter until just combined.
4. Add dry ingredients and beat until mixture begins to clump together (about 18 or 20 seconds on lowest speed of electric mixer).
5. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured board and kneed gently to shape into a soft dough. (Can be wrapped in plastic wrap and refrigerated up to 3 days or frozen up to 6 months). Proceed with rolling, shaping, and baking instructions under selected cookie.

Suggested shapes: Classic cut-outs; spirals made with another colored dough; turnovers; mock thumbprints; petticoat tails.


Makes about 4 dozen

Follow recipe for one of the butter cookie doughs. Working with 1/4 of the dough at a time, roll about 1/8-inch thick. Using a 3-inch round cookie cutter, cut dough rounds. Transfer rounds to prepared cookie sheet. Fill the center of each with a scant 1/2 teaspoon of prepared mincemeat, jam, or apricot or prune butter. Fold in half; crimp edges with a fork. Turn corners up and around so that they come within 1/2-inch of meeting. Arrange shaped cookies about 1 1/2-inches apart. Bake at 375 degrees until golden brown, 15 to 17 minutes. Dust with confectioners’ sugar if desired.


Makes about 4 dozen

Follow recipe for one of the butter cookie doughs. Divide dough into eighths. Roll a portion into a 12-inch log and place on prepared cookie sheet. Use the handle of a wooden spoon to make a deep indentation down the center of each log. Repeat with remaining dough, placing each log about 1 1/2-inches apart. Bake at 375 degrees, remaking the indentation once during baking if necessary, until cookies are golden, 15 to 17 minutes. Transfer to a cookie sheet to cool. Pipe or spoon about 2 tablespoons jam per cookie down the center of each warm cookie. Let stand until jam sets. Cut each cookie diagonally into 1 1/2- to 2-inch bars.


Makes about 6 dozen 2-inch cookies

Follow recipe for one of the butter cookie doughs. Working with 1/4 of the dough at a time, roll to about 1/8-inch thick on a well-floured work surface. Use cookie cuter of your choice to cut out shapes. Using a spatula, transfer cut-outs to prepared baking sheet, placing them about 1 inch apart. Bake at 350 degrees until golden, 10 to 12 minutes. Repeat with remaining dough. Transfer to a wire rack and cool to room temperature.


Makes about 6 dozen

Make 1/2 recipe each of 2 of the butter cookie doughs of different colors (e.g. chocolate and butter). Halve each half-batch of dough; roll a portion each dough on parchment to a 9-by-7-ingh rectangle about 1/4-inch thick; brush one dough rectangle with egg wash. Carefully invert other dough rectangle on top of the egg-washed dough. Remove parchment paper from the inverted dough. With the long side of the rectangle facing you, use the bottom sheet of parchment paper as a guide to gently roll the two doughs up, jellyroll-style, pulling paper off as you roll. Wrap dough log in plastic wrap and chill for at least 15 minutes. Repeat process with remaining dough. Cut each chilled log into 1/4-inch slices. Place dough pinwheels about 1 inch apart on prepared cookie sheet; bake at 350 degrees until golden, 12 to 15 minutes.

For citrus spirals, use a colored dough (yellow or orange) along with the plain or vanilla dough and proceed as for regular pinwheels. Brush slices with egg wash, and dust with sanding sugar or plain table sugar.

For jam pinwheels, roll out 1 rectangle of dough as described above. With long end of rectangle facing you spread a thin layer of thick preserves (3 to 4 tablespoons) over dough leaving a 1-inch border along the side opposite you. Roll up, jelly-roll style. Follow above instructions for chilling, cutting, and baking.


Makes 3 dozen sandwich cookies

1. Follow recipe for one of the butter cookie doughs. Working with about 1/4 of the dough at a time, roll dough to about 1/8-inch thick. Using a 2-inch serrated cookie cutter, cut dough rounds. Place about 1 inch apart on prepared cookie sheets. Using a 1/2-inch cutter (the bottom of a pastry tip works well), cut a hole in the center of half the dough rounds to make cookie tops. Bake at 350 degrees until golden, 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer to wire rack and cool completely.
2. Smear a heaping 1/2 teaspoon complementary jam (or chocolate frosting or lemon curd) on each cookie bottom, mounding center a bit more generously. Gently place top cookie over filling. Dust with confectioners’ sugar.

For chocolate Linzer cookies, dust with a mixture made up of equal parts cocoa and confections’ sugar.

For spice Linzer cookies, fill layer with store-bought lemon curd. Finish with confectioner’s sugar.


Makes about 4 dozen

Follow recipe for one of the butter cookie doughs. Divide dough into sixths. Working with one portion at a time, roll dough to an 8 1/2-inch circle on parchment paper. Invert an 8-inch fluted tart pan onto dough to form fluted circle. (Or use an 8-inch pie pan to cut dough circle, then crimp perimeter with a fork.) Prick dough all over with fork. Using a pastry cutter or a sharp knife, cut the dough circle into 8 wedges. Bake the round at 350 degrees until golden, 15 to 17 minutes. While cookie is still warm, use pastry wheel or sharp knife to reestablish original cut marks. Transfer wedges to wire rack and cool to room temperature. Dip in melted chocolate, if you like.


Make about 4 dozen

Follow recipe for one of the butter cookie doughs. Working with about 1 tablespoon dough at a time, roll each portion of dough into a ball. Roll ball into a 3-inch length with tapered ends; turn ends down to form a crescent shape. Repeat with remaining dough. Place dough crescents about 1 1/2-inches apart on prepared cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees until golden, 15 to 17 minutes. While cookies are still warm, dip them in sifted confectioners’ sugar, then place on a wire rack to cool to room temperature. Dip cooled cookies again into confectioners’ sugar.


Follow the Master Recipe, adding 1 ounce each melted unsweetened and semisweet chocolates after sugar has been creamed with butter and shortening.

Suggested shapes: Pinwheels with butter cookie dough; classic cut-outs garnished with icing or melted white chocolate; Linzer cookies filled with apricot or raspberry preserves; crescents coated with confectioners’ sugar.


Follow the Master Recipe, adding 1 cup toasted, cooled, and finely chopped walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, or almonds after the dry ingredients are almost incorporated. If using walnuts, pecans, or hazelnuts, add 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon and 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg to the dry ingredients. If using almonds, reduce vanilla to 3/4 teaspoon and add 3/4 teaspoon almond extract.

Suggested shapes: Linzer cookies or Viennese crescents; simple cut-outs; mock thumbprints.


Citrus oils are available at candy-making supply stores or though specialty mail order (see Where to Shop).

Follow Master Recipe; reduce vanilla to 1/4 teaspoon and add 1/4 teaspoon each orange oil, lemon oil, and citric acid to the egg yolk mixture. After the sugar has been creamed with the butter and shortening, add 1 tablespoon each orange, lemon, and lime zest, minced fine.

Suggested Shapes: Classic cut-outs; citrus pinwheels.


Follow Master Recipe; reduce baking powder to 1 1/2 teaspoons and add 1/2 teaspoon baking soda. To the dry ingredients add: 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon cloves, 1/4 teaspoon all-spice, 1/4 teaspoon ginger, 1/8 teaspoon mace, and a tiny pinch nutmeg. Substitute 1 cup brown sugar for the white sugar and add 2 tablespoons molasses when creaming the sugar with the butter and shortening. Reduce light cream from 3 tablespoons to 2 tablespoons.

Suggested shapes: Gingerbread men; classic cut-outs, Linzer cookies filled with lemon curd.


Coats about 2 dozen 2-inch cookies
1–2 tablespoons milk
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
Food coloring (optional)
2–3 drops flavored extracts (vanilla, peppermint, cherry, banana, almond, etc.), to taste (optional)
1. Stir minimum amount of milk into confectioners’ sugar with a small wire whisk or a fork to make a soft smooth icing. (Stir in optional food coloring and flavor extracts.) If mixture is too stiff, add milk in very tiny increments until correct consistency is reached.
2. Pipe icing from a pastry bag to outline cookies or make simple motifs, or simply drizzle on designs. If coating the cookie, use a small metal spatula to spread icing over entire top surface or dip cookie into icing, using the metal spatula to trim away excess. (If mixture hardens, remix with a bit of water, whisking well too make icing smooth.) Allow cookies to dry to a dull shine before storing.

November, 1993
Original article and recipes by Marcy Goldman


“Short” Dough Makes Tender Cookies
Cheap Cookie Sheet Tops Ratings
Citrus Oils
Commercial Parchment Paper
Cookie Cutters
The Cornstarch Connection