On “Inside the Actors’ Studio”–one of my not-so-guilty TV pleasures–James Lipton always starts his famous questionnaire with, “What is your favorite word?” Were I to suddenly, magically, improbably become a movie star, and get invited onto the show for a profound exploration of my life and craft, I’m not sure I could whittle down my list to just one word. Not even for the great, scrumtrulescent James Lipton himself.
I’m a fickle creature. Right now, on this day, in this room, my top five are:
—Gandy-dancer, n: an old slang term for a railroad maintenance worker
—Soporific, adj: causing sleep
—Yurt, n: a tentlike dwelling
—Chortle, v: to chuckle gleefully
—Snickerdoodle, n: a type of sugar cookie made with cream of tartar and rolled in cinnamon sugar
Snickerdoodles are an American classic, right up there with the ubiquitous chocolate chip. In fact, they’re a nifty up-your-sleeve cookie, for the times when chocolate chip fervor settles into fatigue. (Another one? Really, I couldn’t.) The fragrant cinnamon-tinted skin, still crunchy and a little glittery from the sugar crystals, and then sweet butter yellow insides, just begging to be bathed in a glass of cold milk…yeah, I thought you might like that.
Perhaps my favorite thing about snickerdoodles is how they straddle the divide between chewy and crisp. The cinnamon sugar firms and turns brittle; the outside of the cookie develops an understated crunch; the very middle of the interior stays soft and crumbly, like a little morsel of cake. I’ve been told the cream of tartar is an integral contributor in striking that balance, but truth be told, I don’t have a head for the chemistry of baking. All I know is that these cookies are wonderful, and surprisingly easy to make.
Of course, because it’s me, and I have to tweak everything that comes into or out of my little kitchen, I fiddled with the classic recipe. For my most recent batch of cookies, I tossed in a couple “secret ingredients” to really punch up the flavor, in a subdued kind of way. (Oxymoron much?)
The first secret: a splash of amaretto.
I love adding almond extract to cookies instead of vanilla, or even along with it. The almond is just as floral as vanilla, just as whispery-subtle, but with a round, rich flavor that has had people stop mid-bite to ask me my secret. But I was making these cookies at Sam’s, and he didn’t have almond extract on hand. What he did have was a great big bottle of amaretto. Almond liqueur and almond extract are practically kissing cousins, so I drizzled a little amaretto into the snickerdoodle dough. Suffice it to say, I’ll be doing that again–and often.
The other little trick was a pinch of nutmeg in the cinnamon sugar.
This was practically a no-brainer. Cinnamon and nutmeg are made to tango. The final result in the cookies was incredibly subtle, but definitely there: a deeper, warmer spiciness that ended up pairing terrifically with the hint of almond in the dough. I don’t know if either of these modifications is at all traditional, but this is how I plan to make snickerdoodles from now on–liqueur and spices and all.
I don’t expect anyone to object.
Snickerdoodles (makes about 3 dozen cookies, give or take)
Adapted, barely, from Smitten Kitchen
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp cream of tartar
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp almond extract or amaretto liqueur
For rolling the cookies*:
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 tbsp ground cinnamon
Large pinch of ground nutmeg
*Note: I only used about half this mixture before I ran out of dough. Your mileage may vary.
Sift together the flour, cream of tartar, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.
Combine the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl, or in the bowl of a stand mixer. Using a rubber spatula (if by hand) or the paddle attachment (if by machine), beat the butter and sugar together until creamy and pale yellow. Mix in the eggs, one at a time, followed by the almond extract or liqueur. Add the dry ingredients and mix until thoroughly combined–I did this a little at a time, so I didn’t end up with flour all over myself.
If the dough is too soft to handle immediately, cover it and refrigerate for an hour or so to let it firm up. When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 400º F, with one rack in the top third of the oven and the other in the bottom third, and grease your baking sheets or line them with parchment paper.
In a small bowl, combine the sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg, and stir with a fork until completely combined. Pinch off balls of dough about 1 inch in diameter–I used a tablespoon measure to help me scoop. Then roll each ball smooth between your palms, and roll it around in the cinnamon sugar mixture until it’s lightly coated on all sides. Place the cinnamon-coated dough balls on the baking sheets, about two inches apart.
Bake the cookies for five minutes, then rotate the baking sheets from one rack to the other and 180 degrees around. Bake for another five minutes, until the cookies begin to crack on top but not brown. Remove from the oven and let cool–that is, if you can resist grabbing a warm snickerdoodle and dunking it right in a glass of milk. I sure couldn’t.