Why It Works
- Preparing the frosting first helps you save on cleanup.
- Egg whites keep the cookies tender and pale, with a strong vanilla flavor, like white cake.
- Bleached cake flour gives the cookies a delicate crumb and their signature appearance and texture.
- Heavy cream helps the frosting and batter whip up light, so don't downgrade to milk.
In search of the perfect soft and chewy sugar cookies last year, I really put my dough through its paces. In side-by-side experiments, I tested my recipe with different creaming methods, leavening agents, sugar types, and egg ratios.
I even made a batch with cake flour, a low-protein flour that has the mild flavor of white wheat. It was all wrong for classic sugar cookies, but my tasters kept circling back for another bite long after their notes were complete. "I don't know what it is," they said. "It just tastes so familiar."
Bleached Cake Flour Is Key
As with my angel food cake, the success of this recipe hinges on the unique behavior of bleached cake flour. Unbleached cake flour, cake flour processed with modified starch, cake flour fortified with malted barley, and DIY solutions (like all-purpose flour mixed with cornstarch) simply won't do.
Using Egg Whites for a Light and Tender Texture
While my version may be more streamlined than the 125-ingredient formula listed on the package, the overall flavor profile is the same, simply reincarnated with real butter and vanilla. It's soft and cakey due to cake flour, but not in a generic sense. Because of the strategic use of egg whites, it tastes like white cake in particular.
If you've read up on my Cookie Science eggsperiments, you may recall that egg whites can be a bit problematic. When you're creaming butter and sugar, their high water content will break the air-and-fat emulsion, resulting in a curdled batter. Improper aeration makes the dough dense, leading to cookies that bake up rather fudgy—obviously, a poor approach to re-creating a Lofthouse cookie's fluffy crumb.
Happily, I discovered that egg whites won't break the emulsion if they're mixed with a bit of cream to simulate the fat of the yolk. Not only does this allow for proper aeration, the added richness also makes up for the sometimes-crumbly texture of lean whites in a dough. The result is a cookie that's cakey in the best possible way: light and tender, with a rich and velvety crumb.
Making the Frosting
The finishing touch is a smear of vanilla frosting. While bleached cake flour is the trick to my cookies, the secret weapon in my frosting is organic powdered sugar. There's a more in-depth article here, but in short: Organic powdered sugars are more likely to be made with tapioca starch, which feels less gritty than cornstarch (the ingredient that causes so many of us to hate powdered-sugar frostings). On the flip side, the raw cane sugar in organic brands will give the frosting an ivory hue, which may run contrary to your ideal of a snowy-white frosting.
In place of butter, I make my frosting with cream. Its liquid content better dissolves the powdered sugar, regardless of what type you choose, for a much creamier frosting. It still crusts over like a traditional American buttercream, so the cookies are just as easy to handle, store, and transport without smushing, yet it melts more readily on the tongue.
For the Frosting:
10 ounces powdered sugar (2 1/2 cups; 285g)
1/4 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use the same weight or half as much by volume
2 1/2 ounces heavy cream (shy 1/3 cup; 70g)
1 teaspoon (5ml) vanilla extract
For the Cookie Dough:
8 ounces unsalted butter (2 sticks; 225g), pliable but cool, about 60°F (16°C)
7 ounces sugar (1 cup; 200g)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/4 teaspoons (5g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use the same weight or half as much by volume
2 ounces egg white (1/4 cup; 55g), from about 2 large eggs
1 ounce heavy cream (2 tablespoons; 30g)
2 teaspoons (10ml) vanilla extract
11 ounces bleached cake flour (2 3/4 cups; 310g), such as Swans Down (see notes)
Assorted food coloring, nonpareils, and sprinkles, for decorating (optional)
For the Frosting: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine powdered sugar, salt, cream, and vanilla. Mix at low speed to moisten, then increase speed to medium and beat until creamy and soft, about 5 minutes. Using a spatula, scrape frosting into a small bowl, or as many bowls as you would like colors, and cover with plastic pressed directly against the surface. Set aside until needed, up to 24 hours at room temperature.
For the Dough: Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat to 350°F (180°C). Using the same bowl and paddle attachment used for frosting (no need to clean), combine butter, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Mix at low speed to moisten, then increase speed to medium and beat until fluffy, pale ivory, and soft, about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk egg whites, cream, and vanilla in a glass measuring cup until homogeneous. With the mixer still running, add liquid mixture in 4 or 5 additions, pausing to scrape bowl and beater about halfway through. Decrease mixer to low speed, sprinkle in cake flour, and continue mixing to form a soft dough. Fold batter once or twice with a flexible spatula to make sure it's well mixed from the bottom up.
Using a 2-tablespoon cookie scoop, divide dough into 24 level portions and carefully drop onto 2 parchment-lined aluminum half sheet pans, leaving 2 ½ inches between each dough ball. If needed, pause to rinse scoop in hot water to ensure a clean release (misshapen scoops will spread into an irregular form). Bake until puffed and pale overall, but just barely golden around the very edges, about 15 minutes. Cool directly on sheet pans until no trace of warmth remains, about 15 minutes longer.
To Finish: If you like, tint frosting with a drop or two of gel paste. Working with one at a time, dollop a shy tablespoon of frosting (3/8 ounce; 10g) over each cookie, spread into an even layer with a palette knife or butter knife, and top with sprinkles, if desired. Repeat with remaining cookies and enjoy immediately. Let remaining cookies stand at room temperature until frosting forms a crust, then transfer to an airtight container with a sheet of wax paper between each layer. Store up to 3 days at room temperature.
No matter how tempting it may be, please don't substitute other types of flour for the bleached cake flour in this recipe. In addition to its low protein content and mild flavor, bleached cake flour has a low pH that inhibits browning, and a unique behavior thanks to its unusual starch content. Substitutes will cause the dough to spread, rise, and brown differently, with a chewy rather than cakey texture. If you like, read more on the science behind bleached cake flour here.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 9g||12%|
|Saturated Fat 6g||29%|
|Total Carbohydrate 31g||11%|
|Dietary Fiber 0g||1%|
|Total Sugars 20g|
|Vitamin C 0mg||0%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|