We are a family of bakers. My mom makes the best pies and blueberry muffins. She’s semi-professional, too – she bakes desserts and cooks meals at a school. She learned to bake from my grandmother, whose extensive collection of recipe cards now lives in my own kitchen. My aunt Donna is one of the best bakers I know, and she’s especially well-known for her cookies. My dad (her brother) used to sneak cookies out of her freezer in his shirt pocket. Was he just trying to warm them up? I’m sure she knew what he was up to.
My snickerdoodle cookie legacy
When I went away to college, Aunt Donna wrote me (handwritten) letters. Remember when people did that? This was about 1996 – 1998, when internet access had just made its way into the rural Illinois areas where my family lived. Barely a few people had access to “dial-up” internet… at blazing speeds of 33-56 kbps. Not mbps. Ten times slower than today’s typical high-speed connection at home. The postal service was probably faster!
Sometime around my college graduation, Aunt Donna wrote me a letter that included several family-favorite recipes for cookies and desserts, including this recipe for soft snickerdoodle cookies. I still have it, tucked into my well-worn copy of The Joy of Cooking, the first cookbook I ever purchased. Donna was kind enough to also include the people who especially like each recipe.
These soft snickerdoodle cookies are especially liked by my dad. They have filled his pocket on more than one occasion. I remember my dad receiving an entire large tin of them (as in those tins that hold three kinds of popcorn – about 3 gallons or more) for Christmas one year from my aunt.
So what’s a snickerdoodle?
I like to think of “snickerdoodle” as a great pseudo-swear-word to use when in the vicinity of children. As in, “Awww, snickerdoodle!” But I usually end up using the actual s-word. I searched a bit for the origin of the word “snickerdoodle”, and the Joy of Cooking tells us that:
“snickerdoodles are probably German in origin, and that the name is a corruption of the German word Schneckennudel (“snail noodles”).” (Wikipedia)
Wikipedia also proposes that snickerdoodle may be a made-up word, and that New England in particular is known for assigning whimsical cookie names. Now I really I want to move to New England and become a professional cookie namer.
In any case, a snickerdoodle cookie is usually distinguished from a sugar cookie by these key criteria:
- Snickerdoodles are rolled in cinnamon sugar, while sugar cookies are rolled only in granulated sugar.
- Snickerdoodles are leavened with cream of tartar, a powdered acid responsible for the cookie’s characteristic slight tartness.
Cream of tartar is an interesting ingredient in itself. Also known as potassium bitartrate or tartaric acid, it’s one of the two components used to make baking powder (the other component is baking soda.) Cream of tartar is a sediment that is deposited on the inside of wine barrels during the aging process. It’s also extremely high in potassium. Some people who have kidney disease can have trouble processing large quantities of potassium. A few cookies shouldn’t pose an issue, but if you would like to substitute another ingredient for cream of tartar, you can add twice the amount of white vinegar instead. I’ve included instructions in the recipe. (I’m not a doctor, and these statements are not intended as medical advice.)
How to make Soft Snickerdoodle Cookies
As long as you start with some softened butter, snickerdoodle cookies are easy to blend by hand, or with an electric mixer. Start by creaming together the butter, sugar, and vanilla until well-blended and light in color. Add eggs, and beat well. The dry ingredients can be added in any order, as long as they’re thoroughly blended.
When you’re finished, the dough will be quite soft. At this point, it’s important to wrap the dough up and refrigerate it for about an hour. This firms up the dough and allows you to shape it into balls more easily. It also helps the cookies stay thick and chewy as they bake. If you don’t refrigerate the dough, you’ll end up with flat, crisp snickerdoodles. If you like that, great. But I prefer mine soft and chewy!
How to have fresh-baked soft snickerdoodle cookies, anytime
The best place to store snickerdoodles is in a tightly-sealed container. Even then, they can lose the that chewy quality after a few days. To help retain their moisture, tuck a slice of white bread into the container with the cookies. The moisture in the bread will help keep the cookies soft.
If you return home after a 5-day trip to snickerdoodles that have lost their softness and chew, you can make them warm, soft, and oven-fresh again with this weird trick:
- Turn on the tap. Briefly pass one or two cookies under the water, and place them on a plate. Don’t soak them. You want them to be just slightly wet.
- Place them in the microwave, and heat on high for 8-10 seconds. Two or more cookies might take longer. Your snickerdoodle cookies should be warm and soft again!
- 1 cup unsalted butter two sticks
- 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1/2 tsp Diamond Crystal kosher salt
- 2 tsp cream of tartar
- 3 tbsp granulated sugar
- 3 tsp ground cinnamon
Mix the Dough
- In a stand mixer or large bowl, beat butter and sugar together thoroughly.
- Add eggs and vanilla. Continue to beat until fluffy and well-combined.
- Add baking soda, salt, and cream of tartar, and blend thoroughly.
- Add flour and mix well.
- Place dough in a sealed container, or wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 2 hours.
Roll and Bake
- To make cookies, preheat oven to 400 degrees.
- Mix 3 tbsp granulated sugar and 3 tsp ground cinnamon in a small bowl.
- Roll dough into 1 1/2 inch balls. Roll balls in cinnamon sugar mixture to coat. Place balls on cookie sheet lined with parchment, or a silicone baking mat.
- Bake for 10-11 minutes or until light golden brown. Remove from cookie sheet and cool on wire rack.
- Makes about 24 cookies.
- If you don't have cream of tartar, substitute 4 tsp white vinegar for every 2 tsp cream of tartar.
- Chilling the dough is important. It makes it easier to roll into balls, and stops the cookies from spreading out too much, keeping them thick and soft.
- The dough can be frozen in either one large ball or rolled into smaller balls and frozen for up to 2 months. Thaw in the refrigerator before baking.
- Baked cookies can be frozen up to 2 months in a tightly-sealed container.
- To keep cookies soft and chewy, add a slice of fresh bread to their sealed storage container.