Sugar Cookies and Books

- by Patricia McLinn

Books are like sugar cookie dough. I had that blinding insight last week while making cutout cookies with my family.

Sugar cookie dough isn’t all that complicated.  Flour, butter, sugar, plus some odds and ends, and there you have it.

Rather like plot, characters and action, along with a few twists.

The quality of the ingredients, as well as their proportions get you from “meh” to “mmmmm.”

But that’s just the start. The next step is vital.

It’s manipulating the dough. Rolling it out. Using the right amount of flour so it doesn’t stick. Giving the cookies shape: simple circles, scalloped rounds, or myriad holiday-appropriate designs.

Don’t handle it enough, skimp on the flour on your rolling pin or surface, and you have a gooey mess that’s impossible to transfer to the cookie sheet.

Remind you of any books you’ve read? Books that lack the benefit of deft editing (or sometimes any editing), that have a great concept without equivalent follow-through.

Go overboard, though, laying on the flour, incessantly kneading and molding the ball of dough by hand, and you get tough, dense cookies that can be a close relative to hardtack.

These books are the ones that have been hookified and marketablized and reader-surveyized with a thousand hands pounding them into stultifying stolidness.

Not that that ever happens in publishing.

Now, let’s talk about using the sugar cookie recipe for cutouts . . . Are you rolling you eyes at the idea of books as cutouts? Don’t. We’re on the same side here, because no one who’s made cutout cookies with my family would ever use them as a metaphor for replications.

That insight came to me as I contemplated the cookies we’d stacked in preparation for decorating. Yes, we could tell which ones came from which cutter, but they were as individual as snowflakes.

How does that happen?

No two batches of dough are precisely alike. Each rollout of the dough adds a different dimension. Every impression of the cookie cutters vary with pressure, angle, arranging and adjusting to wedge in the maximum number of cookies, plus wiggling the cutters into place.

Lifting each cookie and transferring it to the cookie sheet is an action sequence where Rudolph can lose a leg in a heartbeat or come through with merely a limp. On to the trial by fire in the oven, where the cookies can scoot from too soft, past just-right, to blackened, depending on timing, thickness and the vagaries of your oven.

And then there’s the decorating. Color, design, talent, imagination and sprinkles produce endless variety. There are no rules, no top-ten tricks, no must-haves when we decorate cutouts. (Though we do keep an eye on my brother since the Easter Egg Incident: mud brown, with “war” and “hate” on it. He thinks he’s funny.)

There’s even a practical reason for the sprinkles – it keeps the cookies from sticking together when they’re stored (though they don’t stay stored long.) The cutouts are usually the first to disappear from the family holiday cookie platters.

So there you have it. The entire publishing industry in a sugar cookie cutout. With icing. And sprinkles.

Go ahead, take a bite out of it.

As for me, I’m declaring this blog done to perfection.

Celebrate every holiday that comes your way and happy reading in 2011!


  1. Wow, Pat! You’ve inspired me to go whip up some dough and start baking. I let Christmas slip by and didn’t bake a one. I’ll call them New Year’s cookies and probably eat them all myself.

  2. Phoebe, I was thinking exactly the same thing!

  3. Great, Phoebe! Enjoy those cookies! I hear a rumor that they get even better a day or so after being decorated. Don’t know how that could ever be tested, however

  4. Pati and Phoebe, you should share examples of your cookies!