Perfect Cream Cheese Sugar Cookies
I am solidly convinced that holiday cookie exchanges were invented precisely because committing to one single cookie for the entire holiday season (let alone the entirety of a holiday afternoon) is impossible. Maybe the Grinch could manage it, but certainly not this unabashed Christmas-cookie lover. I like to try a few new cookie recipes each season, and I also have my favorites, the ones without which my holiday season would not feel complete. These Perfect Cream Cheese Sugar Cookies are one of those special recipes. Soft, tender, and surprisingly easy to make, they are easily the most popular cookie recipe on my site. This is my go-to sugar cookie recipe, and I’m betting that once you try it, it will be yours too!
When it comes to baking cookies, I’m usually of the mindset that the sooner the cookies can be out of the oven and in my mouth, the better. Christmas cut-out cookies are the exception. The process of making and decorating them is as much a part of the fun as eating them. This year I’m especially excited to bake and decorate these treats with my two-year-old niece, who is already quite the little kitchen assistant.
Even if you usually bypass the sugar cookies in favor of other options on the cookie tray, I am begging you to give these cream cheese sugar cookies a try. They are exceptional.
The combination of the cream cheese, almond extract, and lemon zest makes these sugar cookies taste special. They still have that classically buttery, lightly sweet flavor that you’re seeking when you reach for a sugar cookie in the first place but are elevated just enough to keep you reaching back into the jar. Trust me when I say that one cream cheese sugar cookie will never ever suffice.
What Makes These Perfect Cream Cheese Sugar Cookies Special
Cream cheese is the secret ingredient that makes this sugar cookie dough ultra easy to handle (even kids can make these cut-out cookies!), and it adds a subtle tang to the cookies that balances the sweetness of the frosting. If you are a fan of soft cookies, you’ll love this recipe too. They are pillowy and tender, even days after they are baked. Honestly, the hardest part about this cream cheese cookie recipe is choosing which shape to eat first!
The other half of these cream cheese cookies is the frosting. I consider it a crime against cut-out-cookie kind to take a perfectly soft sugar cookie and deck it with a frosting that hardens into a brittle sheet, which is why I love this particular frosting recipe so much. It’s glossy, sets up beautifully, and remains pleasantly soft beneath its shiny exterior.
In all flavor and texture categories, this frosting recipe is perfect…but—let’s address the reindeer in the room now—it contains some corn syrup.
I realize that corn syrup is a divisive ingredient, but I haven’t found an adequate substitute for it in this recipe yet.
Maple syrup is too runny. Honey creates a nice shine, but the frosting doesn’t set well and the honey throws off the flavor also.
Can we each agree to eat a frosted cream cheese sugar cookie, ignore the you-know-what, and say we do this once a year?
I think I’ll eat the mitten first. Or the snowflake. Or the sparkly star…
Tips for Cut-Out Cookie Dough Success:
- Chill Out: Keeping roll-out cookie dough cold is critical for easy handling. If there is any portion of the dough you aren’t working with immediately, keep it in the refrigerator until you are ready to roll and cut. If at any point the dough becomes too sticky to handle, simply pop it back into the refrigerator and sip your hot chocolate, and in a few minutes, it will be good to go again.
- Lay Flat: Why is it that we roll cut-out cookie dough (and pie crust for that matter) into a big ball prior to chilling it then go to all the trouble to roll it flat again afterwards when it’s cold and inflexible? If you will be using the cookie dough within a few hours, instead of patting it into a ball to chill it, roll it out between two pieces of parchment paper and place it in the refrigerator in its rolled-out state. Then, once the dough has chilled, there’s no need to re-roll. Simply place it on your counter in its nicely flattened shape, remove the top sheet of parchment, and cut away.
Tools to Make Cream Cheese Sugar Cookies:
- Holiday cookie cutters. I love this set because it includes a gingerbread boy and a gingerbread girl.
- Cookie sheets
- Beater blade (a must for stand-mixer owners)
- Parchment paper, for rolling the dough
- Rolling pin
How to Store Cream Cheese Sugar Cookies:
- An airtight container at room temperature is best. Once the cookies are baked, they will stay delightfully soft for up to 5 days and still taste great even after a week.
- Separate layers of frosted cookies with waxed paper or parchment paper.
- Unbaked, unshaped cookie dough can be frozen for up to 3 months. Let thaw overnight in the refrigerator, then roll, shape, and bake as directed.
- Baked cookies can be frozen for up to 1 month, frosted or unfrosted. Let the cookies cool to room temperature, arrange them in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet, then place the baking sheet in the freezer until the cookies harden. Transfer the cookies to a ziptop bag and place the bag in your freezer. When ready to eat, remove as many or as few cookies from the bag as you like. Place in an airtight container and let thaw overnight in the refrigerator or at room temperature.
More Favorite Christmas Cookie Recipes:
- Chocolate Ginger Molasses Cookies (my all-time favorite!)
- Pumpkin Snickerdoodles (my sister + her gal pals’ favorite)
- Orange Cookies with Cranberry (Grandma’s recipe)
- Peanut Butter Chocolate Crinkle Cookies (an even better version of classic chocolate crinkles)
- 1 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 large egg at room temperature
- 2 ounces reduced-fat cream cheese at room temperature (do not use fat free)
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3 cups powdered sugar
- 3-4 tablespoons milk
- 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
- 3/4 teaspoon almond extract
- Food coloring as desired Sprinkles, colored sugar, or other cookie decorations, as desired
In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the bowl, then add the egg and beat until fully incorporated, about 30 seconds. Add the cream cheese and beat for 1 minute, scrape down the bowl once more, then beat in the vanilla extract, almond extract, and lemon zest until incorporated, about 30 seconds.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. With the mixer running on low speed, slowly add the dry ingredients to the butter-sugar mixture, mixing just until fully incorporated and a soft dough is formed.
Divide the dough into quarters. If using the dough within 24 hours, roll each quarter to a 1/4-inch thickness in between two sheets of parchment paper (alternatively, you can store the dough in a ball or disk and roll out when ready to cut and bake). Be careful not to roll the dough any thinner or the cookies will not be as soft. Keeping the dough flat, transfer it to the refrigerator and chill for at least 1 hour or overnight. Repeat with the remaining dough (it is fine to stack the dough "flats" on top of each other to save space). If you will not be using the dough within 24 hours, divide the dough in half, pat each into a disk, then wrap each disk tightly in plastic and freeze in a ziptop bag for up to 1 month. Let thaw in the refrigerator overnight, then proceed with the recipe as directed.
When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and line baking sheets with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Remove one of dough flats from the refrigerator. (If you stored the dough in a ball or disk, roll it to a 1/4-inch thickness now, between two layers of parchment paper.) Remove the top layer of parchment paper, then with cookie cutters, slice the cookies into desired shapes. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough.
Bake the cookies for 9-11 minutes, until barely lightly golden brown and the edges are dry. The cookies will look slightly underbaked. Let cool completely.
To make the frosting: In a small bowl, stir together the powdered sugar and 3 tablespoons milk as best as you can (the frosting will be very solid at this point). Beat in the corn syrup and almond extract until the frosting is smooth and glossy. If the frosting seems too thick, add more milk, one teaspoon at a time, until you reach your desired consistency. If making colored frosting, add a few drops of food coloring until you reach your desired color intensity. Frost and decorate the cookies as desired. Let the frosting set for a few minutes, then enjoy!
- Store leftover baked cream cheese sugar cookies in an airtight container at room temperature, separating the cookie layers with wax or parchment paper, for up to 4 days or freeze frosted or unfrosted for up to 2 months.
- Dough can be prepared through Step 3 and stored covered in the refrigerator for up to 1 day or frozen for up to 3 months. Let stand at room temperature until soft enough to scoop, then bake as directed (if frozen, thaw overnight in the refrigerator first).
- Shaped, unbaked cookies can be frozen for up to 3 months. To freeze: place the unbaked cookies on a parchment-lined baking sheet, freeze until hardened, then transfer to a ziptop bag. Bake directly from frozen, adding a minute or two to the baking time.
- If you want to make a monster batch of cookies, this recipe can be doubled.
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