Because I excel at timing, I decided long after most normal people had long wrapped up their holiday cookie baking last December to make the checkerboard cookies, Sara, who works with me behind the scenes, has been steadily requesting for about a decade. It’s just… I was a skeptic. I imagined checkerboard cookies would be a hideous amount of work for something that looked cute but probably didn’t taste like much, the dark portions chocolate in color, not flavor.
I tried a few formulas, first more of a sugar cookie, but the pattern wasn’t as clear as I’d hoped. A classic shortbread with powdered sugar looked pretty but had a blah texture. I found what I was looking for in an egg yolk-enriched sable — great flavor and a gentle snap — which as a bonus, left me with an egg white I could use to roll the cookies in pretty, festive colors. A solid percentage of cocoa in the chocolate half ensured a rich flavor. I used my favorite cookie methods outlined in my Unfussy Sugar Cookies for ease: starting with cold butter and rolling out the dough right away with no floured counter to clean up. A couple quick trips to the freezer firms up the dough, and from there you stack and slice to make the cutest checkerboards I’ve ever or tasted with no sweat or stress.
I was shocked, and then hooked and couldn’t stop, using the same doughs for spirals and marbled cookies and while it’s clear the checkerboards are the stars, I’ll include directions for all three below should you wish to cancel your entire cookie agenda just to commit to these dazzlers.
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- 1 3/4 cups (230 grams) all-purpose flour, divided
- 1/2 teaspoon (3 grams) fine sea or table salt
- 1/3 cup (65 grams) granulated sugar
- 1/3 cup (40 grams) powdered sugar
- 1 cup (8 ounces or 225 grams) unsalted butter, see Note
- 1 teaspoon (5 grams) vanilla extract
- 1 large egg, separated
- 1/4 cup (20 grams) unsweetened cocoa powder, any variety
- Colored sanding sugar, to finish
- Make dough in a food processor: Combine the sugars, salt, and 1 1/2 cups (195 grams) of the flour in the work bowl. Add cold, diced butter and mix or pulse until it disappears, then keep running the machine until it just begins to clump. Add egg yolk (save the egg white for later) and vanilla and pulse until combined, then keep running the machine until one large or a few smaller smooth masses form.
- Place each dough half between two pieces of parchment paper and roll each into (approximately) 4 to 5×10-inch (10 to 13×25-cm) rectangles that are 1/4-inch (6mm) thick. Slide both slabs of dough onto a cutting board or tray and freeze for 10 to 15 minutes, until firm like cold butter but not quite frozen solid.
- Remove the top piece of parchment from each slab (you can use these to line your baking sheet) and stack the chocolate and vanilla dough layers, pressing them gently together. Cut the slab in half the long way (i.e. forming two approximately 2×10-inch rectangles) and stack the halves, forming one long, striped slab. Press the layers gently, to adhere them, and return this to the freezer for another 10 to 15 minutes, or until it’s very firm but not fully frozen.
- Remove this long slab from the freezer and, using your sharpest knife and steadiest hand, cut it the long way into eight 1/4-inch-wide slices. Arrange the first four into a checkerboarded log, flipping two of the slices over so the opposite flavor is on top. Repeat with second four into a second checkerboarded log. Wrap each in a piece of parchment paper and press it firmly into a long, squared-off log, adhering the layers. Return to the freezer for one last 10-minute stint, until solid to the touch.
Make dough in a stand mixer or with a hand mixer: Combine butter, sugars, and salt in the bowl of your stand mixer and beat until creamy. If you began with cold butter in a stand mixer, this will take a couple minutes and require you to scrape down the bowl a few times. Once mixture is thoroughly combined, add egg yolk (save the egg white for later) and vanilla and beat until combined. Add 1 1/2 cups (195 grams) of the flour and beat until it disappears into a smooth dough.
Both methods: Divide dough in half. [Each half will weigh 270 to 275 grams.] Leave one half in the mixing bowl or food processor. Add 1/4 cup (35 grams) remaining flour to it and pulse/mix until just combined. Scrape out the mixing bowl or food processor and scoop out this vanilla dough, setting it aside. Add the second half of the dough to the mixing bowl or food process and add the cocoa powder. Mix until evenly combined. This is now your chocolate dough.
Heat oven: To 350°F (176°C)
To checkerboard the doughs:
To finish cookies: Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper, or discarded parchment from your cookie slabs. Beat reserved egg white until just loosened. Gather your sanding sugar(s).
Unwrap first checkerboarded log. Brush log with a thin coat of egg white and roll or sprinkle in sanding sugar. [Normal people choose one color per log. I cut each log into quarters and did each quarter in a different color.] Slice sugar-coated log into 1/4-inch-thick cookies, and arrange on prepared baking sheet with 1-inch space between them (they expand slightly). Repeat with second log, creating more cookies.
Bake cookies: For 10 to 12 minutes, or until golden brown underneath. Let cookies rest on tray for 5 minutes, so they firm up a little, before transfer to a cooling rack to finish cooling and crisping up.
Do ahead: Baked, cooled cookies keep for 3 weeks in a tin at room temperature.
To spiral the doughs: Roll your chocolate and vanilla dough slabs each to 1/8-inch thick and stack them, patting them gently together. Chill in the freezer for just 5 to 10 minutes, until cold but not hard. Divide dough into two long, equal widths. With the vanilla dough underneath/forming the outer ring, roll each half of dough into a tight spiral. [I forgot and did the opposite, but always think it looks better with vanilla on the outside.] Wrap each spiral in parchment, pressing the dough into a firm log. Chill in freezer for 15 minutes, until solid but not frozen hard. Continue from “To finish cookies:” instructions above.
To marble the doughs: Roll your chocolate and vanilla dough slabs each to 1/8-inch thick and stack them, patting them gently together. Cut into two stacked sections and squeeze each into a rough log, fold it over, and mash the log, kneading it once or twice. Press kneaded mounds together and form them back into a long log shape. Wrap tightly with parchment, pressing the dough into a firm log. Chill in freezer for 15 minutes, until solid but not frozen hard. Continue from “To finish cookies:” instructions above.
Note: I am always inspired by Susan Spungen’s expert cookie styling, and was here too in both the colorful edges she uses in these Zebra Stripes and the marbling technique she uses in her Marbled Tahini Shortbread.