The Secret Ingredient

One of my favorite memories as a little girl is of baking and decorating sugar cookies with my mom. Baking them for Christmas is a tradition I’ve taken over, and now my girls and I are the sugar cookie providers for our family and friends. Every Christmas, we do a huge cookie swap dinner with the mothers and daughters we are closest to. It’s something we look forward to all year long–planning, preparing, baking, cooking, decorating, and then finally enjoying. This year would have been our sixteenth cookie swap, and my girls and I are so disappointed that we won’t be able to have it under the current circumstances. However, we certainly will be baking our sugar cookies because they are more than cookies.

Our family sugar cookies have been baked for Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and every other holiday you can think of. They’ve graced the tables at birthday parties, wedding and baby showers, fundraisers, and weddings. When I was in college, and a package came just before a holiday, my friends gathered around with anticipation. They all knew that the package would contain a tin of sugar cookies baked into pumpkins or hearts or Easter bunnies.

Growing up, I never wondered why my mother’s sugar cookies tasted better than any others anywhere. They just did and still do. They have the perfect combination of softness, crunchiness, sweetness, and richness of flavor. I always assumed that they are the best because her recipe is superior to any others. Today, though, I recognize that the reason they are the best is because of the love baked into every batch. You see, decorated sugar cookies are not what Hallmark movies make them out to be. You can’t roll, bake, and decorate all at the same time in the course of a short afternoon. The dough needs to be made and refrigerated for at least a few hours if not overnight. The dough must then be rolled to the perfect thickness and the cookies cut out. They must be baked and completely cooled. Then the decorating takes place on a clean surface, not one still littered with raw dough and rolling pins and canisters of flour.

The cookies take time. They take patience. They take commitment (especially if being baked for a cookie swap that requires between twelve and fifteen DOZEN cookies). The cookies must be made with an exorbitant amount of love.

And that’s the secret ingredient. Love.

One Christmas season, I was extremely busy. I had loads to do between work, volunteering at school, watching swim meets, and driving girls to swim practice, piano lessons, and mock trial meetings. I could find no time to put all of the effort into making sugar cookies. I made a chocolate cookie recipe instead.

As the guests arrived, and mothers and daughters began milling about between the growing stacks of cookies, candies, and jams, Shelby, the daughter of my closest friend, pulled me aside and asked, “Where are the sugar cookies?” I’m sure you could have heard an icicle drop into the snow in the silence that ensued. All eyes turned on me, and a ripple of gasps and whispers traveled around the room. “No sugar cookies?” I heard repeated over and over.

I honestly hadn’t thought anyone would notice. What was the difference? Everyone was taking home dozens and dozens of cookies and sweets. Shelby looked at me and said with a shrug, “It just won’t feel like Christmas without your sugar cookies.”

I realized that night that I had succeeded in doing what my mother had done for all those years (and still does for everything but Christmas). I had perfected the sugar cookie recipe. Not with extra sugar or real butter or loads of frosting. Maybe my guests, Shelby included, don’t even realize what it is that makes the cookies so special.

It isn’t really about the cookies at all.

It’s the love that goes into every single batch.

Just in time for Thanksgiving and Christmas, here is our family recipe!

Best Ever Sugar Cookies

Cookie Dough:
2/3 cup crisco shortening
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp grated orange peel
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 egg
4 tsp milk
2 cups flour
1.5 tsp baking powder
Dash of salt

10x sugar
food coloring

Heat oven to 375°.
Cream together shortening, sugar, orange peel, and vanilla. Add egg and beat until light and fluffy. Stir in milk.
Make well in dry ingredients and add liquid mixture. Blend into soft dough. Chill in refrigerator for at least one hour or overnight.
Roll out dough to 1/8 in thick and use cookie cutters to make shaped cookies. Place cookies on greased cookie sheet or parchment paper-lined sheets, and bake about 6 to 8 mins.
Cool completely and frost.
Notes for frosting:
For full box of 10x sugar, use 1 to 2 teaspoons vanilla. Can substitute orange juice, almond or lemon extract as flavoring instead of vanilla.
Could also use orange or lemon juice instead of milk.
If you want to use a decorator gadget, use less liquid to make icing thicker. Add cream of tartar helps with stiffness of icing.

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Amy Schisler is an award-winning author of both children’s books and sweet, faith-filled romance novels for readers of all ages. She lives with her husband and three daughters on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Her books, Picture MeWhispering Vines, and Island of Miracles are all recipients of Illumination Awards, placing them among the top inspirational fiction books of 2015, 2016, and 2017. Whispering Vines was awarded the 2017 LYRA Award for the best romance of 2016.  Island of Miracles has outsold all of Amy’s other books worldwide and ranked as high as 600 on Amazon. Her follow up, Island of Promise is a reader favorite. Amy’s children’s book is The Greatest Gift. The suspense novel, Summer’s Squall, and all of Amy’s books, can be found online and in stores. Her latest novel, Island of Promise, was recently awarded First Prize by the Oklahoma Romance Writer’s Association as the best Inspirational Romance of 2018 and was awarded a Gold Medal in the Independent Publisher Book Awards 2019 for Inspirational Fiction. It is the 2019 winner for Best Inspirational Fiction in the RWA Golden Quill Contest, Best Romance in the American Book Awards, and a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award of Fiction. Amy’s 2019 work, The Devil’s Fortune, a finalist in the Writer’s Digest Self-Publishing Awards and winner of an Illumination Award, is based, in part, on Amy’s family history. The third book of Amy’s Chincoteague Island Trilogy,  Island of Hope, was released in August of 2019.

You may follow Amy on Facebook at, Twitter @AmySchislerAuth, Goodreads at and at

Amy’s books: Crabbing With Granddad (2013), A Place to Call Home (2014), Picture Me (2015), Whispering Vines (2016), Island of Miracles (2017), Stations of the Cross Meditations for Moms (2017), The Greatest Gift (2017), Summer’s Squall (2017), Island of Promise (2018), The Devil’s Fortune (2019), Island of Hope (2019).