I was reading a forum recently and came across the topic of who has the best cookies in town. It wasn’t my town; it was Dallas, and a few people said the best cookies were the sugar cookies from Potbelly Sandwiches. Interesting. There's a Potbelly store not too far from my house, but I’d never been in and of course, had never tried their sugar cookies. Guess what I bought that very afternoon?
Potbelly sells their cookies at the front register. They have sugar cookies, dream bars and oatmeal cookies, but since the sugar cookies had the most Internet raves, I bought one of those. It was about 4 inches in diameter, weighed a little over 4 oz, was wrapped in a cellophane bag, kind of flat but not too flat, and covered with red sprinkles. As for the taste, it tasted a bit like artificial butter flavoring, vanilla and almond and it kind of reminded me of the flavor of refrigerated Pillsbury or Nestle dough. The texture was interesting. When you pick the cookie up, you can feel it give a little -- like it's going to bend and break. It's doughy in the middle (which is an attribute people seem to like) and really dense. I prefer a crispy cookie myself, but since this is one of those cookies with a cult following, I figured it would be worth trying to to make here at home.
Potbelly's cookies didn't come with an ingredient label, so to get started I used a cookie recipe with similar flavors -- the Perfect Chewy Sugar Cookies from Fine Cooking. Using that recipe as a starting point, I made a half batch using a little butter flavored shortening in place of the small amount of shortening in the cookies. I also made the cookies very large, and made sure to under-bake them a little. The large cookies were good, but not quite like Potbelly's. While the flavor was definitely close (I think Potbelly uses some sort of artificial butter flavoring or possibly butter flavored shortening), Potbelly's were softer, slightly sweeter and a little darker. Plus, they didn't crack as much and had a more uniform texture -- less contrast between the "shell" and the interior. And Potbelly's were still heavier. When I tried to bake a 4 oz blob of Perfect Sugar Cookie dough, it spread into a large, flat cookie. Potbelly's cram a lot of dough into 4 inches.
So I made some adjustments. Many. And after several half batches and two days of feeling very unhealthy, I decided to look at some other base recipes. Why I didn't think of this sooner, I can't say, but the Otis Spunkmeyer clone seemed a better jumping off point. It had more fat (for the density), was browner (more brown sugar) and I noticed the recipe clone on the Internet used half butter and half butter-flavored shortening, which I already suspected was key since there was a hint of artificial butter flavoring in Potbelly's. Here's what the dough looked like before baking.
But I had to make changes to the Otis recipe as well. To make the cookies softer, I used cake flour. Because Potbelly’s cookies were darker, I incorporated some baking soda and cut down on baking powder.
The dough started out very soft, but after a 10 minute chill it was extremely easy to handle and easy to mold into little puck-like shapes above. I baked at 350 for 15 minutes and didn't get the doughy effect (plus the cookies spread more), then tried 375 for 12 minutes and got just what I wanted. The cookies still spread a little more than Potbelly's and I wouldn't call them identical, but they're very close.
I had good and bad feedback from the original recipe, but since posting this I've done more experimenting and have updated the recipe to make it more reliable and even better tasting. Instead of cake flour, I switched to bleached all-purpose. Bleached is usually a little softer than unbleached and doesn't spread quite as much. I also reversed the amounts of brown and white sugar, incorporated some corn syrup, and used melted butter instead of softened butter to make the texture less cakey. And finally, instead of the almond extract I made a batch of these with McCormick Imitation Vanilla Butter & Nut Flavor, 2-Ounce Unit. I had to order it off Amazon because it's not an extract my grocery store sells, but it was JUST what these cookies needed.
Give them a try and let me know what you think. They're still not quite the same as Potbelly's, but they're really good as far as sugar cookies go. Also, be careful not to over-bake them. You might even want to bake one cookie at a time just to nail down the exact bake time in your oven. Mine were perfect when baked at 375 for about 12 minutes, then left to cool completely.
Similar to Potbelly Sugar Cookies
- 6.8 oz bleached AP flour 1 ½ cups
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- ¼ teaspoon baking soda
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter (57 grams
- 4 tablespoons regular or butter flavored shortening 48 grams
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 large egg 46 grams**
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract or use McCormick Vanilla Butter & Nut Extract
- ¼ teaspoon almond extract or use another ¼ teaspoon of extra vanilla if using the Vanilla Butter & Nut Extract
- Thoroughly mix together the flour, baking powder and baking soda; set aside.
- Melt the butter in a microwave-safe mixing bowl. Add the shortening and stir until shortening starts to melt, then add both sugars and stir until smooth. Stir in the corn syrup, salt, egg, vanilla and almond extract.
- Add the flour mixture stirring just until it’s incorporated. Dough should be soft. Put bowl in the refrigerator for about 10 minutes to make it easier to handle.
- Divide dough into 4 balls (each one should weight around 4 oz). Using the bottom of a glass, press each ball in the center to make a round disk about 2 ½ inches side with an indentation in the center (see photo above). Put the round disks in the refrigerator, cover with some plastic wrap and chill thoroughly.
- To bake, preheat oven to 375 degrees F and line a heavy duty cookie sheet with parchment paper. Arrange dough pieces about 3 inches apart on cookie sheet and sprinkle centers with sprinkles.
- Bake for 12 minutes or until the cookies appear set and slightly brown around the edges. Remove the cookies from the oven and while they are still hot, tap the sides inward with a spatula so that they are closer to being perfectly circular.
- Let cool on cookie sheet for about 5 minutes. Transfer to a rack and let cool completely. Cookies should be lightly browned on the outside and slightly doughy on the inside.Let the cookies cool on the sheet for at least 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.
- Makes 4 giant cookies