Text from the Creating Cookies Booklet.
There's no reason to limit the pleasures of cookie decorating to the holiday season. With a few simple tools and techniques - a pastry bag filled with royal icing for drawing lines and dots, a sprinkling of colored sugar for texture - you can customize cookies to suit any occasion.
Section 1: before you begin
Making beautiful cookies like the ones shown here takes time and care. For best results, bake the cookies the day before you plan to decorate them. If you wish, you can freeze undecorated cookies up to 4 weeks; allow them to return to room temperature before decorating.
We give our cookies a neat look by applying a smooth, even layer of royal icing as a base coat. This effect is achieved by the "flooding" method. Because royal icing can take up to 2 hours to dry completely, it's best to flood a number of cookies a day before, or the morning of, the day you plan to decorate. Or, if you're short on time, you can still make lovely cookies: Use a small round tip to pipe pretty designs such as spots, flowers, or crisscrossed lines, and use sanding sugar and silver dragées to add sparkle. You can also brush egg wash or a thin mixture of water and meringue powder over an undecorated cookie and dust with sugar.
Have all of your supplies ready before you begin to decorate. Pour each color of sanding sugar you plan to use into a bowl, and set a spoon inside each bowl. Pour a few dragées into a shallow bowl, and have a pair of clean tweezers on hand for picking them up one by one. Prepare the icing: Fit the pastry bags with round tips, and fill each one with a different color icing (we usually use three to six shades). Use rubber bands to tie off the ends of the pastry bags so the icing doesn't spill out, then set each bag tip-end down into a glass with a damp paper towel at the bottom. This helps prevent the icing from drying on the tips. If any icing does dry, use toothpicks to clear the tips.
Section 2: making the cookies
These cookie recipes are suited to a variety of tastes and purposes. The sugar and chocolate cookies taste wonderful and won't crumble when decorated. The gingerbread cookies become hard when baked, which is essential if they are to be hung as decorations. If making ornaments, roll dough thin enough that finished cookies won't be too heavy to hang, and use a toothpick or skewer to make a hole for hanging as soon as they come out of the oven.
Use the guide to approximate how many cookies you can make using the sugar, chocolate and gingerbread cookie recipes that follow.
rolling the dough
When making giant cookies or multiple batches, it's helpful to roll out the dough on a Silpat baking mat. Our trade secret for creating the beautiful oversize cookies pictured in our magazine & catalog, a Silpat is a rubberized-silicone mat that makes any baking sheet nonstick. Parchment paper also works well. Cut the cookies directly on the Silpat or parchment, and remove the excess dough from around the cutout shapes. Transfer the Silpat or parchment to the refrigerator so the cookies can chill before baking. If making several batches, use multiple Silpats or sheets of parchment, and stack them in the refrigerator until you bake the cookies. Then transfer the baked cookies on the cookie-sheet liner to a rack to cool, and set them on clean parchment before you decorate them. When the icing has dried completely, transfer the cookies from the parchment to a serving dish or airtight container. If you stack the cookies, interleaf them with waxed paper.
- When cutting out cookies from rolled dough, begin at the edges and work your way to the center of the dough for maximum yield.
- Knead scraps of dough together well and chill before rerolling. Otherwise, the cookies cut from the scraps will puff when you bake them.
Smooth, glossy royal icing is perfect for decorating cookies. A mixture of confectioner's sugar and egg whites or meringue powder and water, it hardens as it dries for cookies that won't smudge or smear. Royal icing can be mixed thin or thick; a thinner consistency is good for making a flat background because it spreads smoothly, while thicker icing is best for piped designs. You can thin or thicken the icing as needed by adding more egg whites or sugar. To tint icing, use gel food coloring. It is highly concentrated, so add it a dab at a time with the end of a toothpick and blend well before adding more.
It's best to fit the pastry bag with a plastic coupler before adding an icing tip; this enables you to change tips easily so you can pipe different designs with the same color icing. To use a coupler, snip off the tip of the pastry bag a half-inch from the end. Push the larger half of the coupler into the bag so it fits securely in the cut end; select your tip and place it over the coupler, then screw on the coupler ring, securing the tip.
To fill the pastry bag, cuff the open end over one hand and use a spatula to scrape in icing until the bag is half full. Use a rubber band or binder clip to keep the bag closed so icing won't spill out the top. Fill as many pastry bags as you have colors. Royal icing can be made in advance and stored at room temperature in an airtight container; if made with egg whites, it keeps for 2 days; with meringue powder, up to 2 weeks.
Section 3: decorating techniques
Once you have made the icing and the cookies have cooled completely, it's time to decorate. Good results take practice, so don't get discouraged if your first attempts don't yield flawless cookies. Start by piping icing onto parchment paper to get the feel of the pastry bag and to test different shapes and patterns as well as the consistency of the icing. And remember, mistakes are easily disguised; A well-placed flower, dot, stripe, or dragée is a beautiful way to camouflage a smudge or squiggle. Once you are finished, be sure to allow cookies to dry completely before you serve or package them.
We use this technique for many of our cookies; it gives them a smooth, colorful base for further embellishment. Start by outlining the cookie with icing using a pastry bag fitted with a #3 tip, allow it to set for a moment or two, then pipe zigzags across the cookie's surface. Spread icing evenly over the entire cookie with a toothpick or offset spatula.
2. flockingSprinkling sanding sugar on top of wet icing creates an effect like flocked velvet. Pipe designs or flood cookie, then immediately sprinkle sanding sugar over the icing. Gently shake off excess sugar (saving it for the next cookie), then allow to dry 1 or 2 hours. Use a dry brush to remove stray crystals.
Use a small paintbrush or pastry brush to apply lightly beaten fresh egg whites or a thin mixture of meringue powder and water to the cooled cookies wherever you want sanding sugar to stick; work quickly, as egg whites dry rapidly. Sprinkle sugar over the area and let stand for at least 2 minutes before shaking off excess. After 20 minutes, use a dry brush to remove stray crystals.
Piping icing on top of wet icing results in a smooth, flat design. First use the "flooding" method, then immediately pipe another color onto the wet icing. You can allow the pattern to dry, or "draw out" the icing for a marbleized look: Working quickly, drag a toothpick through the two icing colors.
5. pipingPipe a design, dots, or a monogram onto a plain cookie or one that has been "flooded". It's not necessary to let each color dry before applying another.
6. applying dragées
Apply dragées to wet icing using tweezers or by sprinkling them over desired area. Note that dragées are for decorative use only and should not be eaten.
7. feathering (look at images above)
Pipe a 1/2" long line of icing on a plain or flooded cookie. Immediately dampen a small paintbrush with water, blot excess, and use it to spread the icing so it looks feathery. Repeat, one section at a time.
Section 4: packaging and storing cookies
Cookies can be stored for one week in an airtight container at cool room temperature or in the refrigerator, and up to one month in the freezer. Allow frozen cookies to return to room temperature before you decorate them.
Cookies make lovely favors, gifts, and special desserts. Cellophane bags tied with pretty ribbon make excellent see-through packages, but you can also tuck cookies into a paper covered box, tin, or a small bakery box that has been lined with waxed or parchment paper. Before packing cookies, make sure that they have dried completely; icing that has not dried can be damaged. If sending cookies through the mail, cushion layers with bubble-wrapping material between two pieces of parchment or waxed paper.