Ah, my pride and joy. The humble beginnings of my baking obsession. The one thing I used to make more than anything else in the world—the cut out cookie. It’s the first “from scratch” thing I ever truly mastered. The single baking entity that made me think, “Wow. I can actually do this!” And it makes me sad that it’s taken me more than a year to revisit it. But we’ve finally reunited. And making them for Valentine’s Day reminded me why I loved making them in the first place. And also why it’s taken me so long to come back.
I’ll be completely honest. I’m a picture stalker. I spend half my time online just looking at sites like Tastespotting and Flickr, somewhat for inspiration, and a lot for just the sheer pleasure of it. There are some really talented people out there, and I love seeing what everyone has to offer. Over the holidays, the sites were bursting with beautiful holiday cookies, and it made me ache for those hours I spent thinking about designs, setting out my piping bags and tips like a surgeon, and eventually ending up covered in sugar and smeared with color, staring proudly at the only art I knew how to create. But at Christmas, there just wasn’t time. So I had to wait until the next big holiday.
The wait didn’t stop me from obsessing over it though. I’ve been studying hard these past few months, reading blogs, watching videos, and bookmarking design ideas. It was finally time to put it all to the test. I woke up yesterday ready to take on the world. And quickly realized that meant taking on the grocery store first. I was out of confectioners’ sugar—the main ingredient in my icing. It also meant a separate trip to take on the cake supply store when I ran out of red food coloring—the main color of my icing. (My kitchen looked like a crime scene, yet my icing wouldn’t go any darker than a mocking pink.) Luckily I checked my supply of black coloring and realized I’d need a whole lot more of that as well before I set out. Otherwise it would’ve meant yet ANOTHER trip. So much for all my planning. (And next time, I’ll stock up on red and black well before Valentine’s Day. They were completely cleaned out of the Americolor brand I wanted.)
Once I finally got around to decorating, I realized why it had taken me such a long time to get back into it. I’m a mess. Along with the red food coloring splattered across my kitchen, I had icing smeared across every surface, including myself. My fingers were stained, my arms were sticky, my jeans were wrecked. It would’ve been easier to just take a hose to my kitchen (and me) rather than scrubbing endlessly at dried icing. But when I finally finished piping the last detail at midnight, I remembered why I loved doing it despite the mess.They were beautiful.
I loved the way these turned out. There are a few little flaws and I still need a bit of practice on the whole icing consistency thing, but all in all, I’m proud. And I even deviated from my usual! Instead of my tried and true sugar cookie recipe, I decided to go a chocolate route instead (because what's Valentine's Day without chocolate?) and man I’m glad I did! The icing looks beautiful on the dark cookie and the taste is great. But while these are delicious, I’m having a hard time eating them. They’re just too pretty and I can’t decide which one deserves the sacrifice. So I’ll pack them up and give them away, so I don’t have to feel the pain of biting into my work of art.
If you want to create your own masterpieces, or just want to get better at it, I highly recommend checking out University of Cookie. It’s a fantastic resource, built by food bloggers who excel at the decorated cookie. There are all kinds of tips and tricks and videos to help you out.
- My personal fave? Marian of Sweetopia’s trick for the right icing consistency. Instead of creating a stiff icing for outlining, then thinning it down to flood, she makes it halfway between the two—thick enough to hold a line, but thin enough to still spread. She just outlines, goes back and fills in, then shakes the cookie around to smooth it out. And it works perfectly! Plus, it’s one less step to hassle with. (Here’s a good example in the video for her marbling technique.)
- Another trick I found was for filling my piping bags. It comes from Karen’s Cookies. Instead of putting the icing right into the piping bag, put it on a piece of plastic wrap first, roll it up and twist, and then put it in your bag! Makes clean up MUCH easier! (Again, watch the video. [Start at 1:00 if you want to skip to the bag filling part] It totally blew my mind. And it works! Although it is a little scary flinging your frosting around.. I thought for sure I was going to wear it.)
- For sheer viewing pleasure, be sure to check out The Sweet Adventures of Sugar Belle. This girl is A-MAZING at decorating. Like blow your mind amazing. She's the inspiration behind a lot of these designs. But she does it 1000x better. Complete and total eye candy.
Adapted from Picky Cook and Smitten Kitchen
Makes about 4 dozen cookies
3 cups all purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
½ teaspoon espresso powder
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 ½ cups sugar
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
1. In a large bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, salt, cocoa powder, and espresso powder. Set aside.
2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add vanilla and beat to combine. Reduce speed to low and gradually add flour mixture, mixing until combined and smooth. (Make sure you scrape down the sides of the bowl and dig way down to the bottom too to bring up any dry bits. It took me about 3 tries of scraping the bottom before it was finally all incorporated.) Turn out onto a clean work surface. Divide dough in half, press out into a disk and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill in refrigerator for at least an hour.
3. Preheat oven to 350F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners; set aside. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out chilled dough to 1/8-inch thick. Cut into desired shapes with cookie cutters and transfer shapes to prepared baking sheets, brushing off any extra flour from the tops. Reroll scraps as needed. Bake, rotating sheets halfway through for 8 to 10 minutes, until the edges are firm and the centers are slightly puffed. (Mine were perfect at 8 minutes.) Let cool on baking sheet for several minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Once cooled, decorate with frosting or royal icing.
Adapted from Bake at 350 and Sweetopia
Makes enough to cover 4 dozen cookies? (I actually made double the recipe and ended up with a LOT of icing left over, so I think just 1 batch might do it.)
4 tablespoons meringue powder
1 pound (4 cups) confectioners’ sugar
Scant ½ cup of water*
¼ teaspoon almond extract (or another clear extract)
½ to 1 teaspoon light corn syrup (optional)**
*Not quite up to the full ½ cup. If it's easier, fill it up to the line, then take out a teaspoon of it.
** The corn syrup is supposed to add a little gloss to your dry icing. I didn’t use it, but next time I might because my colors dried almost matte-like.
1. In the bowl of an electric mixer on low, mix together meringue powder, confectioners’ sugar, water, and extract. (Once combined, add the corn syrup if using.) Increase the speed to medium-high and beat for about 3 minutes. It will still look a little runny, and but should hold a line drawn through it with a knife for 5 to 10 seconds. If it rushes back in less than 5 seconds, beat a little longer. If it holds the line for more than 10 seconds, add a small amount of water to the icing and beat until it is combined, testing until it reaches the right consistency.
2. Divide icing into bowls and add food coloring, mixing until color is completely incorporated. Fill a piping bag fitted with a small round tip (I used a Wilton #3).
3. Working with one cookie at a time, pipe the outline on your cookie, holding the tip about a ½-inch above the cookie and letting the icing fall onto the cookie around the edges of your shape. Once it is outlined, with the tip right up against the cookie, pipe icing right up against the outline you just made. Then begin to fill the cookie with icing, using a zigzag pattern (or whatever works for you.) Once the cookie is filled, shake it back and forth a couple times to smooth out the icing. (There’s a really good video of this method at Sweetopia.) Allow to dry for several hours before piping on any raised details, allowing the final design to dry overnight. (I put mine on cookie sheets in the oven with the door cracked overnight.)