Project Sugar Cookie: Round-up
One of my goals in 2010 was to learn how to decorate sugar cookies and, thence, take advantage of the 101 cookie cutters I had received as a Christmas present a few years back. After a year — and 14 batches of cookies — I think I can say: I did it!
All told, I tried five different recipes before tweaking my own. My final recipe (after the jump) is a modified version of the one from Annie’s Eats. I used this recipe as a template because I like how crisp the cookie edges are, which is a huge help in icing. The dough freezes well even after one round of cutting, and the decorated cookies seem fresh for even after a week of airtight storage at room temperature. I haven’t yet frozen cookies after cutting and baking, but I’m sure they’d hold up well after that. I added nutmeg to my recipe because I like the brown specks and subtle savory flavor, but that is purely personal preference. Annie has posted other variations of this cookie recipe, and I think it’s a great place to start.
Here are my other top recipe recommendations:
- For a good, soft sugar cookie like you remember as a kid, try Nosh with Me’s recipe (I used these as the base for peppermint patty cookies with flying success)
- For a twist, try this grown-up, tangy cookie with a cream cheese base
- For sheer quantity, go for these soft cookies from Picky Palate
There are scads of royal icing recipes out there, but I only used the one from Annie’s Eats because I did not have the patience to throw another variable into my method. I liked this recipe because it has minimal ingredients; I could not be bothered to source 2 tablespoons of milk or half a lemon for juice or cornstarch or whatever. The recipe below is altered in method only.
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My biggest takeaways from this year of cookies:
People love cut-out cookies, and it doesn’t matter how intricate they are.
At the beginning of the year, I had visions of beautiful, complicated cookies, but I quickly realized that this scope of cookie decoration was way beyond my threshold of time and effort. Specifically, I hate dyeing lots of colors of icing. With every color, you waste more icing because you have to allow for having enough of every color, lest you run out. Mixing the dye takes time, which includes letting it settle, letting the air bubbles rise to the top, seeing if the color is right, etc. About halfway through the year, I made a personal rule that I would not dye more than 2 colors of icing per batch, and with white, that gives me a 3-color cookie, which is good enough for me, and certainly for everyone else who was eating the cookies.
Basically, if you just slap some canned frosting on the cookies and throw sprinkles over the top, people will go, “Ooh! Cookies!” and eat them up like ravenous wolves. I’m not downplaying the awesome cookie-decorating skills out there; I’m just saying that cookies don’t have to be insanely detailed for people to love them.
People like small cookies.
The standard 3-inch cookie is just about the limit of a typical person’s cookie quota, and for most, I found that this size of cookie constituted a whole dessert because it is so sugary. I found that people preferred smaller cookies, about 1-2 inches across, for 1-2 bites. With that in mind, I weeded out 30% of my cookie cutter collection, including an 8-inch gingerbread man, a 5-inch Christmas tree, a 5-inch heart, and 6-inch haunted house that looks more like a church. (In the interests of full disclosure, I also set aside cookie cutters that I wasn’t likely to use, like 2 Halloween bats.) Smaller cookies are easier to bake and decorate, and people eat more of them because they feel less guilty. Wins all around!
If you are interested in buying cookie cutters, I recommend buying them individually, rather than in a big set. My top suggestions are:
- Circles: 2- and 3-inches in diameter
- Small star: 2 inches
- Small heart
Sugar cookies are a multi-day project.
I usually work on sugar cookies over a weekend, like this:
- Thursday: Make the cookie dough and chill.
- Friday: Cut and bake the cookies.
- Saturday: Make icing and pipe outlines. If it works out, and I have time after several hours of drying, I will flood the cookies, too.
- Sunday: Flood the cookies if not already done or add embellishment.
Each phase varies in time, with the vast majority of time spent on the back end of decorating. If I want to have the cookies ready for a day other than Monday, I spend at least one late night flooding and at least 15 minutes cursing myself for taking on such a time-intensive project. Just keeping it real, folks!
Squeeze bottles are completely worth it.
I much prefer piping outlines to flooding cookies, and squeeze bottles make the flooding process so much easier. At first, I thought it was a finicky, specialty tool for those who had been sucked in to the gadget culture, but, no. Squeezing thinned icing from a bag or spreading it with a spoon is so much harder than using a squeeze bottle, and they are really cheap. I think I got a pack of 2 for under $1, and I’ve never needed more than that.
Lots of people are awesome at decorating cookies.
There is so much information about decorating cookies available online, so I’m hesitant to expound on the subject. For more detail on decorating cookies, check out the tutorial from Annie’s Eats, or do some Googling. If you have specific questions, I’d be happy to field them, but I may end up referring you to someone more experienced than I am.
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I’m really glad I took on this challenge last year, and I have come a long way in my cookie-decorating skills. I no longer make huge messes or underestimate the time I’ll spend on a batch, and I love it when I have a container of bright cookies for an event.
I wish I had been more stringent in my testing methodology. Looking back, I should have used some standardized cookie cutters (like a star and a circle) to measure expansion, examined samples of dough after chilling and freezing, and worked out shelf stability. I did not do a good job setting out the parameters of what constituted a good cookie for me.
But, hey, it all worked out. I learned a new skill that will serve me well in the future — I have oodles of baby and bridal events coming up — and lots of people enjoyed sampling my mistakes. My favorite cookies, far and away, were the stars I made for Independence Day. I’m not sure how many cookies I made this year, in total.
Whoa. That’s a lot of cookies.
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Adapted from Annie’s Eats
Note: I did not include a yield here because it really varies based on the size of the cookie cutters. I would be lucky to get 2 dozen 3-inch cookies out of this recipe, so I always double it when I make cookies, even if I end up freezing a portion of the dough.
- 1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks), softened
- 1/2 cup confectioners sugar
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1 egg, beaten
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
In an electric mixer, cream butter and sugars. Add beaten egg and vanilla; mix to combine, scraping the bowl as necessary.
In a separate bowl, combine remaining ingredients. Add them to the wet ingredients by thirds (about 1-cup increments) until fully incorporated, scraping the bowl as necessary.
Prepare two large sheets of plastic wrap on the counter and divide the cookie dough between them. Wrap each half of the dough securely in the plastic wrap, shaping into a thick disk; double the layers if freezing.* Chill until firm, at least 2 hours, or overnight.
Roll out cookies to 1/4-inch thickness on a well-floured surface and cut with cookie cutters. Place on cookie sheets lined with parchment paper and bake at 350° for 8-10 min. Cookies will not brown, so watch the bottom edges for slight darkening. If you remove the cookies from the oven before they are set, let them cool slightly and become firmer on the cookie sheets.
Cool cookies completely on a wire rack before frosting or decorating.
* Defrost frozen cookie dough in the refrigerator the day before decorating.
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Adapted from Annie’s Eats
- 4 cups confectioners sugar (or 1 16-ounce bag)
- 2 tablespoons meringue powder*
- 5 tablespoons water, plus more for thinning
Dump sugar and meringue powder into the bowl of a stand mixer. Run the mixer on low speed for 10-20 seconds to aerate the dry ingredients, and then add the 5 tablespoons of water.
Increase the mixer speed to medium and beat until the icing gains volume and loose peaks form. This is key; otherwise your icing will be too dense and you will cry over your split piping bags (or maybe this is just me).
At this point, I always add more water because the icing will be way too stiff to do anything. However, depending on the humidity and altitude, yours may not behave the same way. I add water until, when I lift the paddle of the mixer, the icing streams off the paddle slowly, like molasses, but not too quickly, like maple syrup. If you add too much water, add more sugar to thicken (which I find to be a frustrating exercise akin to evening out a haircut), or let the icing sit and the water will evaporate slowly (which is less time-efficient, so it’s up to you).
Use this thicker icing to pipe icing outlines using a piping bag, coupler, and piping tip. To thin out icing for flooding, transfer the icing to a container with an airtight lid. Stir in water, in verrrrrrry small increments, by hand with a rubber spatula or a spoon until the icing streams off the spoon easily. Transfer to a squeeze bottle for flooding.
* Available from cake supply stores, online, or in my case, Walmart. Just don’t count on finding it at a run-of-the-mill grocery store.