Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Avoid the mall. Bake your presents.

I have a serious question for you. Do you want to make fancy iced Christmas cookies? Do you really, really want to make fancy iced Christmas cookies? If it sounds like something you would enjoy, then it's surprisingly easy and fun. If it just sounds like something you think you ought to do, it'll feel like plucking a chicken with chopsticks: annoying, fiddly, messy, and pointless. So if fooling with colored icing and squeeze bottles and sugar sounds like fun, read on. If you'd rather brave the mall on the Saturday before Christmas, then read a book or go drag racing or something.

When I made decorated cookies for the first time last year, it was easier than I thought it would be, and I didn't need as many specialty tools as I thought I would. The ingredients for the icing were easy to find--I saw them at both the expensive hippie grocery store and the soulless mega-mart (although I think the paste food coloring was only at the latter). The only special tools I ended up using were plastic squeeze bottles, which I would heartily recommend getting for this. They're less messy than a pastry bag or a ziplock bag with the corner snipped off, and the icing doesn't get a chance to dry out and get crusty as easily.

My favorite tip for painless fancy-cookie-making is to use a mix for the actual cookies. It's easy and predictable, it makes less mess, and one sugar cookie tastes just like another as far as I'm concerned. So, unless you enjoy that kind of thing, just get a few bags or boxes of mix and make the cookies the day before you decorate, so you can focus on the icing.

Tools and Supplies:
sugar cookie mix (plus whatever the mix calls for: water, eggs, butter, etc)
parchment paper or silpat sheets
cookie sheets
cooling racks
plastic squeeze bottles (one per color)
colored decorating sugar

Royal Icing Recipe
3 and 3/4 cups confectioners' sugar
3 tablespoons powdered egg whites or meringue powder
6 tablespoons warm water
lemon oil
paste food coloring

Combine the sugar, egg powder and water, and beat with a mixer for four minutes. Add a few drops of lemon oil. If you want two colors of icing, separate the icing into two bowls and tint each one. More colors? More bowls. Put each color of icing into a plastic squeeze bottle.

Where you want areas of solid color on your cookies, make outlines with icing. So, if you want to cover a round cookie in a smooth layer of color, just make a ring of icing around the edge. You'll fill it in later. It'll take a few cookies to get the hang of making a smooth line (you'll just have to eat the messy ones). It's easiest to get a smooth line of icing if you hold the tip of the squeeze bottle a little bit away from the surface of the cookie, and let a continuous rope of icing fall onto the cookie as you move the bottle and/or the cookie.

Once you've outlined all the areas you want to fill, let the icing get dry to the touch before filling in. For filling, thin the icing down with a little bit of water. This is where some trial and error comes in handy. You want the icing thin enough that a pile of it will spread out over the surface of the cookie, but thick enough that it makes a nice substantial layer. With that thinned-down icing in the squeeze bottles, fill in the outlined areas. If you want to add sparkly sugar, sprinkle it onto the icing before it gets completely dry.

Let the icing get completely dry before you stack the cookies. Even after it's dry to the touch, the icing is wet in the middle and may ooze if it gets squished. Once the icing's dry, and as long as the cookies aren't too thin or too gigantic, these cookies pack and ship very well, with enough wrapping and packing material. And they're tasty for days, at least.

Here's a place to buy squeeze bottles and meringue powder, in case you can't find them near you.

And here are some photos of the outlining-and-filling process.

And here is the most bizarre and varied selection of cookie cutters ever.

Update from Cookie Central:
Having just done my annual cookie-bake-athon-apalooza, I have some Real Life Tips:

Three bags of Betty Crocker sugar cookie mix, claiming to make 3 dozen cookies each, were accurately labeled indeed. I'm now the proud custodian of nine dozen cookies, plus one extra, plus the wee lump that was too small to be cut with my smallest cookie cutter, but big enough to get cooked anyway.

I started mixing the mixes at 5:30, and the last cookie came out of the oven at 7:30. If I were truly efficient, I could have harnessed the scraps of down time within those two hours like so much cookie dough, and cleaned up as I went. As it is, I only claim to work towards maximum efficiency, never to have actually attained it. The kitchen is a disaster area.

One mixing tip: the directions for rolled-out cookies call for one egg, one tablespoon of flour, and a third of a cup of softened butter to be added to the mix. Stirring the dough is way easier if you scramble the tar out of the egg and kind of hack the softened butter up into wads before you combine it all.

It turns out that parchment paper and non-stick baking mats are unnecessary. Every batch came off the ungreased pans effortlessly. Behold the power of butter.

Because Head of Dishwashing knows that I like to save these things, we had a freshly-washed plastic bin that originally contained a pound of baby spinach hanging around. Turns out, it's the perfect size for nine-dozen-plus-one cookies (I ate the wee lump—it was on the tough side).

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