A Sugar Cookie Year in Review, plus How to Make Snowflake Sugar Cookies

Today is the last day of 2011, and it felt only appropriate to focus today’s post about my resolution from this past year. Now, I’m not usually one to make resolutions. I like making goals throughout the year, not waiting for one arbitrary date to challenge myself. Plus, resolutions have the terrible reputation of being useless things you stick to for a week, maybe even an entire month, before letting them peter out and die. But this year, I really did want to focus on one thing throughout the year: I wanted to find that perfect sugar cookie recipe, and learn how to decorate ike a pro. 

My first attempt resulted in a chewy whole wheat sugar cookie. They were a far cry from the soft, melt-in-your-mouth-and-surely-laden-with-shortening iced concoctions you find in the grocery store bakery section, but they were still good in their own way. They were heartier, and although I knew they wouldn’t be My Recipe in the end, I really liked them and would surely consider making them again under different circumstances. As for my decorating skills, well…it was my first try. It took hours, my back ached afterwards, and they looked shoddy at best.

Then there were the ones I made for mardi gras. These were closer to what I wanted from a sugar cookie recipe, but still, something was missing. A lot of people really liked them, but I wasn’t satisfied. I found them to be dry and bland without the saving grace of royal icing, and I foolishly used a dark baking sheet that turned the bottoms of my cookies an ever-appealing shade of burnt. The decorating may have improved – I was certainly more ambitious this time around – but I still had a long way to go.

Next came the soft and chewy sugar cookies from Brown Eyed Baker. I was able to use whole wheat flour and get away with it, which was a definite plus. They were buttery and sugary, which was what I really wanted. However, they spread like crazy in the oven, making them a better drop cookie than roll-and-cut. Still, it didn’t stop me from chowing down on five in one sitting, probably in a mere blink of an eye, and L loved them, too. Clearly, I needed a combination of the past two recipes – I needed a cookie that would hold its shape like the mardi gras ones, but have all of the flavor components of these most recent ones. 

 And then, I found it: the holy grail of sugar cookies. The dough was soft and a joy to work with. They froze well. They baked well. They tasted like the best possible version of those soft and sweet sugar cookies from the store, without all of the pesky chemicals and preservatives. They held their shape. They were rich. There is not a single person who has tasted these cookies and not fallen absolutely head over heels in love with them. The first time I made them was for a little pre-movie party L and I had for the Deathly Hallows (part 2) premiere last summer. Although the conditions for decorating with royal icing were atrocious – think humid and hot – I persevered and actually wound up with half decent cookies. I was still very clearly working on finding the right consistency needed for piping and flooding, and the designs looked decidedly amateur (which, hi, they were). It was the first time I really accepted the fact that it was going to take me more than a year to develop the kind of skill I was interested in, but at least I had my recipe.

The next time I made an attempt was for my sister and her boyfriend’s (M&M) housewarming party. I helped to “cater” the gathering by making an array of desserts, including house-shaped sugar cookies. I have to say, these are by far the most inspiring ones I’ve made to date. I was ambitious with my use of colors, which helped, and free-handed the windows, doors and rose bushed. Again, I struggled to get the right consistency and wound up with some “bleeding” houses, but all in all I was really proud of them. I was improving! The only thing my mom said was that I couldn’t do this as a business because I’d have to charge an arm and a leg for the amount of time it takes me to finish a batch. It’s true – that was definitely something I needed to work on – but I was more focused on perfecting the skill. Speed would come over time.

 After that, it was a long time before I made any cookies at all. I planned to do some for my birthday, but then there was this whole fiasco with that celebration, I got really frustrated, and it never came to fruition. It was Halloween before I tried again, and I didn’t even have my meringue powder with me to do royal icing. I used a buttercream as a stand in and decided to make pumpkin-shaped sugar cookies anyway, and while I’m pleased with the results, I can’t really count it as a step towards my goal, especially since the thing I need to work on the most is getting the right consistency of the icing. One thing I did attempt with this batch, though, was substituting 100% white whole wheat flour in for the all-purpose. Everyone really liked them still, but I wasn’t as pleased. Sure, they still tasted excellent – beyond excellent in fact – but the difference was noticeable. I may try to sneak in a small amount of whole wheat flour – maybe ½ cup or so - but in the end, I’m not willing to sacrifice taste for just a small increase in fiber.

 And then there were the snowflakes. I changed something with these, too – I used my MoreFiber Stevia Baking Blend. I just figured, what the heck – they weren’t the focal point of the dessert, and hopefully the royal icing would mask any small changes in taste. The dough was noticeably less soft when being rolled out – I had much more of an issue with cracking than I ever had before – and the finished product was just slightly off. L didn’t notice a difference, but my mom and I did. It wasn’t that they tasted bad (well, my mom thought so, but we’ve quickly determined that she just does not like stevia, and I may be starting to agree); it just didn’t taste as good. The stevia brought the cookie down from ethereal to earthly – it was just another sugar cookie. Good, sweet, nice to look at…but not something that I could enthusiastically eat an entire batch of without even thinking. Not something that would make the ensuing bellyache totally and irrefutably worth it. I learned that this cookie recipe is not to be tampered with. That doesn’t mean that I’m not going to try. After all, I’m too stubborn and incurably curious not to play around with a recipe until there is just nothing more to try with it. However, I’m now a skeptic with this recipe. Any change that I make has to be imperceptible; otherwise I’m going back to full-fat, full-sugar, and full-satisfaction original.

Now that we’ve reached these cookies, I suppose I should tell you how to make them. Well, the first step is to not do what I did – that is, realize that your icing consistency is a little off but be too stubborn to take it out of the bag and try again. It was a miracle that they came out half as aesthetically pleasing as they did, because I had icing running all kinds of amuck. It opened my eyes to the fact that I need to sit down, maybe not even with a batch of cookies, and just pipe until I get a feel for the right thickness and thinness for both piping and flooding. That really is the key to decorating a good cookie. If you can hone that skill, even if you’re the least artistic person in the world, you can create a decent cookie – I’m convinced.

So what have I learned about decorating sugar cookies with royal icing in 2011?
  1. You need patience.
  2. Invest in multiple standard tips and couplers so that you don’t need to waste time and energy washing between color changes, if you have them. I don’t know the size tip I use – I should research it – because my tip set didn’t come with labels. But I do only own one coupler and one of each type of tip, and anytime I do several colors it becomes a real hassle. 
  3. Don’t be stubborn. Admit when you’ve made an error, and start over. You won’t get better by throwing the towel in this time and saying you’ll work on it next time. 
  4. When you’re first starting out, try to even just practice with white icing, as I’ve done here. It removes the added complications of colors and intricate designs. Once you feel comfortable with the basics, then start being more ambitious with colors and details.
 And now I bring to you:

How to Make Snowflake Sugar Cookies

The “Ingredients”
1 batch snowflake sugar cookies
½ batch royal icing
1 icing bag
1 small, round tip with coupler
1 plastic “squirt” bottle (like for ketchup)
1 toothpick
edible “pearl” sprinkles1
tweezers, washed thoroughly

The Method

 Once your cookies have baked and cooled completely, arrange them spaced out on a relatively high counter – you don’t want to be hunched over while you decorate. I often decorate my cookies on the cooling racks or a cooled baking sheet, but any flat surface protected by wax paper for easy clean up is fine. 

Adjust the thickness of the icing in order to pipe it, add what you need to the pastry bag (placing the bag in a tall glass and inverting it a little is an easy way to get the icing in), and keep the rest closed in an airtight container. Outline each of the cookies. Use your non-dominant hand to guide the pastry bag and keep your other hand steady, and don’t hesitate in your motions. The more fluidly you work, the more seamless your cookies will look. Tap the tip down at each change of direction to ensure precision. If there’s a break in the icing, simply go back and fill it in. When all of the cookies are outlined, let them dry for at least one hour.

 After about 45 minutes, thin out your icing to a good flooding consistency. Most people say that if you dip a knife or spoon into the icing and then pull it out, the drippings should absorb back into the icing and return to a smooth surface within 10 seconds. I’m still working on this. Once you think you have the right consistency, cover the icing again and let it sit for 10-15 minutes. When you return, there will be air bubbles – stir these to break them up, and then add what you need to the squirt bottle. Add a generous amount of the thinned icing to one cookie; I usually find it easiest to start at the center and make branches out to the outer crevices. Let that cookie start to spread while moving on to the next. Work on 2-3 at a time, as you feel comfortable. Once the last in that grouping has icing on it, return to the first with the toothpick and smooth the icing out to all corners, adding more icing if necessary. Repeat this process until all of your cookies have been flooded. Any air bubbles that appear on the cookies themselves can be popped with the toothpick. Let the cookies set for several hours, preferably overnight.

Once the flooded cookies are completely dry, thicken the leftover icing up again to a piping consistency, and transfer to the piping bag (you may want to use a fresh one for this). Work on just one cookie at a time. Draw a straight line from a scant millimeter of one tip of the snowflake to a scant millimeter of the snowflake tip that is directly 180° across from it. Repeat for the remaining two sets of tips, so that you wind up with an “x” design with a vertical line through it. Add two small “v” shapes to the end of each tip, and one small dot mid-way between each line, just above the center. Finally, add a little bit of extra icing to the center and, using your tweezers, gently place one edible pearl in the center. Repeat for the rest of the cookies. Allow to dry completely before packaging in an airtight container. Store at room temperature.

1I’m quickly discovering how many baking decorations are made with hydrogenated oils. These pearls, along with those quintessential ice cream sprinkles (I call them “jimmies” – you know, not the granulated kind, the other kind), are no exception. I’m sure the amount of synthetic fat in 1 pearl is not going to wreak havoc on your body, but if you’re as insistent as I am on avoiding them whenever possible, either don’t add the sprinkles or knock them off before eating. I did the latter, since I now have an entire container of them to go through since I bought them before I got on this whole anti-trans fat kick.

If the written description is confusing, you can find a wonderfully helpful video post about snowflake decorating over at University of Cookie, which is an all around fantastic resource for anyone interested in working on their cookie skills. My cookies were fairly small, so I stuck to some of the simpler designs, but with a bigger cookie you can make some truly elaborate snowflakes.

Now, I’m off to make some peanut butter cup brownie bites and vanilla ice cream for tonight’s festivities (which may, in fact, wind up being me, L, pajamas, and the tv – oh, and copious amounts of dessert!), and gear up for 2012! I wish everyone a happy and healthy New Year, and all the luck with any resolutions you may have set.

UPDATE: I recently found two fantastic blog posts on decorating with royal icing. The first is all about the supplies you should have on hand, and the second is about coloring and preparing the icing, complete with great tips on icing consistency. I haven't tried them out yet but I'm definitely eager to now!


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