Cookie decorating for the holidays

cookie-decorating

With this post we welcome MaryJane Robbins, a member of our Baker’s Hotline team and a passionate cookie decorator!

Well, if PJ labels herself the “lazy” cookie baker, I guess I fall into the “other” category. I can spend hours decorating cookies at all times of the year, but especially the holidays. I was thrilled this year to be asked to help decorate cookies for the Baker’s Catalogue’s spring photo shoot, and to instruct the holiday cookie decorating class at our Baking Education Center here in Vermont.

Just like a kid in a candy store, I love the tiny sprinkles, colored sugars, decorating tips, and colored icing by the bowlful. Tweezers for sugar pearls, fine paintbrushes for cookie painting, and an iPod loaded with old-time radio mysteries, and I’m a happy girl.

PJ’s recent blog on decorated cookies and an upcoming bake sale at my daughter’s school inspired me to get out my tools and decorate away. One of the perks of working on the King Arthur Flour bakers’ hotline is that we have access to samples of all the products in the catalogue, so we can take them home, test them out and be ready to answer customer questions with first-hand experience. I had been dying to try the large cookie cutters, so I signed them out, and armed with a copy of PJ’s Holiday Butter Cookies, went home to bake.

The recipe was easily doubled, and the house soon smelled of Fiori di Sicilia. This citrus-y scent is so popular at our house we’ve been known to dab on a little for perfume, or add a few drops to our humidifier to scent the whole house. For detailed step-by-step photos on the cookie dough process, please refer to PJ’s blog.

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Though my kitchen is small, tools like a folding cooling rack and a 5′ folding table really help with extra cooling space. Of course I don’t bake anything without my parchment paper. For these large cutters, it was easier to roll the dough on the parchment, press the cutter on, and then peel away the extra dough. No need to try and move that delicate cookie with a spatula. Two cookies fit well on one baking sheet.

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As the cookies cooled under the ceiling fan in the living room, we made a batch of icing. I wanted some icing thinner for glazing the cookies, so added a little more water, and beat for a few minutes until combined, but not whipping in much air.

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I moved some to a smaller bowl.

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I finished beating the icing for 5 minutes on high, and had lovely stiff icing for piping later on.

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Although I have nearly as many piping tips as a small bakery, I chose just two round tips, a small round tip and a very small round tip.

I think new piping bags are definitely on my wish list. I’ve had mine since high school (no, I won’t say when that was). I even used some disposable bags for this project.

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For icing the cookies to a smooth finish, I like to “flood” the cookie with the thinner icing. First pipe a border around the edge of the cookie. You can be very precise about following the lines, or a little more relaxed; just follow the basic shapes.

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Once the outline is piped, use the larger tip to fill in the area.

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I did find with the large cutters, the piped edge would begin to harden before the flooding was complete, and that leaves a bit of a line. So pipe some border, fill in, pipe more border, fill in, etc. going around the cookie like a clock until it’s all filled in.

These are set aside to dry. Drying time depends on your room temperature, humidity, etc. Our house is pretty warm and dry this time of year, with the wood stove going every day, so these firmed up within 20-30 minutes.

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Now for the fancies. Using the stiffer icing, pipe your decorations. You can tell I’m partial to swirls and dots. I create pysanky (Ukrainian decorated eggs), and many of these designs are used in that art as well.

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Sugar pearls or dragées need to be set as soon as you pipe the dot, or a crust will form.

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It’s handy to have a helper do this, and it’s a great job for older kids. Thanks, Shannon!

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Sugars also need to be applied while the icing is wet. Matching colored sugar to colored icing is a subtle but lovely technique known as flocking.

It’s especially nice on snowflakes, white on white; or to add sparkle against a darker background color.

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Pipe your decoration to be flocked, then cover with sugar.

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Pour the sugar or spoon it on, but apply it heavily.

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You want a good coating; the extra will fall right off. If you do this over parchment, you can collect and save the extra sugar.

To use two different colored sugars on the same cookie without mixing, pipe the first set of decorations, sugar, and set aside to dry. Later, return to the cookie to pipe and sugar the second designs. Let dry.

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If you’re really fussy (and sadly, I can be), you can brush off any offending crystals with a very small, dry paintbrush, preferably one just for baking.

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And there they are. Big cookies that taste and look amazing. But wait! There are cookies that smudged, or a bit of edge crumbled in transit. What’s a fussy baker to do?

“Don’t worry, Mom,” says Shannon. “The 8th grade boys will buy those at the bake sale. They just want something to eat.” I call that sweet success!

MaryJane Robbins
About

MaryJane Robbins grew up in Massachusetts and moved to Vermont 20 years ago. After teaching young children for 15 years, she changed careers and joined King Arthur Flour in 2005. MaryJane began working on King Arthur Flour's baker’s hotline in 2006, and the blog team ...

comments

  1. Beth

    Hi Mary Jane, gorgeous work. What are those two tips you used? I think I could make out a #2 on one, but can’t see the other. And now I can’t remember if you mention what types of sugar you used to coat the cookies? Are you using both sanding and coarse sugar? And thank you, thank you for showing us the photo with the tweezers. I always wondered how you could put those dragees (sp) on. Thanks again.

    Hi Beth,
    The other tip size is a 5. One is Wilton, one is Ateco. The sugars are the fine colored sugars in white, and blue. The tweezers really help, you spend less time chasing the little round dragees around the table, and eventually the floor!

    MaryJane

    Reply
  2. lisa

    These cookies are so intricate and beautiful! Thank you for sharing with us.

    Thanks Lisa,
    This was a really fun project, and I hope others will give it a try. Dots and swirls, lots of dots and swirls!
    MaryJane

    Reply
  3. Kim

    Wow! You are very talented! Decorated cookies are probably my area of least expertise, so I stand in awe! You do great work.

    Thanks Kim! This is my relaxation. The 8th grade is already clamoring for more!
    MaryJane

    Reply
  4. Gayle

    Stunning. I’ve always admired the beautifully decorated cookies in the KAF catalogues and cookbooks. Thanks for the tips!

    Reply
  5. Sueq

    Your cookies are beautiful. Your talent and patience appear to be extensive. I admire your cookies but that kind of decorating would make me so tense I’d be one big knot! I’m glad you find it relaxing, and I’m glad you shared your beautiful creations.

    Hi Sueq,
    Isn’t it funny what some folks find relaxing? I personally can’t stand to go for ‘a ride in the country’, unless it ends at the chocolate shop! :)
    MaryJane

    Reply
  6. Mike T.

    Okay, did you cut out the teardrops with a knife or use a small cutter of some sort?

    Hi Mike,
    The snowflake cutter and the ornament cutter both have the teardrop inner cut outs as part of the cutter. You can see them online Jumbo cutters. They were a breeze to use, and if the cut outs didn’t pop right, it was easy to flip them out with the tip of a toothpick.

    MaryJane

    Reply
  7. mamafitz

    oh my, what beautiful cookies! some day i will do cookies like that, perhaps when my littlest helper is 14, not 4.

    Hi Mamafitz,

    Stay tuned for Friday’s blog on Pancakes, VERY family friendly, even for the littlest baker :).

    MaryJane

    Reply
  8. deb devo

    These cookies are GORGEOUS…I cannot do them this year for Christmas without totally stressing out, but am going to ‘bookmark’ this entry and get some of those big cutters and aim for next year (actually I might already have the snowflake ones). Are any of the cutters specific to Easter and will you decorate those for the blog? I could probably aim for Easter if you do it early enough :-)

    Reply
  9. Karrie

    MaryJane!! WOW!!!! I love to decorate cookies like this and am so thankful for the new tips I learned from you! We are fellow Pysanky decorators here at our house, too!! How fun! Thanks for the inspiration. My husband is already asking when can we bake the Christmas cookies!

    HI Karrie,
    I’m always amazed at the little ways pysanky works into a lot of the things I decorate. Hoping to do a cookie decorating blog closer to Easter too, so stay tuned.

    Happy Baking!
    MaryJane

    Reply
  10. Barbara Robbins

    Cookies looked delicious. Wish I lived closer to help eat them. I enjoyed seeing your helper. She is a “chip off the ole block”. Glad I’m your Mother-in Law!

    HI,
    Guess we’ll just have to make more cookies for you too!
    xo
    MaryJane

    Reply
  11. Mike T.

    Okay, I just got the Fiori di Sicilia… smells great, the dough tastes great (I’m as far as chilling in the fridge), but I’ve absolutely had it with the bottles in which everyone puts flavorings. Am I doing something wrong here… I get as much running down the side of the bottle as in the recipe, when I try to pour it. It should come with a built-in eyedropper or something. Any ideas???

    Thanks!

    Hi – You’re right, best to use an eyedropper… Either that, or I spill a tiny bit into the bottle cap, then pour from there. That way if it DOES spill, there’s a finite amount that’ll spill… PJH

    Reply
  12. Joyce Huntington

    I am looking for a cookie recipe that holds the shape of the cookie cutter without any puffiness. I have tried several recipes but they all tend to rise and get larger loosing detail of the intricately shaped cookies. I use parchment paper to prevent them from spreading. Do you suggest a recipe for my problem?

    Yours are lovely.

    Joyce, first, you need to use a recipe without leavening – no baking powder or baking soda. Try our Holiday Butter Cookies; they hold their shape well. And for absolutely crispest designs, you should use shortening, not butter. I’m not willing to make that tradeoff, flavor-wise, but if you find a recipe using shortening, without leavening, that’s probably going to give you the “sharpest” cookies. – PJH

    Reply
  13. angela

    Gooday. I live in Australia, and would like to know were would I be able to get these fantastic cookie cutters? Also, How many months can these be made ahead of time and how do you store them to keep them fresh? Are they okay in the Freezer?

    I love this website, and please keep up the beautiful work!

    Thanks
    Angela

    Hi Angela – We don’t carry those exact cutters this year, but we do have a nice set of snowflake cutters you can purchase online here. The cookies can be made a couple of months ahead and frozen; best to leave them un-iced till closer to the time you’ll be serving them. Thanks for reaching out to us from Australia! PJH

    Reply
  14. Elizabeth Yost

    This blog has really given me ALL the answers to my questions! I have been asking and asking and researching for the information that I have found here…. Thanks to Mary from King Arthur Flour and this great blog, hopefully I will make great cookies that look as beautiful as these… My heartfelt thanks to Mary and Mary Jane and all at King Arthur Flour! Merry Christmas and Happy Baking…. thank you… Liz Yost

    And merry Christmas to you too, Liz – glad we could help. PJH

    Reply
  15. natetowne

    Out of curiosity, how long does it take for you to flood a cookie? While it sounds great for big cookies and small batches, I make about 50 – 75 frosted/decorated sugar cookies every Christmas and worry I’ll never get them all done if I flood as you have described. It seems to take a long time! I know it’s worth it because your cookies are divine, but with only one day to get them all done I worry it’ll never happen.
    You could try the dip method. Just fill a bowl with the thinned icing and dip the cookies. Allow the extra to drip off, then proceed with the rest of the decorating. Hope this helps! ~ MaryJane

    Reply

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