Hurray! It's one of my favorite times of year again – cookie decorating time! Sure, you can decorate cookies at any time of year (and I do), but there's something special about decorating holiday cookies. Last year, my very first blog ever was about decorating cookies, so this blog is special in that I feel like I've come full circle. It's been a great year, and I've loved every minute of it.

Looking back at that first blog recently in preparation for this blog, I can see many changes. First, the name of that first blog has changed. Back in 2008, PJ had written a post calling herself the “lazy” cookie baker, so I flipped the title and called my first post The Other Cookie Baker.

As we prepared for a cookie decorating blog this year, Janet, our designer, said, “You know, that title just doesn't make sense any more.” She's right. of course. If you happened to read the two posts in sequence it makes perfect sense, but here we are 12 months later. I can barely remember what I did this morning, let alone last year, so we've updated the title to Cookie Decorating for the Holidays.

Hmmm, what else has changed since last year? I gave up dying my hair, and cut most of it off. I traded in my clunker of a Jeep for a sporty new Matrix (thanks Mike S. at Toyota, you rock!). It's the first brand-new car I've ever owned, and I am lovin' the mileage. It makes me feel good to be greener, too.

Speaking of cars,  this year my daughter is old enough to get her learner's permit. I have a bit of a hard time with this one, because I very clearly remember getting my own permit and it truly doesn't seem to be that long ago. I sort of wish I still had the beat-up old Jeep for her to practice in. It was a tank of a car and made you feel safe. The day I backed into the porch, I broke the railing and post, but the Jeep was just fine. How exactly does one survive their children learning to drive? I have a feeling that blindfolds will play a major role in 2010.

I've met some great people this year, too. Paul in Ohio is a frequent Live Chat customer. We talk baking and dogs. Paul's Toby is a Golden Retriever and my Toby is a Golden Lab cross. Not many chats here contain “woofs,” but Paul's do.

Here at King Arthur Flour, I've gotten to know Paula, Molly, and Julie in customer service, and Irene on the Baker's Hotline. Irene, she's a pip. Who else out there owns socks with Grant Wood's American Gothic on them, and gives out handmade patience awards to her co-workers? Yep, she's a pip and they have all made my year the brighter for being in it.

I guess I'm starting to sound like the last newscast on New Year's Eve, so let's depart from looking back and start looking forward, into the cookie jar. This year, our cookie-decorating lessons are going to focus on really fine piping work, and how to get those delicate little details on your cookies. The secret is something you most likely have in your kitchen already, a King Arthur year-round favorite. Yes, it's... parchment paper!

To begin, we'll need some cookies.

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Our holiday favorites for decorator cookies are our Holiday Butter Cookies and Gingerbread Cookies. They hold the shape from the cutters and don't puff too much, so details still show up.

We also need a big batch of Royal Icing for the piping. Here's how to put the icing together.

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Soak the meringue powder in cold water for a few minutes while you gather the rest of your ingredients. It isn't a necessary step, but helps keep the mix lump-free.

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Whip the meringue mixture until foamy and soft peaks have formed.

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This stage is also known as the bird's beak stage, and you can see why. The foam won't hold up stiffly on a finger, but will fall to the side, forming a beak. (Yes, I made a few bird noises with my “finger puppet.” What a geek! )

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At this point, you'll want to start adding your sugar. It's a good idea to sift your sugar, to avoid lumps in the icing. This is especially important for fine piping work. Beat in the sugar 2 cups at a time on low speed.

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The finished texture should be soft and smooth but not fluffy at this point.

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Back to our digital tester. The icing should flow off your finger or a spoon, and disappear back into the rest of the icing by the count of 10. The little drizzles should just seem to melt away back into the rest of the batch. If not, add a little more water. If the icing slides off your finger and appears too thin, add a bit more sugar.

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Once your icing is at the right consistency, it's time to pipe. For outlining and flooding the cookie, you'll want a larger tip than for the fine detail work. I like to use a disposable plastic piping bag with the end cut off, no special tips. I finding cutting a bit of the seam off as well helps keep smudges to a minimum.

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One key to piping a smooth outline is to hold the tip of the bag above the surface of the cookie and let the icing flow downward. You need to stay close enough so that the string of icing doesn't break, but far enough away so that you don't rub the surface of the cookie with the tip of the bag.

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Slow and steady as she goes.

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To finish, drape the end of the icing string to meet up with the beginning, and stop squeezing. Allow the two ends to “melt” together.

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Just thought you'd like to see what holding the tip too close to the surface would look like. There's no room for the icing string to form, so you end up with smudges.

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Flooding is the name given to covering a large area of the cookie with icing. To flood, pipe out a thick line of icing, and keeping the tip buried in the icing. Move in lines or small circles, filling in the area completely. The outline you piped earlier will keep the icing from spreading over the edges of the cookies.

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If the icing is at the correct consistency, it will self-level and you'll have a smooth, even layer of icing over the whole cookie. If the icing gaps and doesn't flow together like in this photo, add a touch more water. If it overflows the edges, or seems watery, add a touch more sugar.

Let the iced cookies set at room temperature for at least an hour, until the surface is quite dry to the touch.

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In order to make very fine lines for decorating, you'll need to form your own piping cones from parchment paper. Begin with a long rectangle or square.

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Cut in half to form a large triangle.

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Cut in half again to form a small triangle.

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With the long straight side facing out, and the point facing you, begin to roll the paper in on itself to form the cone. If you ever made paper party hats, it's the same thing.

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Pull the cone tight until the tip is a sharp point with no holes, no gaps. You'll have three points meeting up by the top of the cone. These will be folded down into the cone to hold the shape. Some folks like to add a bit of tape or a staple to hold the top together. I typically don't do this, but if it makes you feel more secure, go ahead.

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These cones will be fairly small, so only use a few teaspoons to fill the cone just under half full.

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To avoid having the icing squirt out of the top of the bag, you'll make a number of folds. First, fold in both sides to the center.

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Next, fold the top down to where the top of the icing is.

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Last, fold that fold in half again.

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Holding a bag for fine icing is different from holding a bag for larger piping. The entire bag is held in the hand, with the folds snugged up under the thumb, and the thumb controlling the flow. To use, snip off the smallest possible tip of the cone. If you look closely at the tip of this cone, you can see a tiny bead of icing, just perfect for fine work.

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Practice piping straight lines first. Remember to hold the tip above the cookie and let the icing drape.

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Add tiny dots for detail. Keeping the tip buried in the icing helps the shape stay round. Stop squeezing before you lift the tip up, and your dots will be more rounded on top than pointy.

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It's surprising how stripes and dots can combine to make intricate and detailed cookies without being overly complicated.

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Let's try combining stripes and dots over a flooded cookie for a stunning white-on-white look. First, add large dots around the outer edge of the cookie. The two lines in the center are the beginning of a diamond.

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Add the next parallel lines to finish the diamond. This will be finished with a crosshatch design. Use these first lines as guides so that all of your other lines will be parallel.

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I'm a big fan of symmetry. To ensure that the crosshatch is even, count the number of lines in each direction. Here there are six lines from top to bottom, so make six lines from left to right as well.

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You counted the lines, didn't you? And right now you're double counting, right? OK, I confess! There are six lines in one direction, and seven in the other. Good thing I'm not teaching math anymore, eh?

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Add tiny dots around the edge of the diamond. Begin with the four corners, then add even numbers of dots on each side.

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Add a few more straight lines in the empty spaces at the top and bottom.

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A final few dots and you have a unique white-on-white cookie using just a few basic shapes.

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So using a few sheets of parchment, some fun cookie shapes, stripes, dots, and your imagination, you can produce some special cookies for someone special this holiday season, and all year long. Happy baking - and decorating!

Filed Under: Recipes
MaryJane Robbins
The Author

About MaryJane Robbins

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 the following year. MJ loves to create decorated cookies for the catalogue, and blog about all kinds of foods, especially sweet treats.

View all posts by MaryJane Robbins