The season for iced cookies is right around the corner. Your morning trip to the coffee shop, or strolling through the grocery store, will lead you to encounters with iced leaf cookies, fat orange pumpkin cookies with toothy smiles, and perhaps a festively colored turkey.
Iced cookies aren't my pastry forte. I love to make them, but mostly it's with family around the holidays. People don't really request iced cookies unless they are feeling the pulls of holiday nostalgia or need cute baby cookies for a shower.
As with each specialty in the kitchen, there are so many different ways and tricks to making iced cookies. I have complied some basic thoughts to assist with learning to ice some cookies, and divided them into three sections below: cookie dough, royal icing, and a technique.
Be careful not to over mix your cookie dough. You are probably annoyed to continually read this in recipes, but it's true and it will result in a tough cookie.
Chill your dough...a lot. I chill my dough after I make it, to allow it to relax and chill at the same time. After rolling the dough, and cutting the shapes, I chill the cookies in the freezer, pulling them and placing them directly into the oven. If the dough becomes too soft while rolling, it gets another trip to the freezer.
I re-roll my dough scraps once and then toss them. Re-rolling your dough, is in essence, mixing it, and building the gluten, creating tougher not tender cookies.
Start with simple shapes. I know that really cool cookie cutter you got from grandma this year has been begging to be made, but if you start with overly complicated shaped, you will become frustrated. Try a heart or even a large flower first then work up to that piggy shape.
Watch bake time. There is a concept called "carryover cooking." You may hear it on cooking shows, often times in reference to meat coming out of the oven. Despite the fact that we are removing the heat source, the food removed from the oven is still hot, and will still continue to cook a bit, even after removal.
I read once that adding a bit of spelt flour will add a little crispness to your cookie, without making the cookie hard. I tried it in my sugar cookie recipe and it worked like a dream. If you want to try this, I suggested replacing a ¼ cup of the flour in your recipe with spelt flour and manipulate the recipe from there.
Royal icing pipes in a soft form and then hardens. There are probably a million recipe variations for royal icing, but the basis is a combination of egg whites and powdered sugar.
Made from dried egg whites, meringue powder can be used in the place of raw egg whites, in royal icing recipe. If you aren't freaked out by the raw whites, the recipe in varying proportions for royal icing consist of raw egg whites, powdered sugar, lemon juice and flavor extract, plus coloring should you want it.
I use gel coloring. It produces much more vibrant colors without watering down the royal icing as you would find with food coloring. Use extracts to flavor your icing. Currently I've been using AZ Bitters Lab Figgy Pudding Bitters to flavor my icing.
Royal icing has to be covered immediately, so that it doesn't dry out. You will even see that if you leave your pastry bag sitting for a bit, your tip will get a crust, dry bit in the tip you will need to clear before continuing. If your bag sits for too long and you are having trouble clear the tip, run it under a bit of hot water and it will clear right out.
If you ever wondered how they are able to fill in the whole cookie with color, so perfectly, I will now share the secret with you.
For those new to the piping game, all the little metal piping tips you use will have a number on the side. This is the size of the tip. Using a small tip, (I used a size 4 tip on this heart cookie.) pipe the outline of the cookie. In the photos above, I used two slightly different colored purple icings, so that you can see the difference of what I am doing.
The next step is to "flood" the cookie with more icing. I add a little water to some of my royal icing, to make it little looser, so that it will flood better. Using a size 6 tip, retrace the same line you drew with the number 4 tip. The icing you put down with the number 4 tip is now acting as a retaining barrier for the icing you are using to flood.
After drawing the outline a second time with the size 6 tip, fill in the interior. By dragging the tip a bit in the icing, it may spread the icing perfectly, creating a smooth surface. If not, you can immediately using a small offset spatula to smooth. If you haven't thinned your flooding icing enough or you wait too long, you can get ridges in your perfect cookie top. Play around and see what works.
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I also use my fingers to clean up around the edges while the icing is still damp and not very set. Work quickly if you need to clean up a bit of a crooked edge, as once the icing starts to set, your mistakes and the attempted clean up will be more noticeable. If your icing is difficult to pipe, breaking as you are piping, add a bit of water to loosen it.
After allowing your cookie icing to harden, now you can decorate! Bring on the piggy sprinkles and sanding sugar!
Rachel Miller is a pastry chef and food writer in Phoenix, where she bakes, eats, and single-handedly keeps her local cheese shop in business. You can get more information about her pastry at www.pistolwhippedpastry.com, or on her blog at www.croissantinthecity.com.