As I have said before, one of the main things that drew me to pastry was the artistry of it all. A butter cookie, although seemingly simple, can be a blank canvas on which to create pretty much anything. All you need is a fun cookie cutter, now found in such unique shapes from winter sleighs to leaping frogs, some cookie dough, and batch of royal icing. So grab your favorite cookie cutter and let’s get started.
I love to decorate cookies, (this is where I really let my creativity fly) and it is one of the staples that I offer at work. To keep it interesting and exciting, I change the cookies seasonally, offering a fun new item in our showcase every couple of months. In the fall I create maples leaves dusted with red, orange and yellow sugar, winter brings mittens and a version of these snowflake cookies, with spring comes daisies and ladybugs, finished by watermelons slices for the summer. Really, the sky is the limit.
Using a butter cookie recipe, (available at end of post) roll out the dough to 1/8 inch. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or use a baking silpat to keep your cookies from sticking. (If you do a lot of baking, a silpat is a good investment. A plastic liner for your sheet pan, Silpats are easy to use and clean and can be reused for years. I find it much easier and more economical than cutting parchment paper for each baking sheet.) Back to the cookies. Cut out desired shapes and place on the sheet, leaving about an inch between each cookie. (A traditional butter dough will not spread that much, but the spacing allows for an even air flow and for equal browning. Do not use a sugar cookie dough, for this will spread and you will loose the defined shape you are trying to achieve. If you don’t want to make the dough yourself, most bakeries will sell you their raw dough for you to roll and bake at home). Bake at 350 for 10-15 minutes depending on the oven and size of cookie. Don’t forget to rotate the pans half way through the baking process…this really does make a difference and keeps one side of your cookie from burning while the other stays raw.
Once the cookies are cool, you can start decorating! I use royal icing to decorate my cookies because it is durable and has a long shelf life. Made with meringue powder (or raw egg whites), confectioner’s sugar, and water, this icing is easy to make and a great addition to your baking repertoire. With multiple uses, royal icing is stiff enough to pipe details onto the cookies, but when thinned with water, it can be used to ice the entire cookie, giving a smooth, seamless look. (Plus this is the icing used to assemble a gingerbread house. Once you have mastered the recipe for these cookies, you will be one step closer to creating your own house next holiday season!)
To start decorating my snowflakes, I pipe a border of royal icing around the edge of the cookie. Make sure the icing lays flat against the cookie and the start and end points meet to create a continuous border. If there are any gaps, the thinned icing will leak out, and trust me, a sea of sticky royal icing leaking all over your counters is not too much fun. Let the border dry for a couple of minutes until firm to the touch. This will happen quickly, as royal sets very fast. As a matter of fact, royal is so fast-drying, that you always need to keep your bowl covered while you are working. When storing, make sure to press a layer of plastic wrap directly onto the frosting to prevent any air pockets.
Reserving some of the stiff royal, slowly add small amounts of water to the remaining royal icing to thin. You are looking to achieve a smooth icing that will pour easily, but retains a thick consistency. Basically add just enough water to make it flow and no more. Using a second piping bag, fill in the cookies with the thinned royal. To make sure all the corners are filled, I usually fill the perimeter first, then the center. The icing will spread, so don’t use too much. After this step, the cookies need to dry once more. The filling will take longer to dry than the border because we thinned it with water. I would say an hour is a good amount of time to wait. Lightly touch the cookies to test whether they are dry. The icing should be hard and should withstand slight pressure.
Once your cookies are set, you can add decorative details using the original stiff royal. In this case, I piped on the spokes and designs to create that snowflake look. While the piped royal detail was still wet, I dusted the cookies with sanding sugar. By allowing my background to dry completely, I was able to sugar only the added details on top. This helps to define the cookies and give them added dimension. (and it makes you look like a pro!)
I know this sounds like a lot of steps, but it is doable. If you are crunched for time, I suggest making the cookies one day and decorating them the next. This can also be a great project for kids. I like to include children when I decorate the cookies, but find if we try to bake, cool, then decorate, I loose their attention. When working with kids, I always have the cookies baked and cooled and icing ready to go. Then they get to be creative and see the results of their labor immediately.