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Christmas cookie decorating tips and tricks

December 3, 2010

So, I’m kind of . . . serious about Christmas cookie decorating.  My little brother and sister will decorate approximately 5-10 cookies in the time it takes me to decorate one – and they actually do a great job decorating cookies.  When they were little and just slapped on frosting and some random sprinkles, they’d decorate 20 in the time it took me to decorate 1.

I’m not going to pretend I have some kind of perfect recipe for Christmas cookies, except for whichever recipe it is that my mother uses.  Nor am I a purist about making your own frosting for Christmas cookies.  By all means, use the stuff that comes in a canister.  Instead of giving you the Internet’s 2000th recipe for either cookies or frosting, I wanted to share a few tips and tricks based on my extensive experimentation with cookie decorating over the years.

Important Ingredients for Cookie Decorating

  • frosting of your choice
  • food dye
  • sprinkles, both colored & chocolate
  • decorating sugar
  • M&Ms
  • Twizzlers (the Pull ‘n Peel kind)
  • red hots
  • gum drops
  • mini marshmallows
  • chocolate chips
  • crumbled candy canes
  • Starbursts (this is only for people who want to be super-crazy with the decorating)
  • kitchen shears
  • toothpicks
  • a seriously Type A personality mixed with some right brain love of arts & crafts

First, lay out a lot of newspaper or kitchen towels or whatever, so that clean-up will be easier (this is a particularly important step for those of you who’ve satisfied the ingredient of “seriously Type A personality”).

Next, make little bowls of all of the frosting colors you want.  We usually use chocolate frosting, a lot of vanilla frosting, and then small bowls of red, green, blue, and yellow frosting that we make using vanilla frosting and food dye.

Lastly, organize your decorating ingredients.  I like to organize them on little plates or in little bowls.  Then I like to have a plate for all the used decorations – all the leftover sprinkles and twizzlers from the cookies I’ve already decorated.  That way they don’t defile the nice clean little bowls or plates of unused decorations.  Yeah, I know.  I’m a special person.  Thank goodness the beloved carnivore has a nearly infinite amount of patience for my . . . quirks.

Now, here are some ideas of what you can do with the decorating ingredients.

First, I spread frosting all over the tree cookies (green on some and white on others).  Then I made the tree trunks of each tree by carefully placing chocolate sprinkles into the frosting on the frosted trunks.  My friend Ashley taught me how to use a toothpick to fluff up the frosting in Christmas-tree-like rows to make the cookies look extra tree-like – on the trees frosted with vanilla, I fluffed up the frosting and afterward sprinkled green decorating sugar on top.  I made the star for the tree on the left by carving it out of a yellow gumdrop.  Yeah, I’m serious, that’s what I did. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet, my friends.

I frosted the head and wings of the angel cookie with white frosting and the body/gown with blue frosting.  Then I took a toothpick, got a tiny bit of red frosting on it, and swirled it with the white frosting that was already on the head to make a pink flesh color.  You could add more or less pink, or use yellow or brown to make almost any of the flesh colors you want.  Then I took another toothpick and got a little bit of yellow frosting on it and dragged it gently across the head to make a halo.  Finally, I got some dark brown frosting on the tip of a toothpick and made dots for the eyes.  Then I played with yet further toothpicks to fluff up the wings and add some pattern to the skirt/gown.

Here, I used a toothpick and red frosting to write Merry Christmas across a white cookie.  I’ll admit the “Christmas” didn’t come out great, but I have really horrible handwriting to begin with, so you might have much better luck.  Those green Christmas trees are sprinkles that my mom has.  My mom’s cookie decorating supplies are incredibly enviable.  As are her craft supplies.  As is her general awesomeness.

Now for the Santas.  As a side note, those two Santas on the left look a little funny-shaped because they weren’t made with Santa cookie cutters.  We only had a gingerbread man cookie cutter that year, so I carefully pressed the cookie cutter into the dough – only pressing down hard on the bottom 2/3 of the cookie cutter and only lightly pressing on the top.  Then I lifted and sort of cut a hat around the head of the gingerbread man.  It was a lot of work, but, whatever, I need my Santa cookies.

Anyway, I usually start by frosting the Santas completely white.  Then for the boots, there are lots of options. You can carefully sprinkle decorating sugar of any color you want across the boots portion (like in the bottom right Santa).  Or you can spread chocolate frosting on the boots as in the upper right (for this type, it’s of course easier to leave the boots unfrosted when you’re spreading the initial white frosting layer).  Or you can use something else to make the boots – like gum drops, cut up (see upper and bottom lefts).  Or mini-chocolate chips, for taste reasons, etc.

Then, for the suit.  I usually spread red decorating sugar over the body of the Santa, sometimes carefully leaving a strip of white at the bottom of the suit.  Sometimes I go for a belt – the ones on the left have belts carved out of gumdrops.  I was really into gumdrops that year.

Then, for the hat. I sprinkle red decorating sugar across the hat, leaving the bottom white part of the hat and the top fluffy dot of the hat un-sprinkled.

And lastly, for the face.  I use a toothpick and a bit of pink frosting to blend a pink flesh color into the portion that would be good ol’ St. Nick’s face, and then I either make dots for eyes with chocolate frosting or use chocolate sprinkles.  For the beard and the fluffy part of the hat, I either fluff up the frosting in the remaining white portions of the hat or use cut up mini-marshmallows.

Now stockings – stockings are my favorite, although unfortunately I’ve never taken a good or even barely in-focus picture of them.  The tops of the stockings can be made fluffy with toothpick-fluffery magic (right) or with cut-up marshmallows (left) – and of course those are red hots lining the stocking edge on the right.  The red hots are great for this purpose, especially if you need to hide a jagged line because your hand shook when you sprinkled the red sugar on.  You can put whatever you want on the stockings – I just put lots of Christmas-y things on them, like Christmas trees carved out of gumdrops with upside-down chocolate chips for tree trunks, or stars carved out of gumdrops.  I made the candy-canes two different ways.  On the left, it was made with a cut-up and carefully curved marshmallow, and the lines were made with a toothpick and pink frosting.  I like the method on the right better – with crumbled candy canes arranged to form a candy cane.    The Christmas tree on the left-hand stocking was a ridiculous time-suck, I don’t know why I let myself get that crazy, but I’ll probably do it again this year.  I cut a long chocolate sprinkle in half and put the two halves side-by-side to form the trunk.  Then I arranged green sprinkles to form a tree.  And then I used a toothpick and various colors of frosting to make different-colored dots for the ornaments and the star on top of the tree.

And you don’t have to go all out with the stockings, either.  You can mass-produce pretty cute stockings by spreading white frosting on the whole stocking, sprinkling red or green decorating sugar on the bottom of the stocking, and then topping the white part with cut-up marshmallows.  Give them to a boy on your second date and a year later he could be your fiancé. (No, I’m not making that up – although I think the peanut butter blossoms that also went in that box of cookies were what really sold him on the prospect of dating me).

You’re probably wondering what the heck you could use Starbursts for when you’re decorating cookies.  Well, Starbursts are great because you can cut off small pieces of them, and they’re incredibly malleable once they’re warmed up by the heat of your hands (yeah, I should probably mention – wash your hands well and often when you’re decorating cookies the Amanda/Type A way). So you can use the orange ones to make snowmen noses that are actually orange and carrot-shaped (see above).  Or you can make a little heart out of a pink Starburst, and use it to add flair to cookies that otherwise are decorated pretty simply.


And what about Twizzlers? Well, they can be cut up and used to make lines on candy canes (see candy cane cookies on plate of assorted cookies pictured earlier in this post).  Or they can be used to make the ribbons on a gift box, as below.

The flower pattern was made with flower-shaped sprinkles.  I’m not that detailed in my use of frosting.  Yet.

Don’t let yourself be limited to traditional designs either – have fun with it.  I used a toothpick and chocolate frosting to make this swirly design on a white tree.  It’s one of the designs I doodle all over my notebooks so I decided to make a cookie out of it.

Then there are my Mondrian cookies, which are now something of a tradition for me.

First, I put white frosting on the entire cookie (whatever shape I’m in the mood for) and make it as smooth as possible.  Then, I use a toothpick and chocolate frosting to draw the lines – it’s easier with a very thin chocolate frosting, but I don’t have pictures from the year we made that frosting.   Then I use a toothpick to fill in some of the squares with red (well, pink), yellow, and blue frosting.  Because it’s hard to make true reds, yellows, and blues with food dye and white frosting, they’re always more like pastel Mondrians, but they still make me giggle.

And I’ll stop rambling about cookies now . . . .

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Aunt Jo permalink
    December 3, 2010 10:38 pm

    Hey, Amanda! Getting into the Christmas spirit early, I see. The cookies look delicious. I am always surprised at how much y’all cook – I don’t think I did for a long time. About the time I started having kids, I think. I confess that I DO like the green lemon-lime jello dessert that mom made – love it in fact. But the last few times I made it I had a few helpings and had to throw the rest away. My kids think it’s gross. (I think it’s the horseradish that’s the real dealbreaker). If anyone wants the recipe (and who wouldn’t with that build up?), just ask. On to Christmas baking… My favorite kind of girls get together around Christmas is a cookie swap. Everyone brings 2-3 dozen of their favorite and goes home with a great assortment of home baked treats.

  2. Andrea permalink
    December 5, 2010 9:27 pm

    I love how enthusiastic you are above Christmas cookies!! I love them myself, but you’ve taken it to a whole new level. Do you make gingerbread houses? You should…that’s a fun activity for siblings. My sisters, brother, mom, Brinton and I made one last year and were seriously giddy from all the sugary-ness/ frosting used to construct it. Very fun!

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