Confectionary dorkiness (sugar cookies with royal icing)
I think I’ve mentioned how great my family is at some point or another, but have I mentioned how weirdly funny my brothers, cousins and extended relatives are? At our annual Christmas white elephant exchange last month, a horse calendar was one of the first items to be taken off the market by virtue of excessive steals. Mind you, no one in the family wanted a horse calendar. No, people were stealing it so that they could have the privilege of re-gifting the present to my cousin Mason – who, for unknown reasons, is thoroughly anti-horse. Even the 10 year-olds were forgoing interesting gifts in favor of the potential schadenfreude of the calendar’s pictures.
Meanwhile, my dad was doing his best to steal every kid-appropriate toy in his annual quest to temporarily hold the title of “evil uncle.” The kids fall for it every year and sit back silently stewing over the loss of a pillow pet or water gun. So absorbed in their world of upset, and fixated on the desirability of the stolen present, they fail to realize that a man in his 50s probably doesn’t really want a frilly pink pillow that can turn into a bunny. So when Dad turns the big ticket item back over to them at the end of the game, their eyes light up. It’s a riot and I love the whole exchange, even if I always end up with something like a snowman table lamp or an XXL cruise line t-shirt.
The affair ends up being a sappy reminder that the contents of the sparkly boxes don’t really matter; if we can rile up such excitement and laughter-spiked arguments over a horse calendar, why bother with real presents? Whatever your response to that cornball question is, my answer is that I love real presents because I love the science cookie cutters I got this year. As much as I love my new tapas cookbook. And my pretty new skillet. And my ice cream scooper. It was almost a cruel joke that the start of the year was too busy with actual science experiments to allow for experimentation with my new cooking tools. I couldn’t wait to make some dough and punch out some flasks, beakers and test tubes.
When I found time, I immediately looked to my mom’s sugar cookies, a.k.a. the best cookies in the world. (Amanda’s would of course be a close second, based on the uncooked dough we devoured while studying together a while ago.) Mom’s cookies are so good that it would take an executive order of some sort to get me to eat less than ten a day while I’m home for the holidays. When I went to make my cookies, it seemed almost sacrilege to attempt to recreate my mom’s masterpieces. On the other hand, it seemed even worse to make any other recipe, and thereby resign myself to less than perfection from the get-go. So I went ahead and used Mom’s recipe, with royal icing instead of sprinkles. The science-themed cookies were a huge hit at our lab’s weekly group meeting, but you can of course use any cookie cutters and any decorating scheme you choose. In fact, maybe next year I’ll go full circle and wrap up a bag of royal icing-decorated horse cookies for some white elephant fun.
Barbara’s Sugar Cookies
Makes about 30 large cookies, or 4 dozen small
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup shortening
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 tablespoon milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
Cream together sugar, shortening and butter until fluffy. Add in egg, milk and vanilla and beat well. In a separate bowl, mix together flour, baking powder and salt and slowly add to creamed mixture. Cover and chill at least three hours. In my household, cookie dough always stayed in the fridge for a few days before being baked, although it tended to mysteriously shrink over time.
Preheat oven to 375°F. Roll out half the dough to 1/8-inch thickness on a well-floured surface. Use cookie cutters to punch out your desired cookies. Place on an un-greased cookie sheet, or on parchment paper. If you’re running low on time and want to use sprinkles instead of royal(-pain-in-the-butt) icing, do so now. If frosting, wait until after baking.
Bake at 375°F until edges are set, about 7-8 minutes. Do NOT wait for the edges to brown. The alternative to setting your kitchen timer is developing a sixth sense like my mom’s. She can be three rooms away and use her spidey sense to detect just when her treats hit that perfect mid-point between doughy and crunchy that is so vital for sugar cookies.
4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
2 tablespoons meringue powder
5 tablespoons water
1/2 to 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Whisk together powdered sugar and meringue powder. Alternative recipes call for egg whites, but meringue powder means you don’t have to worry about giving your tasters salmonella. A plus in my book. Add water and use a stand mixer at low speed for about 5 minutes to incorporate. Incorporate vanilla, to taste, about halfway through the mixing process. If you don’t have a stand mixer, you can use a spoon and some muscle, as I did here. Icing will be very thick.
The general idea to royal icing is to make an outline for your design using a thick icing. Following this step, you fill in the design using thinner, watery icing to “flood” the spaces you’ve created. At any point you can and should use food dye to bring some color to your creations. Gels work better than liquid food coloring here, because they don’t thin out the icing; however, powdered sugar can be used to compensate for the extra liquid, if necessary.
Outlines: Add about a 1/2 teaspoon more water at a time until icing is easy to pipe – it takes a little bit of learning to figure out when this point is. The key though is to adjust until you hit the right point, because piping icing that is too thick will make you want to punch stuffed animals.
I used an Ateco cake decorator to help me with the piping, but it’s also possible to pipe using wax paper rolled into a cone and taped together. Plastic sandwich bags aren’t the best substitute, as I learned when I made my agarose gel cookies last year. (I’m a really geeky cookie maker, my apologies.) I’ve found it’s best to place your piping tip right on the cookie, rather than piping from above. This allows the icing to stick much better and gives you more control over how you’re piping. Let outline dry – about 20 minutes to 1 hour.
Now it’s time to work on the flooding. First, reserve some icing for any post-flooding detail work you’d like to do. Thin out remaining icing 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of water at a time until it easily drips off your spoon. The thinner you get, the easier it will be to actually fill the space you’ve outlined. The icing shouldn’t be watery though. If at any point it does get too watery, add some additional powdered sugar to thicken it back up. Let thinned icing sit for 5-10 minutes to allow any bubbles to rise to the surface.
One cookie at a time, flood the spaces with thinned icing. Use a toothpick to make sure the icing completely fills the space. Allow cookies to dry. This step will take longer since the icing is wetter.
Using the reserved thick icing, go back and add any detail work.
These cookies were rather complicated, but simpler designs are also fun. I surprised Amanda with a much simpler (but less geeky) cookie. I first flooded the space and then used a toothpick and gel coloring to create pretty swirls. Now it’s time to let your imagination run wild.