Thursday, 12 December 2013

Sugar Cookies Are a Joy to Make

Last weekend I made Sugar Cookie Cutouts, which brings me only to Cookie No. 4 of 20! These cookies are kicking my butt this year. Especially since I decided to make 20 different kinds to mark 20 years of Our Cookie Journal

Sugar Cookie Cutouts are always a huge process anyway because they normally take two to three days to finish completely, especially if you're trying to be organized. First I had to select my cutters from a huge collection. I decided to take it easy on myself this year and chose only four (JOY, holly, tree and snowflake) and three colors (red, white and green). I used Martha Stewart's recipes for Sugar Cookies and Royal Icing because they're foolproof and very familiar. I usually do a few more shapes and also make blue and yellow icing but I'm trying to rein it in a bit. HA!

I made the dough the day before, so it was nice and chilled, as it should be, when I rolled it out. I try to cut the cookies as close together as possible because this dough can get tough if you re-use it too many times. I always squeeze the scraps together, flatten out the dough, cover it in plastic wrap, and stick it back in the fridge before using it again too. Once the cookies are cut out, I transfer them to parchment paper-lined baking trays, then put them in the fridge to set. This helps the cookies retain their shape, with nice sharp edges (making them easier to decorate later). If you don't use your fridge and these steps for your sugar cookies, they're going to melt as you go and they'll look a bit wonky.

It's best to keep the same shapes on the same trays, too — that way the smaller ones won't get over-baked. And don't worry if some of them become too golden brown on the edges — icing is going to cover a myriad of mistakes! Remove the cookies from the oven as soon as they start to brown on the edges and are set— even before they seem ready — because they continue to bake on the sheets. Then put them cool on wire racks to cool completely. I put the cooled cookies into covered cake pans until they're ready to ice (later that day or the next day). 

Meringue powder might be expensive but it's worth it. I haven't used egg whites in Royal Icing for over a decade. It's just too easy to use and safe for anyone with whom you share your cookies (raw egg whites can be dangerous for some folks!). I separate the icing into bowls (matching the amount of colors to be used) and add gel paste food coloring (this is important: liquid is out, OK? It changes the consistency of the icing if you add too much and the colors aren't as vibrant). Use skewers or toothpicks to remove the gel paste; then use spoons to mix to the desired color.

Keep the icing covered when you aren't using it or it will dry and harden. That's a good reason to keep a wet cloth handy to wipe up any spills too. Before I mix my icing, I get out all the things I might need, including piping bags and tips; clips or rubber bands to securely close the piping bags; a toothpick or two for tweaking mistakes; a few small plates, to keep sprinkles at bay when decorating cookies; a tall glass with a wet paper towel in the bottom of it to hold the icing bag when it's not in use (the paper towel keeps the tip from drying up); and trays to corral the decorated cookies that need to dry.

I also get out a tray and sort out the decorations that I'm likely to use (sometimes I don't know what will work or appeal to me until I try it). There are so many choices now: dragées, nonpareils, colored sugars, sanding sugars, edible glitter, edible spray, colored pens, etc.). 

Always outline Sugar Cookies first with icing as it is. This gives the icing a border and it won't run all over the place. After you've outlined the cookies, thin out the icing so that when you drizzle it onto itself (in the bowl) the ribbon of icing sinks in almost immediately. This consistency will be perfect for flooding the outlined cookies. Do three or four at a time, then add decorations while the icing is still wet. 

In the vein of giving myself a break, I decided to do my snowflakes differently. I simply decorated with lines of outline-consistency icing, then topped in a variety of ways. (As you can see, some of mine over-baked; those will be eaten by me and NO I did not do it on purpose so I could have more to myself.)

I was equally carefree about my candy canes this year. I reckoned that as long as they were red and white, they were suitable and I created my "interpretation" of candy canes.

I put the most effort into my JOY cookies because it's one of my favorite cutters. These take planning because you have to outline, fill and decorate x 3 (one for each letter in JOY). They are so cute though that it was worth it. If I weren't making 20 different cookies this year, I would have spent more time on all of these to be sure (like last year's Sugar Cookies). 

I wound up with 9 1/2 dozen Sugar Cookie Cutouts. I let them dry completely (usually overnight because I don't normally finish till the wee hours) before stacking them between layers of parchment paper in a tin or similar container. Then they go into the freezer with the rest of the cookies until it's time to tray or box them up for giving/sharing/eating. 

Remember, Sugar Cookies are so very versatile. There are people out there who can make cookies that look too good to eat. Yours can be works of art, too, if you enjoy this kind of activity. But they can be fun to make with children if you aren't so picky about the results. Just cover the table and let them go nuts! Icing isn't mandatory either; sugar cookies can be sprinkled with decorations before they bake and go straight into the cookie jar or lunchbox.

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