I've never been one of those people who could make adorably decorated cookies. First, I could never get the cookies cut nicely with a cookie cutter. Once the dough was cut, the cookie would never stay in the cookie cutter so I could transport it to the baking pan. Nor could I get a spatula under it to move it safely without destroying its shape. Second, I had never had a good experience with royal frosting. It always dried up too quickly, despite putting a wet towel on top. Plus, I could never get it to the right consistency. It was always either too stiff (and would clog and not come out at all, or crack after I piped it out) or it was too wet, and wound up oozing all over my cookies. Seeing the oodles of perfectly piped and decorated cookies all over the internet, it urked me that I couldn't do the same! After all, I have an art degree, I should be able to make extra cute cookies! So yesterday I put to work and finally solved all those cookie-making problems. I no longer fear the cute decorated cookie. And I came to a few conclusions of how to make the process easier along the way.
What better reason to make charming little cookies than the birth of a new baby?? On Thursday, we welcomed our new niece into the world! She's a beautiful, healthy baby girl. For mommy and daddy, I wanted to make some cute cookies (for breakfast or a snack for the soon-to-be sleep deprived, busy parents).
My favorite sugar cookie recipe is one I adapted from the Sweet Melissa Baking Book. It has a slight lemony flavor and isn't overly sweet - a necessity for a sugar cookie recipe when you're topping it with super-sweet cookie icing!
Best Sugar Cookies
14 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
3/4 Cup sugar
Freshly grated zest (be careful, no white pith!) of 1/2 lemon
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
1 large egg, room temp
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/8 tsp almond extract
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
2 cups all purpose flour
Place butter in the bowl of an electric mixer and turn on low. Add sugar, zest and salt and cream until light and fluffy.
Add egg, vanilla, almond extract, and lemon juice. Mix to combine.
Add flour and mix to combine.
Pat dough together. Divide into two equal parts. Wrap in plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for at least 45 minutes.
For rolling instructions see below. Roll to about 1/8 to 1/4 inch.
Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 8 - 12 minutes (time will vary depending on thickness).
So what did I learn from my cookie-making? How can I make perfectly cut sugar cookies every time?
This is what I did:
- After dough is made, pat dough together into a ball and chill in the refrigerator at least 45 minutes. Divide dough into two balls so one is chilling while you're working with the other. You'll waste less time waiting for dough to chill!
- When chilled, place dough ball on to a floured sheet of parchment paper. Sprinkle more flour on top of the dough ball and place another sheet of parchment on top. (So the dough ball will be in between two sheets of parchment). It is ideal if your parchment is pre-cut to the size of your cookie sheet - this will tell you the size to which you can roll your dough without it getting too big for your cookie sheet.
- Roll with a rolling pin to the desired thickness. When rolled, peel off the top sheet of parchment and place the dough on to a cookie sheet. Place in the freezer until thoroughly chilled - almost stiff!
- Remove from the freezer. Using a metal cookie cutter, cut out desired shapes. Now I found TWO different methods here, depending on how your dough is cooperating: 1) Cut into the dough with the cookie cutter, lift up the cookie and move to a parchment lined pan. Bake. or 2) Cut into dough and lift up the cookie cutter, leaving the dough on the parchment. Repeat, leaving about 1 - 2 inches between cookies. Then peel away the dough in between the cookies and bake. No moving necessary.
So these are the conclusions I came to:
- Chill the dough AFTER it has been rolled out. This way it comes out of the fridge cold and its ready to be cut into shapes immediately.
- Use COLD (almost frozen!) cookie dough. I know, I know. I should have known this. But I think I underestimated what "chilled" meant in the past. Instead of just chilling in the fridge, I chilled in the freeze until the cookie dough was stiff. Makes it much easier to work with!
- Don't try to roll out dough unless it is sandwiched between two FLOURED pieces of parchment paper. This way, it won't get stuck to the rolling pin (grr, so aggrivating!). Plus, once its rolled, you can lift the parchment and transfer the whole thing right to the baking sheet.
- Use METAL cookie cutters. I've always tried to use plastic in the past because that it what I had, but using a metal cookie cutter makes all the difference. The crisp cuts you get from a metal cookie cutter are far superior to the results when you use plastic.
On to the ICING. Royal frosting usually uses either egg whites or meringue powder + confectioners sugar + wet (either milk or water). Well my meringue powder went bad since the last time I used it and I couldn't use raw egg whites, so I had to find a new recipe that didn't use either of these things. I'm glad this happened because I found a NEW recipe that I absolutely love. It gave me no problems, piped out perfectly, didn't dry up, and actually tasted good (The 2 year old big sister picked all of the frosting off her cookies and left the cookie).
Best Sugar Cookie Icing adapted from allrecipes
4 cups confectioner's sugar
3 Tablespoons milk + extra
3 Tablespoons light corn syrup + extra
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
In the bowl of an electric mixer, stir together sugar and milk until it comes together (add a little bit of extra milk if necessary. add slowly by the 1/2 tsp).
Beat in corn syrup and extract until icing is smooth and glossy. If icing is too thick, add more corn syrup.
Divide into separate bowls and add food coloring if desired.
Attach a piping tip and coupler to a piping bag. Fill bag with icing and pipe onto cookies.
The above recipe makes icing for OUTLINING. You'll need to thin it down with additional milk to make it thinner for "FLOODING" (or coloring in).
For outlining - Pipe with a wilton #3 tip. Allow outlines to harden.
For flooding - make icing thinner by adding milk by the tsp until it reaches the correct consistency. Icing should drip off the back of a spoon and disappear back into the icing within 10 seconds. For flooding, pipe blobs onto the cookie with a Wilton #2 tip and spread with a toothpick.
(In the above picture of the "Ella" cookie - the white outline is the stiff frosting piped with #3. The pink was flooded using thinner frosting, a #2 piping tip, and a toothpick. When the pink had hardened, I went back over the top and piped the letters using the stiffer frosting again with a #3 tip.)
For an AWESOME detailed tutorial on this, visit Brown Eyed Baker.