Baking and decorating sugar cookies for the holidays is as expected a family tradition in my home as is having fireside hot chocolate and biscuits and sausage gravy on Christmas morning. I have many wonderful memories of helping my mother cut out the cookies and along with my brother and sister, decorating them simply with colored sugars and sprinkles, or “doobies” as we called them. Through the years I’ve enjoyed sharing the tradition with my children, proudly looking on as their eager little hands pressed our favorite shaped cutters in to the sugary dough. Stars, Christmas trees, gingerbread men, and santa hats carefully placed on baking sheets and their buttery aroma soon filled the kitchen as they baked.
One holiday season, while watching my favorite “it’s a good thing” television show, I had a serious case of cookie envy over the beautifully decorated cookies the host and her guest were creating. They would be perfect gifts for my non-baking friends I thought, and on to the internet I went to purchase all the decorating necessities I would need. When the assortment of copper cookie cutters and fancy colored sanding sugars and gels arrived, I set out to create my own holiday lovelies – how hard could it be?
It was my first attempt at using royal icing and I was having a few technical difficulties getting the flow just right. First it was too thin and literally ran out of the tip of the piping bag. Too thick and it wouldn’t squish out at all. Finally the consistency was just right and as I reached for the bag to start decorating, I realized my son who was almost 2, had commandeered the bag and was trying to squish the icing in to his mouth. (He loved anything mooshy and butter being his favorite, I would often discover a “finger trail” along the top of the softened butter if left on the kitchen counter.)
The colors of the gel tints were a lot stronger than I anticipated resulting in Christmas trees covered in icing that was almost jet black rather than the lovely shade of emerald green that I was going for. While perfect for Halloween, not so pretty for Christmas treats. Although the sounds of my favorite “A Charlie Brown Christmas” by the Vince Guaraldi Trio played softly in the background (♪♫ Christmas time is here, happiness and cheer ♫♪), I thought to myself this was not what I anticipated at all and my frustration was soon becoming apparent. The happy atmosphere of prior years’ decorating with the sound of children’s giggles, “Mommy look at this one I made!” and icing and doobies everywhere, was being replaced by my obsession to have the perfect tray of decorated cookies.
As I was trying to conquer the royal icing that was threatening to rule over my kitchen, I happened to glance over at my 13 year-old daughter as she was painstaking piping the edges of a Christmas tree cookie. There was such a look of intensity on her face and for what purpose? So I could have beautiful treats to give my friends who quite frankly would have been perfectly happy with a fruitcake tied with silly string! My family tradition was rapidly spiraling out of control and even worse, this “good thing” I had taken on was overshadowing the lovely memories we could have been making together! Thank goodness I came to my senses and in to the trash went the gothic Christmas trees. While the next batch of cookies never made it in to the gift bags I’d purchased, they were however, the lovely creations of two very happy children and an even happier mother!
If it’s loving memories you’re after… let the icing and doobies fall where they may and sit back and enjoy.
This holiday season, my kitchen table is once again filled with trays of freshly baked sugar cookies, various glazes dyed to the perfect holiday hues and colored sprinkles and doobies waiting to be applied.
A Charlie Brown Christmas is softly playing in the background while I begin to decorate and I apply the stripes on the candy cane shaped cookie in perfect symmetry. I start on another candy cane and my mind begins to wander to all the many wonderful memories of baking cookies with my children. What I wouldn’t give to have their eager hands once again cover mine as we roll the dough out together, to chase after my son for the piping bag, watching them lick their icing covered fingers with bits of colored sugar sparkling from the corner of their mouths and ooh and aah as only a mother can as they proudly show me the cookie(s) they so lovingly decorated. I suddenly begin to feel, well — inspired! The next candy canes’ stripes I notice are just a little less perfect and the next one even more so. I reach for another cookie – a star this time – and a few too many sprinkles are added. Before I know it, icing, colored sugar and doobies are everywhere. As I finish decorating the last cookie, I lick the icing from my fingers and smile…
I packaged up some of the cookies to send to my daughter who is now living on her own, thinking to myself that these simply decorated cookies are the best gift I’ve made in quite some time.
I hope your holiday is filled with everything that makes life wonderfully delicious, peace for you and your loved ones, and warmest wishes for a lovely 2012.
recipe for old-fashioned sugar cookies with peppermint glaze yield: 5-6 dozen cookies (depending on size of cutters used)
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 sticks sweet butter, softened (if salted butter is used, omit 1/2 teaspoon salt)
1 1/2 cups superfine sugar (or granulated sugar processed in a food processor with a metal blade until the sugar texture becomes very fine)
2 large eggs (at room temperature)
4 tablespoons milk
2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
In a large bowl, stir flour, baking powder, and salt with a wire whisk, to blend.
Using an electric mixer at medium speed, cream the butter. Raise speed to high and gradually add the sugar. Continue beating until mixture is light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time, until completely incoroporated. Beat in the milk and vanilla extract.
Turn mixer speed to low and gradually beat in the flour mixture. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as necessary with a rubber spatula. Divide dough into 3 parts. Wrap each part in waxed paper, flatten into a large disk, and refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Place one portion of dough on a lightly floured pastry cloth. (I add 1 teaspoon of sugar to the flour to keep the cookies from losing their sugary goodness) and roll out the dough to the desired thickness, between 1/8 and 1/4 inch. Thinner cookies are crispier, thicker cookies are softer and chewier. Cut out shapes with your favorite cookie cutters. Use a spatula to transfer cut-out cookies to baking sheets lined with parchment paper.
If decorating with colored sugars or favorite doobies before baking, lightly brush a small amount of milk on to the surface of each cookie and lightly dust the sugar or doobies over the top. note: if too much milk is used, the color of the sugar will spread unto the cookie, not enough milk and the sugar or doobies will bounce off the cookie surface.
This season, I made a peppermint glaze as an alternative to royal icing. It has a nice consistency and can be smoothed on a with a decorating knife or if made a little thicker can be placed in a pastry bag for piping of lines and/or used for filling within the lines (flooding).
Peppermint Glaze yield 1 1/3 cup
4 cups confectioners’ sugar
5-6 tablespoons hot milk
1 teaspoon peppermint extract (or your favorite flavoring – almond is also very good!)
Press confectioners’ sugar through a strainer to remove any lumps
In a medium-sized bowl, combine confectioners’ sugar, 3 tablespoons hot milk, and flavoring extract and beat with a small wire whisk until well blended and smooth. Add the remaining tablespoons of milk gradually until the right consistency if achieved for either piping lines (thicker) or flooding (a bit thinner).
Add colored gels or drops but use sparingly as colors will dry darker on the cookies.
Cover with plastic wrap until the glaze is ready to use.