It just isn’t Christmas at my house until the sugar cookie dough gets rolled out. I always use an old fashioned recipe from one of my mom’s cookbooks that’s practically falling apart at the seems. That sweet, slightly almondy smell is unmistakable and holiday cheer fills your heart just as the aroma fills the air. I have a hard time letting go of Christmas so I thought a colorful display of cookies would be a great way to ring in the new year.
Instead of the traditional holiday cookie shapes, I decided to do something a little bit different. I am usually put in charge of place cards at our holiday dinners. When I was younger, I’d make construction paper turkeys emblazoned with each family member’s name. Even in recent years I’ve busted out the glue and glitter for seasonally decorated nameplates. But this year I went in a whole new direction: edible. That’s right, I made cookie place cards using a gift tag cookie cutter and a boatload of royal icing. There was a steep learning curve with these cookies, so the place cards have that imprecise, homemade charm look. Or at least that’s what I’ll call the messy lines and squiggly icing for the sake of my own sanity.
Royal icing is amazing. It is a sweet, magical substance that possesses limitless possibilities. However, it can be quite fickle and temperamental, so it’s essential to get the recipe juuuuuuuust right. The key ingredient to that oh-so-perfect substance? Meringue powder. It is a must. Without it, you’ve got a globby mess of powdered sugar and water. Nobody wants that. I also picked up a few containers of high quality food coloring because those little tubes of colored water just don’t cut it. My green was more army green than leaf green, but the Christmas red was just right.
Here’s where that learning curve I mentioned comes into play. Having watched a great deal of cooking shows and episodes of Martha where they decorate cookies with royal icing, I knew how important it was to create an outline with icing and then ‘flood’ the interior until you’ve reached the desired icing consistency. Enough of all that technical mumbo jumbo. Basically, you cover the cookie with icing. But this can be done to varying degrees of intricacy. At first, I created a solid outline and let it dry completely. I then filled the center of that outline with a smooth sheen of icing. Unfortunately, the wet and dry icings don’t blend all that well, as my jerk of an older brother was keen to point out repeatedly. So my place card cookies lacked that seamless perfection I was going for.
Not to be thwarted, I tried again with my second cookie idea. I love doing themes rather than just decorating a million arbitrary holiday shapes. I saw a cookie cutter online that completely inspired my Christmas cookie plan. It was in the shape of an old fashioned Christmas tree light — the bulbous kind with the large golden screw that bedecked trees across America in the ’50s and ’60s. Much like the lights on Ralphie Parker’s tree in A Christmas Story. These are my all time favorite type of lights, so a cookie shaped like one was a Christmas overload of happiness. Unfortunately I never actually purchased said cookie cutter, so I made do with an ornament cutter bent into the proper shape by a handy woman at the cake decorating store.
Choosing just one or two shapes for your holiday cookie display is a great way to keep things simple. I baked batch upon batch of Christmas lights and ornaments, knowing the icing would make them stand out. Once I had a stack of cookie lights, I grabbed a pastry bag loaded with brightly colored royal icing and began to pipe. This time around, I made an outline around the cookie and then immediately flooded the center so that the icing dried at the same time. It’s quite an effective method and uses a lot less icing — you merely squeeze out a bit of icing in the center and then smoosh it around with the pastry tip until it’s completely filled in. And yes, smoosh is a technical term. I achieved the golden screw look with a dab of white icing and a sprinkling of edible gold dust. These cookies turned out exactly as I’d imagined them — the perfect combination of Christmas nostalgia and whimsy.
At this point I got a little carried away with the icing. The cookie lights were fun because of their simplicity and consistency, but the ornaments left a lot more room for creativity. With a bit of patience, I was able to create some really lovely Christmas icons in cookie form. You just have to wait for each layer of icing to dry before you add any other embellishments. Patience is a virtue…rewarded with cookies.
With my cookie factory working in full force, I was able to crank out a sleigh full of whimsical Christmas cookies. One major problem when serving cookies like this — people think they are too pretty to eat! But it just takes one bite of that crispy, buttery cookie topped with that silky smooth layer of sweet royal icing to make you forget just how lovely they are…and just how many you’ve eaten!