It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas in our kitchen, after I made a royal icing mess of every counter and my fingers were a sticky kaleidoscope of red, green and white food coloring and sparkling sugar. Whenever I've decorated cookies before, I've just made a basic, creamy, ultra-sugary powdered sugar icing, which I spread messily and imperfectly - but deliciously - onto the cookies with a knife. It's how my mom did it, it's how her mom did it, and it's how I did it, too.
But the perfectionist baker in me has been longing to try my hand at professional, or at the very least, semi-professional looking cookies, decorated with a sleekly smooth blanket of royal icing. Having never used royal icing before, I wasn't quite prepared for the frustration of trying to achieve the perfect consistency, and that there's really no shortcut to needing to mix up separate bowls of color for each consistency (outlining, flooding and piping details).
I learned that I need more than just one #2 and #3 Wilton round tips, as I had to constantly switch them back and forth between the different colors in my piping bags. I didn't mind my pile of "ugly" cookies that didn't work out at all - because even the ugly ones taste good - and I was pleased with the ones that I thought turned out quite pretty in the end.
And I realized that true cookie decorating perfection can only be achieved after years of practice, not in one day. Which, in my case, is probably not going to happen, as I tend not to decorate cookies more than once or twice a year, at the most, so I may never become really accomplished. But I'm okay with that, because I think these look pretty for my first try. And as I try again, I'll be able to share tips from some of the things I learn along the way.
Since frosted cookies have so much sweet icing on them, I decided not to make the usual sugar cookies. Instead, I made my recipe for shortbread, adding a little more salt and a spoonful of vanilla bean paste, a salty sweet flavor that was a delicious contrast to the sugary icing.
There are few things more iconic of winter than a steaming cup of hot chocolate, so for something a little different, I made some creamy White Hot Chocolate, rich with cocoa butter and garnished with a grating of nutmeg. I don't think Santa would mind getting a cup of this with a plateful of pretty cookies on Christmas Eve...
White Hot Chocolate
- 2 ounces white chocolate, chopped
- 2 1/2 cups whole milk
- 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- nutmeg, for grating
- candy canes and/or marshmallows, for garnish
When the mixture is gently bubbling and the chocolate is melted and smooth, pour into serving mugs and garnish with nutmeg, and anything else you'd like to top it with.
Yields about 4 servings.
Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen
Vanilla Bean Shortbread Christmas Cookies
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 cup powdered sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 sticks, plus 2 tablespoon (18 tablespoons total) very cold unsalted butter, diced
- 2 egg yolks
- 1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste
- 2-3 teaspoons ice water
In a bowl, whisk together the flour, powdered sugar and salt. Scatter the cold butter pieces over the flour, and using a pastry cutter, cut the butter into the flour until you have coarse crumbs with visible pea-sized chunks of butter throughout. In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and vanilla bean paste. Scrape into the flour mixture and work the dough with your fingers to incorporate the moisture into the flour. (The dough will appear very dry, and you might think it doesn't have enough liquid, but don't worry, it will come together.) After 2-3 minutes of working the dough, it should start to hold together enough so that you can gather it into a loose ball. Add the ice water, a little at a time, just to finish bringing the dough together so that you can roll it out.
Shape the dough into a disk and set on a piece of parchment paper, lightly floured. Place another piece of parchment paper on top of the dough. Roll the dough out to 1/4 inch thick. Use cookie cutters to cut as many cookies as you can; transfer the cookies to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a Silpat, placing the cookies 1 inch apart. Gather up the dough scraps, roll them out again, and cut more cookies, continue rolling and cutting until you've used up all the dough. You should be able to cut about 3 dozen cookies, depending on the size of your cookie cutter/s.
Freeze the cookies on the baking sheets for 45 minutes to an hour. This will help ensure that they hold their shape and do not spread out during baking. (When it's cold out, I just lay a clean kitchen towel over my cookie sheets and set them outside on our balcony to chill, instead of trying to make room for the cookie sheets in the freezer.)
Preheat the oven to 350. Bake the cookies (straight from the freezer) for 10-12 minutes, depending on how big you cut them, just until a very pale golden (the cookies do not rise or spread). Cool completely on a wire rack before icing and decorating.
Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen
For the Royal Icing, as it was my first time using it and I had no experience yet, I used the recipe and some of the tips by Sweetopia, although I did have to add more water than her recipe called for, even for a piping consistency, and much more for a flooding consistency. Eventually, I hope to formulate my own perfect recipe and tips as I practice more with decorating cookies.