Recently, I took a Cookie Decorating Class at the Decorette Shop. I thought it would be interesting to talk about what I learned. The idea of the class was to prepare us to decorate Holiday Season cutout cookies. The Shop provided everything.
On the table when we sat down were several piping bags with different color Royal Icing in them. And with each color, there was a squeeze-bottle of the same color Royal Icing. Notice the twist-em on the piping bag; a neat trick to keep the content from coming back up to the top and out onto your hand.
I asked about the formula for Royal Icing; it was listed on a paper each student received. Since I learned to ice cookies using a mixture of powder sugar and water, I was curious as to why people add egg white or meringue powder. The recipe also had some cream of tartar listed. The answer I got didn’t satisfy me- I was told the meringue or egg white was necessary for drying. I knew that couldn’t be completely correct since the icing I have used dried. I wondered if it defined the amount of time it took for the icing to dry. Later, at home, I decided I had to experiment. (Searching the internet, I found at least one other cookie decorator that used just moist powder sugar as the icing, but almost everyone uses meringue powder).
My experiment was to use three recipes for the icing; the Royal Icing recipe I received in the class using meringue powder, the same recipe but substituting egg white for the meringue powder, and then my old recipe of just powder sugar and water. They all dried, and the time it took seemed to be as much a function of the depth of the icing on the cookie as anything else.
On another trip to the Decorette Shop, I was able to talk about Royal Icing with another customer who seemed quite knowledgeable. I had come to believe that the meringue powder was used to give body to the icing, and that was confirmed. In addition, the lady volunteered that the cream of tartar does help the drying and makes the dry icing stronger.
When I mentioned to daughter Mindy that I was looking to suggest that you could avoid buying meringue powder and just use egg white which you probably already have, she got upset and said that there are too many problems with raw egg, and at least she would go out of her way to find meringue powder rather than take any chance on using egg white. There is another problem in substituting egg white for the meringue powder; the egg white is moisture, and so the recipe is wrong for trying to do a straight substitution of a couple egg whites for 4-5 Tablespoons of meringue powder. You end up needing to increase the amount of powder sugar. To keep things simple, I will always use the recipe with meringue powder.
The recipe makes the Royal Icing stiff enough to be piped; the squeeze bottles have the same color thinned to the point that it just flows. We were told that you add water a little at a time until when you drop a spoonful into the dish, it settles and self-levels in about 5 seconds.
Decorating cookies starts with making the cookies. We were also given the recipe for Ethel’s Sugar Cookies. This was interesting since the cookies that were passed out to us for practice were well shaped. I had trouble using Sugar Cookies as the basis for cutouts, and finally went to a Shortbread cookie since it spread less while cooking. So again, when I went home, I started an experiment. With Ethel’s recipe, I found 3 more Sugar Cookie recipes in Marlys’s Recipe Book and two Shortbread Cookie recipes for a total of 6 recipes that I wanted to try and compare. I convinced myself that a crisp Sugar Cookie, when cooked right, is the best cutout cookie.
So what is the cooking trick. First, the dough has to be refrigerated and cooled completely through before rolling it out and die-cutting it. This works best if you divide the dough into two packets so that you are only working with half at a time, and the other half is cooling. It can take up to 45 minutes to cool, and it is best if the packet is wrapped as a thin disk so as much surface area receives the cooling as possible. Second, after rolling out the dough (to 1/4 inch thick) and die-cutting the shapes, the shapes need to be frozen for 10 minutes before being cooked. Place the pan right in the freezer for 10 minutes. (I had trouble with this- my air-bake pans are 15 inches wide and my freezer is 12 inches wide. I was lucky that I use silicon mats on the air-bake pans so I was able to slide the whole mat into the freezer for the 10 minutes. Finally, the temperature of the oven needs to be higher than for normal baking, and the time reduce so the cookies don’t burn. I found the temperature needed to be at least 400 degrees and the cooking time was less than 10 minutes- more like 8 minutes for some recipes.
The final comparison came down to two recipes to be considered; Ethel’s and one of Marlys’s that was labelled Crisp Sugar Cookies and talks about cutouts. Marlys’s recipe tasted sweeter, but was also more complex than Ethel’s; but since we are talking about coating the cookie with sugar, the sweet taste doesn’t seem important, and so I will stick with Ethel’s Sugar Cookie recipe for my cutouts.
The first thing we learned about decorating was to flood a color. To do this, you pipe a dam around the area to be flooded, then you squeeze out icing into the area. The icing self-levels and you have nice looking color on the cookie. Now we started using some of the other items on the tray on our table. First, we had the circular cookie to be transformed into a snow globe. Here, as soon as we had finished the white flooding, we sprinkled it with very small non-pariels to give it texture. (Almost all the decorating is a combination of color and texture.) The blue was added later after the white had dried for several minutes and we had worked on several other cookies. And even later, we added the snowman and trees; these are bought as pre-made figures.
For the mitten, after doing the white flooding, we textured the white with a product known as “sanding sugar”. It, like the non-pariels, comes in a multitude of colors.
Other items on our trays include products known as disco dust and luster dust. We had a stencil that we used on the ornament cookie, and painted through the stencil with a dry water-color brush and the disco dust. The luster dust I used on the snowflake.
The snowflake shows piping on top of the flooded color. And in the center of the snowflake is a small snowflake that we die-cut from rolled fondant. Then I sprinkled it all with luster dust.
We also used different tips on the piping bags to get other effects. For example, the top of the acorn was given texture using a “leaf”tip on the piping bag.
We used the “star” tip both to give raised points like on the snowman hat, and to give flowing ridges like on the mustache.
The green leaf on the hat is another piece of die-cut rolled fondant.
While there were several other techniques and product about which we learned. I think they will need to wait for another day. Most importantly, from the class, I took away that decorating is using a few techniques with products that combine to develop color and texture. An artist (I’m not) can have real fun starting from these few basics.