Thursday, December 15, 2011

Christmas Cutout Cookies

One of my favorite memories as a kid is making Christmas cookies with my mom and sisters.  Usually this involved and all day cookie baking and decorating frenzy.  By the end of the day the kitchen was covered in flour, icing and sprinkles.  Were the cookies Martha Stewart quality?  No, but they were special because we made them together.  I've always wanted to recreate those memories with my children and this year I felt they were old enough to help and get some enjoyment out of it.  I have to admit, I've been secretly dreading this in some respects, anticipating the huge mess it would make.  But actually, things turned out pretty good and the mess wasn't too bad.

Although I wouldn't trade my childhood Christmas cookie memories for anything, there are some tips I've picked up along the way that have since made this process a lot easier.  So today I plan on sharing those tips with you.
So grab your favorite Christmas cookie cutters and let's get started!

Christmas Cutout Cookies

First things first, you have to make the cookies before you can even talk about icing or decorating them.  There are lots of options here.  Typically, either sugar or gingerbread cookies are used.  There are lots of great recipes out there.  I personally, like to use Alton Brown's sugar cookie dough recipe.  You can use whatever you want.  I have even had good success with Betty Crocker's sugar cookie mix.  

Once you have your dough made, flatten it into a disc and chill it in the refrigerator for at least an hour.  If you are planning on making cookies a certain day, make the dough the night before and stick it in the fridge overnight so it's all ready to go the next morning.  Once you pull the dough out of the fridge you'll have to let it soften a bit so you can roll it out.  Now here is a great tip I picked up from watching Good Eats, rather than rolling your cookies out in flour, use powdered sugar.
When you use flour, it can sometimes cause your cookies to become too dry and burn easily.  Using powdered sugar, if anything, just adds a little sweetness.  Next, roll your dough out to about 1/4 to 1/2 inch thickness (depending on how thick you want your cookies).  Dip your cookie cutters in powdered sugar and then press them into the dough, be sure to maximize how many cutouts you get!
Peel back the dough and then remove the cutout shapes from the counter and place them on parchment lined baking sheets.  I find a dough-scraper makes this a lot easier, especially if you have some sticky spots.  Use the dough scraper to gently shimmy under the shapes and lift them off the counter.

Once the cookies are on their baking sheets, you are ready to bake.  Here is another tip I picked up...when you go to preheat your oven, place a baking or broiler sheet on the very bottom rack, right above the heating element.  Having this empty sheet under your cookie sheets will help displace some of the heat so that its not directly on the bottom of the cookie sheet you have your cookies on.  That way, there is less risk of the bottoms of your cookies burning.
Bake your cookies according to the recipe's directions.  Usually for sugar cookies this will be about 8-10 minutes.  Be sure to keep an eye on them and its a good idea to rotate the pan halfway through the baking period to ensure even browning.  Pull your cookies out of the oven as soon as the very edges seem to be getting ever so slightly brown. 
Allow them to cool on the pans for just a few minutes so they set, then transfer them to wire racks to cool completely (if you don't have wire racks, just place them on another sheet of parchment paper on the counter).
Once the cookies are cool....here comes the REALLY FUN part.  The icing!  For Christmas cutouts I like to use royal icing.  I like this because royal icing dries hard, so that its easy to stack the cookies in say, an adorable Christmas tin, and they won't get messed up.  Royal icing is very simple, its just egg-whites, water and powdered sugar.  Instead of egg whites you can also use meringue-powder, which is better for small children and pregnant women because there is no risk of disease from unpasteurized egg whites.  Now as an aside, I will say I have used pasteurized, refrigerated egg whites to make icing.  Even though the carton says you can't really use them for that, I have done it and have had good success.  So if you can't get a hold of meringue powder, you can use pasteurized, refrigerated egg whites (such as Egg Beaters) in a pinch.  Meringue powder is available in the baking aisle of most stores, or anywhere where specialty cake making products are sold (craft stores such as Michael's).  
  I chose to use the recipe that came with the meringue powder for the royal icing.  This called for:

  •  3 tablespoons of meringue powder
  • 4 cups sifted powdered sugar
  • 6 tablespoons of warm water (I had to use several more tablespoons to get it to the consistency I wanted)
But do you have to sift the powdered sugar?  That seems like so much work!  Well, yes you kind of do.  Sifting ensures a fine and even consistency that will in turn make a smooth icing.  If you don't sift, you may end up with lumpy icing.  
Place all the ingredients into a mixing bowl and turn the mixer on low.  Mix until soft peaks form (about 7 minutes).  For our purposes, we want the icing to be the consistency of Elmer's glue.  To achieve this I had to add several more tablespoons of water than what was initially called for.  If you get your icing to thin, just mix it a little bit more and it will thicken.  
Initially, you will get a pearly white icing.  Add food coloring if desired!  Place the icing in piping bags.  I secure them at the tops with bag clips to keep the icing from coming out.  I also place them in tall drinking glasses, to catch an drips.
Depending on the consistency of your icing, you can use it to pipe stiff borders on your cookies, or if it is thinner, you can use it to cover the entire cookie.  Here is how I do it.  Using a piping bag with a number 5 tip, outline the cookie and pipe lines across it.
Then, dip a spreader or butter knife in cold water, and use it to spread the icing over the entire cookie.
Next, let your kiddos go wild with sprinkles!  These cookies can be a little cumbersome and messy to make, but its a great opportunity to spend quality time with the ones you love!

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