There is one nonnegotiable kind of Christmas cookie in this house: the Moravian cookies that hang on the Christmas tree, the ones my mom made every year. The spicy, thinly rolled cookies are the easy part; it’s the royal icing that gives me trouble.
It shouldn’t: There really isn’t anything to making royal icing. It’s just egg white, confectioner’s sugar and cream of tartar. Beat together a long time and you’re ready to pipe.
Sometimes it works for me, sometimes it doesn’t. When it works, it flows like a dream and dries into cement that lasts well into January. But sometimes it doesn’t even stick. This year, however, I’m going to get it right.
Last year I thought I’d try for a sure thing and bought premade royal icing in a tub, and for insurance, a bag of cookie icing mix. What could possibly go wrong?
The tub icing was almost impossible to push through the decorating tube. I squeezed it out and thinned it with water, and started over many times. It never did become easy to work with. I had better luck with the mix, which uses meringue powder and water in place of egg white. It worked OK, though it had a strong odor of artificial vanilla.
But in my experience, if you nail the homemade royal icing it’s terrific. It can hold your gingerbread house together.
You can drip it from the roof to make icicles. (See the recipe in the sidebar for making royal icing.)
I always examine closely the prepared products that come with cookie kits and what’s sold as cookie icing ready-to-use. They all have the same drawback: The icing doesn’t dry hard, and it smears and gets messy. OK on a birthday cake, not so good for cookies.
So royal icing is what you want — the semi-gloss, gorgeous, enamel-like stuff.
First, you need sugar cookies. See the sidebar for my mom’s recipe for excellent sugar cookies. It is a fairly large recipe that halves easily, but when using larger cutters, the dough gets used up fast. You can use any recipe.
Here’s the thing: Royal icing doesn’t have a lot of flavor. So you have to make sure your cookie is as good-tasting as you can make it. That means real butter and real vanilla.
This year I tried flooding, or flowing, royal frosting. That’s the kind that covers the top of the cookie and dries to an enamel finish. You pipe frosting around the edges per usual, then use the same kind of frosting, slightly thinned, to fill in the middle.
That’s the technique used on those super-fancy cookies, like the ones you get as party favors. You can make them intricate and detailed.
Another thing: You want to choose cutters that give you lots of room to fill with icing. I passed over the skinny flying reindeer in favor of stars, bells, holly leaves and other simple shapes with empty space in the middle. The cookie is a canvas.
For the new cookie-baking season, along with the baking powder and baking soda, I tossed the cream of tartar for fresh ingredients and did an inventory of bags and decorating tips. Then off to the specialty store.
Confectionery House on Route 7 in Troy has everything you could imagine you’d need for making cakes, cookies, cupcakes and candy. I bought a Cookie Decorating Tool Kit ($29.99) and some colored sugar and nonpareils, but due to shipping issues there were no food-safe icing pens. I found some at a big-box store.
Then I went down a rabbit hole watching cookie-icing videos and learned that the flooding technique can be carried out in many ways.
Some cooks favor squeeze bottles to spread the thin frosting. Others use paintbrushes or a spoon.
Also, recipes vary widely; some add water or corn syrup or vanilla. One baker measures out the water with an eyedropper, another sloshes in the egg white and dumps sugar into the mixing bowl without measuring. Both have excellent results.
The royal icing came out just OK. When I got to the right consistency of soft peaks, I filled a pastry bag fitted with a No. 3 tip and ran a strip around the edge of a star. Then I scooped some icing into a small bowl and thinned it with water. Thanks to the YouTuber who showed me how it should look, I knew I had it when it flowed off the spoon back into the bowl.
I chose to pipe the thinned, flowing frosting. I cut a wide opening at the bottom of a disposable pastry bag and piped thick ribbons back and forth, not quite filling the space. Then I found a teeny-tiny spatula that helped me coax it to the outside edges. The small roundtable in the cookie kit came in very handy here. I could manipulate the cookie rather than move around it.
The edging, which should dry a bit before you fill, was a little crumbly. Also, I dropped a perfect one — upside-down, of course.
So that was just for one color — white. A dozen cookies took me about an hour.
Every time you want to use a new color you have to make a thick batch and a thin one. Bowls and bags start to pile up. The icing dries into cement in the tips and on the sides of the bowls.
I gave up, discouraged, after the second color. They looked OK, but the icing was chalky-looking — not so appealing.
After they dried I took out the edible markers. It’s like drawing on paper — it’s that easy. I’m not an artist and it showed. But the cookies looked way better, and using the pens was fun.
Big improvement, but there had to be a better, less messy way to ice cookies. Less flooding, more something easier.
And there was. My friend Sheryl sent me a recipe for icing that dries to a shiny, hard finish. This one uses corn syrup, confectioner’s sugar, milk and vanilla extract. More reviewers’ photos looked good than awful, a positive sign. See the recipe for easy icing in the sidebar.
You don’t even need to drag out the mixer to make the easy icing. I doubled the batch and mixed it in a bowl in the sink.
Then I separated portions into small bowls and added a drop of food coloring to each. I started with four colors: pink, blue, purple and green. With only one kind of icing per color, it was easier already.
I used paintbrushes to spread the icing on the cookies. It worked pretty well and didn’t take long to get the hang of.
The Wilton Baking Supply company assumes you don’t know anything, so they give you instructions with all their products. They tell you how to best use each brush in their paintbrush set. That helped.
This icing sets quickly, so I had to add a little water and make sure the bowls were kept covered as I worked. It’s not as opaque as royal icing, but it’s pretty enough, a bit glossy and fairly easy to work with. I happily sprinkled nonpareils over wet icing.
These cookies came out nice enough to hand out.
The royal icing and flooding technique didn’t defeat me. I’ll keep at it until I’m satisfied with the results, and the easy icing worked well enough that I’d use it again. At least I feel like I learned something.
And if you’re put off by all the effort it takes to ice sugar cookies, keep in mind that colored sugar is available in a rainbow of hues. You can sprinkle it on your cookies before they go in the oven. It looks pretty, and nothing could be easier.
Now for the recipes:
1 cup butter
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon almond extract (optional, I never use it)
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
Beat butter until creamy. Beat in eggs, sugar and flavorings. In a separate bowl, mix flour, baking powder and salt. Add to creamed mixture. Mix well.
Chill dough in refrigerator at least 1 hour. Roll out to between 1/8- and 1/4-inch thickness. Cut out shapes. Re-roll scraps.
Bake about 5 minutes at 375 degrees. Watch closely; they go fast.
Remove from pans immediately to wire rack.
Makes several dozen, depending on size.
3 egg whites
2 cups sifted confectioner’s sugar
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
Place egg whites in a round-bottomed bowl and add about one-third of the sugar.
Beat with mixer until mixture is smooth and creamy.
Add the cream of tartar and the rest of the sugar.
FOR SPREADING (flooding): Continue beating until the mixture is the the consistency of heavy cream.
FOR ORNAMENTAL ICING (piping): it should be so thick that a peak made when the beater is withdrawn will remain upright.
When finished and while using, keep the bowl covered with a damp cloth.
Can be tinted with food coloring. Makes enough to decorate one large batch of gingerbread or sugar cookies.
1 1/2 cups confectioner’s sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
2 to 2 1/2 tablespoon water, at room temperature
Food coloring (optional)
Whisk together the sugar, vanilla, corn syrup and 2 tablespoons water together in a medium bowl until smooth and thick. Drizzle icing back into the bowl. If the icing holds its shape for a few seconds before melting back into the bowl it’s ready. If it’s too thick, add 1/2 tablespoon of water at a time. If it’s too thin, add more sugar.
You can divide the icing between small bowls and add a drop of food coloring to each.
The icing will be completely set in 24 hours. Use a fan or put cookies in the fridge to speed up setting.
Keep the icing covered with a damp paper towel. You can store it at room temperature, but be sure to cover it tightly.