Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Valentine's Day (or any day) Sugar Cookies

Since it was literally snowing sideways today, I spent the day inside, baking (and watching movies, and those other things normal people do on snow days). Since Valentine's Day is fast approaching, I decided to make sugar cookies and use the heart sugar cookie cutter that I have never managed to use before. I just don't make sugar cookies unless it's Christmas time...that is until I learned about royal icing. I mean, sugar cookies are time consuming, and even though they taste good, there are many other cookies I'd rather eat. But what a sugar cookie has that no other cookie does is visual appeal. I love that you can decorate them like a blank canvas, and sprinkles are great and everything, but royal icing really gives them that professional look. You may have seen seasonal sugar cookies decorated in stores and thought, how do they make them look so good? The answer, my friend, is royal icing (and a lot of practice drawing with a pastry bag).

Today, I just went for something simple but appealing. Pink hearts.

The following is the recipe for sugar cookies. I am telling you, this dough is so easy to make, and so easy to roll, you won't believe it. Here's the recipe:


* 1 1/2 cups butter, softened
* 2 cups white sugar
* 4 eggs
* 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
* 5 cups all-purpose flour
* 2 teaspoons baking powder
* 1 teaspoon salt


1. In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar until smooth. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Stir in the flour, baking powder, and salt. (If you are using a stand mixer, add flour gradually). Cover, and chill dough for at least one hour (or overnight).
2. Preheat oven to 375. Roll out dough on floured surface 1/4 to 1/8 inch thick. Cut into shapes with any cookie cutter. Place cookies 1 inch apart on cookie sheets (give them a quick spray if you like, but I find you don't need to grease them).
3. Bake 6 to 8 minutes in preheated oven. Cool completely.
Makes about 60 cookies.

Now the first thing you'll want to be sure of, especially if you've never made sugar cookies, is to have enough time to chill the dough. An hour is fine, but I usually leave mine overnight so I can minimize the mess in my tiny kitchen by cleaning up from making the dough before settling in to roll, cut, bake, and decorate them.

Once you've chilled the dough, you'll need a flat, clean surface to roll your dough on. Some people have pastry boards or cloth, but I just use my kitchen table. That way I don't have to worry about whatever I'm rolling on sliding around. Sprinkle a bit of flour on -- a bit! You want just enough flour on the surface to create a thin film, and you should still be able to see the surface through the flour. Also put some flour on your rolling pin. Oh no, you don't have a rolling pin? That's alright! A wine bottle (preferably empty) will do just fine.

When I roll dough, I like to make one good flattening roll, and then flip the whole piece of dough over to begin the "evening out" roll. I suggest you roll out as much dough as your space can hold. If you keep breaking off small pieces to roll and only make 8 cookies or so with every piece of dough, you'll run into he problem of consistent height in your cookies. Some might be closer to 1/8 in. thick, and others 1/4 in, and you might think they all look the same but, usually they aren't. This will cause different cooking times in the oven, and some will be more browned than others, which is not ideal. However, if you only have a small space, just try your best to watch the thickness of your cookies, and compare them to the previously cut ones.

Thickness is also another personal choice. For Christmas, when I use a lemony icing and sprinkles, I like my cookies thin, about 1/8 of an inch. But for these Valentine's cookies, with thick royal icing spread on them, you want your cookies on the thicker side as well. Something needs to balance out the extreme sweetness of the frosting, and a thin little cookie isn't going to cut it.

Move the racks of your oven to the two topmost rungs. I find that if I bake sugar cookies too close to the bottom of the oven, they burn on their bottoms, and look uncooked on top. You can certainly put two sheets in at once though if they are on the top two rungs. You will want to watch them carefully as these little buggers can really burn fast. As soon as you see any eensy bit of browning on the bottom edges, yank them out. Then cool them on racks after they've been on the sheets for a bit.

So, now, royal icing.

Here's a recipe that will make enough to ice the cookies from the recipe above (and 60 is a lot of cookies!)

2 cups confectionary sugar
1 1/2 Tbsp Meringue Powder (you can substitute egg whites, but some people don't like raw egg whites in their food; use 2 medium egg whites)
1/2 tsp vanilla or lemon juice or another flavor you like
Several Tbsps of room temperature water (start with 3)
Food coloring

Royal icing is different from frosting. It will be spreadable and seem pretty liquidy at first, but it dries solid with a matte finish. Therefore, you would never want to ice a cake with this, since you'd probably need a saw to cut it open (not to mention it would not taste good). Royal icing is used by professional bakers to make roses and other flowers for cakes ahead of time; they are then transferred to the cake once they are hard. They also use it to decorate cookies, like we will be doing here. When it is dry, it won't be smearing off if you accidentally bang into it (like a cupcake frosting), which I think is a great thing. The other nice thing is that royal icing is water based, so it comes off of things very easily (can't say as much for the food coloring though).

So, you put all the frosting ingredients in your mixer, and beat it on high for 10 minutes, stopping as necessary in the beginning to scrape down the sides and make sure it is all incorporated. You will need a stand mixer for this, because you definitely will not want to be holding a hand beater for 10 minutes, and it could burn out your motor on it. (If you don't have a stand mixer, you can make a different kind of icing, with confectioners sugar, a little lemon juice, and a little milk, which will be like a glaze). Don't move that icing until it's been 10 minutes. It might look ready but trust me, it is not. I have done this more than once and I have been very unhappy with the results (I told you I'm not very patient).

Now you need to check the thickness. Chances are, it is pretty thick now. You'll want to add at least two more tablespoons of water. You want the frosting to be easily spreadable if you are going to spread it on the whole cookie, and even if you are going to pipe it, it needs to be pretty thin. It will still work if thick, but won't give you as smooth a look on your cookie. Once you've got your thickness the way you want it, add your food coloring.

I like to take a little bit out and put it in a small piping bag for white, and then separate the other colors out as necessary. I just added some red into the whole batch for this one though. As you can see, they are pink, not red.

It is very difficult to get red frosting, and even if you manage to, you've probably used your whole food coloring jar, and the frosting will probably have an odd chemical taste. Here are your options: 1. Buy "no taste red" food coloring. This is specially designed not to make you gag when you add a lot of it in. or 2. only make a little bit of red. There is no way you could make the whole bowl red, but a small cup, sure.

Then, you're ready to decorate. You can pipe designs with this, or just spread a coating. Whatever you want to do is up to you. Don't layer it too thick though: you do want to be able to taste cookie, right? Let them dry for a few hours. The test that they are ready is that the frosting has become a uniform color. If you see dark pink and light pink, the frosting is not set.

So, the things to remember:
1. Coat surface and rolling pin for easy rolling.
2. Roll dough to an even thickness and roll as much as you can at once for uniformity in cooking.
3. Take cookies out at the first sign of browning on bottom edges.
4. The frosting isn't dry until the color is uniform. Don't eat until you see that!

These are a great treat for kids, to bring to a party, or even to make for your sweetheart on Valentine's Day. They will be very impressed. I mean, who wouldn't want a Valentine's message in cookies?

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