Last week we started our cookie quest by making the dough and baking off some cookies. Today we’re going to decorate them, and really, that’s what it’s all about. Although you can slap anything you want on the cookies and call them done, royal icing is the stuff that’s going to give you the most creative versatility and precision. To get you fully holiday ready (within the limits of sugar cookies) we’re going to make royal icing and then look at the different basic techniques you can use it for to create any design you want.
I’ve always used fresh egg whites for my royal icing, but if you want to be super safe you can use the liquid egg whites that are sold as a pasteurized product.
I call for cream of tartar in the recipe, which as an acid will help keep the icing bright white. If you plan to color your icing and not use any white, then you don’t need to add the cream of tartar.
Speaking of color, I like to use gel color because it has a high potency and doesn’t thin your icing as much as a thinner colorant will. Americolor is a brand that makes pretty good color.
Moving on to equipment, there’s an entire industry built on all kinds of little cookie decorating gadgets and tools that I more or less think are a complete waste of money. I use paper cones and toothpicks for the bulk of my decorating, and I think I do a decent job with just those two very cheap items. That being said, I think it’s worth it to have a set of coupler tips for really detailed piping.
The coupler sets are especially useful if you plan on using multiple tips on one bag of icing. Rather than having a bag for every tip, you can simply unscrew the coupler to remove on tip and then replace it with another. Magic!
royal icing (base icing)
225g powdered sugar
1g cream of tartar
35g egg whites approx. one egg
Simply combine all of the ingredients in a stand mixer with a whip attachment. Mix on medium-low speed until the icing is stiff and bright white.
I refer to this as my base icing. Without adjusting the consistency, this base icing is great to use as a glue, like if you were going to build gingerbread houses. Adding water to the base icing will get you a thinned product useful for other applications.
outlining (+ 1.1% water)
250g base icing
top coating (+ 3.3 – 3.7% water)
250g base icing
8 – 9g water
flooding (+ 4.2% water)
250g base icing
10 – 11g water
Outlining is closest in consistency to base icing, thinned just enough to allow it to pipe easily. This technique is used to create and piped lines that you want to hold their shape. Sometimes an outline is piped around the edge of a cookie to act as a dam for thinner icing, other times it serves as a finishing pattern or detail.
When piping an outline, keep the tip of your piping bag off of the surface of the cookie. Lead the tip where you want the outline to go, almost dragging the icing along. I find it helps to over exaggerate my piping movement when creating an outline.
Top coating refers to a technique of covering your cookie in icing without creating a border beforehand. Top coating icing is thinned to a consistency that will settle smoothly, but not be so fluid that it spills over the edge of the cookie. I test the icing by letting it fall off of my spatula or spoon. It should flow smoothly but slowly and any trails of icing should begin to settle in about 15-20 seconds.
I use a paper cone when top coating, because a precise line of icing isn’t needed. Pipe the icing giving yourself a little extra space from the edge of the cookie than you normally would since the icing will spread slightly as it settles. You can shape the icing or fill gaps with a toothpick, but do this quickly! The icing sets and dries rapidly and if you wait too long to use a toothpick it can leave permanent marks.
Flooding icing is the most fluid of the three. It is used to fill areas defined by an outlined border. Many people like to create and outline and then flood the cookie as opposed to using a top coat because you can be very precise and intricate with the outline and not risk different colored areas of the cookie mixing together once you flood them. To determine the right consistency, I look for the trails in the icing to smooth themselves almost completely in about 15 seconds.
First pipe the outline of your cookie. Allow this to dry for 5-10min. before flooding the cookie. Add your flooding icing within the borders of the outline. Similar to top coating icing, you can manipulate the freshly piped icing with a toothpick to work it into small corners or to fill gaps. All icing has some surface tension, so keep in mind that you may pipe flooding icing from one border to the other and then realize it’s too much icing once it begins to settle.
Once you have the basics of making and piping icing, you can really let loose on you cookies. By “complex” cookies I really just mean a cookie that requires more than one color and/or layer of icing. No matter what the design might be, I think it’s worth taking the time to do a little planning on your designs.
I always make a list of colors needed for the cookies I want to create, and even go so far as to have swatches of the colors ready that I can match to my icing when I color it. That may seem a bit extreme, but it sure as hell beats going into the process blind, making way too much or not enough of the colors you need and not really being certain that they’re the right color in the first place.
Keep in mind that if you want to create a base of icing and then pipe a design on top of it, you will have to let the first layer of icing set. Ideally this process will take 8-12 hours, but if you are gentle with your second layer of piping, could get away with letting your icing dry for 2-3 hours. Those times could be shorter depending on how dry out it is where you live. You’ll just have to experiment.
Some people will scratch their design into the cookie before piping (yes, there is a specific tool sold to do that. I just use a paring knife or toothpick). Likewise, you could scratch you design into a layer of icing you’ve already piped, so long as you let it dry first.
With these basic and really simple skills you can get super creative and make the cookie or cookies of your dreams! Prepare to own this holiday season.