[Note: This is a re-post from last year for your edification and amusement. Merry baking!]
Don’t you just love those magazine covers? You know, the Christmas issues with the plates of gorgeously decorated sugar cookies that promise “simple, heart-felt gifts from your kitchen”? Every year, as I’m standing in the check-out line at the grocery store in the week or two after Thanksgiving, I study those photos and nearly get suckered all over again into trying to make something remotely resembling those pictures. But after years of unfortunate experiments, I have learned that it just ain’t happening. When God passed out cookie decorating brains, I must have been behind the Pearly Gates.
My problem with decorated cookies starts with the base. Truth to say, I don’t particularly care for a standard sugar cookie. To me, it tastes just like what it is: sugar, butter, and flour. The addition of lemon, orange, or lime zest adds some flavor, as do finely chopped nuts–pistachios, say. But all of those can leave bumps on the surface which interfere with intricate icing. (That’s one of my excuses for sudden zigzags in otherwise straight lines, anyway, and I’m sticking to it.)
However, I figure if I’m going to make 36 or 48 cookies, I really should make something I actually like, not merely tolerate, so I zero in on either chocolate or gingerbread. Better yet, both. I take a recipe for chocolate gingerbread cut-out cookies, then ignore the bit that says to roll them out to one-eighth inch thickness, double the thickness to one-quarter inch to insure the cookie won’t break as I decorate it, recalculate baking time, and am home free.
Except not so fast, Sunshine. Dark cookies do not bake like sugar cookies, and there’s (apparently) a world of difference between ‘gossamer thin’ and ‘stout enough to stand my handling’ in terms of baking time. Invariably my moose, loon, snowflake, and cabin cut-outs are either crisp-verging-on-freaking-hard or so soft the first touch of the icing spreader rolls up the fragile ‘skin’ into a glob of crumb-encrusted frosting. (If they ever put out a casting call for the lead Gingerbread Boy in a zombie cookie apocalypse movie, I’ve got it covered, though.) Faced with that kind of failure, there’s really nothing to do but make yourself a pot of tea and destroy the evidence.
On a scale of one to ten, my freehand artistic skills rank somewhere around minus three, so if eventually I happen to get a dozen satisfactorily baked cut-outs, I am faced with a frighteningly blank canvas. Despite my best efforts with icings, sprinkles, gel writers, sugar pearls, chocolate jimmies, and whatever else caught my eye as I was shopping, my creations very closely approximate those of any reasonably competent five-year-old. Well, OK, maybe not that good. But close. Darned close.
I was always good at coloring inside the lines, though, so a few years ago I reasoned that if I got some of those nifty cookie cutters that press a design into the dough, I could surely manage to pipe icing through one of those icing bags with all the nifty nozzles and voilá! Cookie success at last!
There were only two problems with that. First, let it here be noted that despite anything in the instructions about oiling or flouring the cutter to let the dough release easily once you’ve pressed it into the dough, you can kiss that myth goodbye. Given the first available opportunity, that cutter is going to grab hold of the dough and defy your best efforts to tease, coax, or tap your snowflake with its intricate curlicues loose from its clutches. In the end, you will find you must administer a firm rap with a rolling pin. You will sacrifice the plastic cutter (and possibly a knuckle if you don’t remember to move your hand in time), but by that point you’ll figure, What the hell, it’s worth it. Then, when you have one slightly smooshed perfect cookie, complete with plastic sprinkles, the second problem arises. Remember the icing bag with the nifty nozzles that make swirls and piping? Well, just bear in mind that a) the icing isn’t supposed to leak from the bunched-up top of the bag; b) if you squeeze too hard, the nozzle will shoot off and suddenly you’ll be decorating the kitchen cabinets with a truly shocking shade of Santa Red; and c) if all else fails, you can always tuck the bowl of icing under one arm, a plate of dismembered gingerbread people under the other and sit on the couch, dipping cookie pieces and watching It’s A Wonderful Life. In fact, to avoid aggravation and a massive clean-up, I’d advise just going right to this option.
Over the years I have tried so hard. I invested in a pricey set of Linzer cookie cutters. Result? See above under Dough Does Not Release. I made paintbrush cookies, painting on designs with egg-and-food-coloring paints to imitate stained glass. Result? There was a stained glass effect, all right, like Notre Dame’s rose window with centuries of soot and grime. (The egg paint turns brown if you’re not obsessive about timing and oven temperature. See above under Over- and Under-done.) I tried to make a gingerbread house with candy canes framing the front door and Necco wafers for roof tiles. Result? See above under Disasters: Hiding Evidence Of.
Finally I said forget it–or words to that effect–and now, while I still bake for Christmas, I only make drop cookies that taste great and don’t have to look perfect. One of my favorites is Chewy Chocolate Gingerbread cookies, which feature both freshly grated ginger root and dark chocolate chips. No icing required. The kitchen cabinets are safe.
But, gosh darn, those magazine cookies sure are pretty, she said wistfully.