Holiday Cooking : Sugar Cookies / by J White

There’s something magical about decorating something sweet with something edible. “The icing on the cake” sums it up. It’s a fun project for almost any occasion – or no occasion at all.  What makes it special is that there are defined breaks in the process allowing attentions to wander in between.

Sugar Cookie Making:

A Four Stage process:

The recipe we used is in the Martha Stewart Baking Book - read my review here. The sugar cookie recipe is wonderful. A similar recipe is on the Martha Stewart website.

1. Make dough

- Break- Refrigerate

(can be overnight – or frozen)

2. Roll & Cut

Take a Break- Chill and bake and cool

(can be overnight)

3. Make Icing – Arrange Decorations.

4. Ice and Decorate Cookies

Deliver Happy Day Presents!

Why Make Cookies?

Because it’s fun to mix and roll and cut and decorate. It’s like cooking and art and science all-in-one. I usually make a huge batch of cookie dough and divide into four then I freeze three and use one fourth. When we have a slow day out comes the cookie dough from the freezer and by the time we’ve set up the decorating zone it’s almost ready to roll and cut it.

I find that the interest level of a younger child (2-5) is about enough to accomplish either making the dough or rolling it and cutting it or decorating in one sitting. You can often roll and cut and then take a break and then decorate later in the day. Doing all three in one day can be almost too much. Having pre-made dough (this is what makes those ready to bake companies rich) gives the roll and decorate a spotlight. The chilling and the baking time give the natural break needed to get the focus back to cooking.

The rolling and cutting procedure can take a while as all the little pieces are re-rolled – Trent likes to just use a bench scraper to cut dough into pieces and sometimes that’s most of the “cutting” for him. You can then chill and bake the cookies and cool them, decorating them that day or the even the next. When they are done we often take them around to neighbors and friends as a sunny day surprise.

Icing and decorating really seem to me more of a craft project than cooking. At Thanksgiving and Christmas my mother-in-law pre-cuts and bakes the cookies piercing them before baking so that a string or ribbon can be threaded through them. Then she sets up a newspaper covered table with all the decorating stuff and when the kids (and adults) arrive then can dive right in. We would make a fine mess but have a fantastic time. Icing colors are easily piped on using cones of rolled parchment paper or even food-safe plastic bags with a corner snipped off.

And Gingerbread houses too...

To me, Gingerbread houses are almost an extension of Sugar Cookies. Once rolled, cut baked and assembled they are a huge and wonderful decorating project. With a young chef you may even want to decorate a house over two days – taking on one part (like the house itself) and then the garden the next day. Trent once took a cooking class where each child was given a cake and a bowl of icing, once they covered the cake they were given an array of decorating items.

More on Gingerbread Houses

Natural Food Colors

& Better Sprinkles

While we are home cooking, I try to make sure that all the ingredients that we use are the best quality I can find – even when we are dealing with the treat category or the unhealthy category of sprinkles and icing. After I started reading labels, I realized that most of the sugar decorations which kids seems to adore (read sprinkles) have partially hydrogenated oil (PHOs) in them. As an alternative I’ve found Let’s do Sprinklez which don’t have the bright colors of other sprinkles but seem to satisfy the desire for them.

Coloring agents for icing have also been a problem in the past – Food coloring especially red and blue have had lots of studies done on them and it’s possible that have a link to cancer. Regardless – I’m not willing to wait until there is conclusive evidence – and although we all get limited exposure out in the real world – at home I’m trying to make a better choice. India Tree Sugars and Dancing Deer have both stepped up to the plate for natural food coloring.

Dancing Deer make earth grown food colors from: marigold (yellow), Sage (green), orange (nasturtium), Red (rose madder) and blue (violet). The coolest part is that all of the colors retain a hint of their original plant flavor so that they all taste slightly different – I mean shouldn’t they? I love the colors they make too – all with an earthy mellow cast. I can't find anything on their website about them right now - so I hope they are not discontinued.

India Tree, famous for their sugars, have also come to the kitchen table with a line of naturally colored decorating sugar and plant based food colors in a set of red/yellow/blue. They too retain a hint of flavor. The colors are more concentrated so a drop or two will go the mile. They are brighter and more intense colors than Dancing Deer – I recommend having them both on hand if you are going to do a lot of coloring.

The India Tree Natural Decorating Colors colored sugars are also wonderful pantry additions – I started with just one or two colors which got me through most holiday and now have them all. The colors are softer than the standard counter parts and as a result you may need to alter your icing colors to match. One of the sugar colors they offer is a "Spring Green", which I love. They say is just for food service but I've found it at Whole Foods on the shelf.

New! India Tree Nonpareils - Nature's Colors: I've been searching all over for non-PHO sugar decorations and India Tree has stepped up to the plate. They offer a lovely array of pastel colors (all-natural coloring) and brighter orange and yellow as well as Party decoratifs: white string of pearls and white snowflakes which are fantastic for chocolate icing and holiday decorating projects. Buy India Tree Non-Pareils

Some Tools of Cookie Making:

An Offset Spatula (Makes it incredibly easier to lift cookies onto the sheet pan.

Rolling Pin (any sort will do - I use a French style lighter one for these cookies)

Assorted Cookie Cutters - copper or tin or plastic (I find that plastic doesn't work as well)

Bench Scraper (Optional - but again I use it all the time)

Silpat Baking Sheet (Or equivalent. I have 3 and use them for everything)

1/2 Sheet pan (The only ones I ever use - I got mine (2) at the local restaurant supply)

Cooling Rack (I use this for everthing now!)

Making a Mess

Getting messy is part of the fun of cooking and icing and decorating – and they are all very creative outlets for your little cook. If you are worried about a mess you can even decorate outside or put a washable drop cloth on the floor before you start. I’m not suggesting you make sugar cookies everyday, but once in a while it’s great fun made even better by having natural colors to decorate with – and your young chef will likely look on making the treat as a treat in itself.

Other Resources:

Martha Stewart onDecorating Sugar Cookies usingRoyal Icing.