These days, I’m not too sure what to think about Valentine’s Day. When I was in grade school it was quite the big deal. We’d spend ridiculous amounts of time decorating empty Kleenex boxes with construction paper and doily doo-dads. I’d spend hours analyzing the meaning of each Scooby-doo Valentine before deciding who got what. Wouldn’t want to send the wrong message to that 3rd grade boy, now would you? (FYI, Scooby can convey some deep stuff whether you intend it or not.) Then I would spend just as much time pouring over each Valentine I received. If Billy sent me a Smurfette valentine, did that mean he liked me? Ugh, it was all so exhausting for a grade schooler.
These days I don’t get many Valentine’s. C’mon, let’s be honest. It’s an annoying holiday if you’re single. Card makers and diamond manufacturers trump up the whole holiday into the stratosphere of cliches and absurdity. No thanks. But I admit that I still feel nostalgic twinges for those cheap little commercial valentines with their cheesy sayings. I love love those stupid candy little hearts with the idiotic sayings. (Text me? Really? Does that fire anyone up?) And frankly I have to give props to any holiday that’s so strongly connected to candy. It is one of my major food groups after all.
For reasons I cannot explain, I got the urge to make fancy pants decorated cookies. You know the ones. Martha Stewart type cookies. When I worked in a coffee bar/bakery, the pastry chef and I used to spend hours decorating cookies for the display case. We’d park ourselves out on the front counter, far away from the chaos in the kitchen, loose ourselves in piping and laugh the day away. Plus the customers got a kick out of watching us. Oh I miss you Erin.
So yesterday I decided to bust out the decorating crap. I pulled down the heart cutters, the tin of icing colors, made a slew of paper decorating cornets, dug around in the freezer for that bag of royal icing leftover from my Christmas gingerbread project and baked off a few cookies. The dough I use is tasty, vanilla scented and firm. I learned a long time ago that you need a sturdy cookie for these – too tender and the damn things crumble. Another tip – roll the dough between two sheets of plastic wrap while at room temperature then chill. The dough is easier to roll when warm and easier to cut when cold.
Icing these babies isn’t difficult but does require time, patience and some thought. Some people really get into this. I’ve taught classes where students can crank out cookie after cookie and never tire. Not me. My attention span is exactly 5 cookies. Beyond that and I get bored out of my mind. I know my limits.
The frosting is a simple royal icing – powdered sugar, egg whites and lemon juice – whipped up in the mixer until glossy. The key to getting a smooth coat on the cookie is to get that icing the right consistency – thin the icing with a few drops of water until it flows but isn’t runny. Too thick and it won’t spread evenly but too thin and it will run right off the cookie.
Start by taking a few tablespoons of the icing, add a drop or two of color and then add water drop by drop until you get right consistency. I can only say that you learn exactly what that is by doing so make sure your first cookie or two are the ugly ones and practice.
Now then, once you get your icing the right consistency, place it in a piping bag. You can most certainly use plastic piping bags and tips. I make small parchment cornets that I toss when I’m done. Stress free, mess free. I find the smaller cornets easier to manipulate plus no washing.
First thing you do is pipe an outline all along the edge of the cookie. (Don’t go too close to the edge or it may overrun the side once filled in.) Then fill in the outline with the icing; this is called “flooding”. I spoon a little icing in and spread it with the back of a small espresso spoon or offset spatula. If the cookie is small, you can use the tip of the cornet/piping bag to nudge the icing into the nooks and crannies. This is your base coat and you can do a zillion things from this point.
When I first learned to do this, I tried Martha’s method, which was to have two piping bags of icing in different consistencies – one firmer for the outline and one looser for the flood icing. I found this to be not only a major pain in the ass but completely unnecessary. If you get the icing to the right consistency – strong enough to hold, loose enough to flood – you only need one.
A few thoughts on colors. I MUCH prefer the gels in squeezable tubes over the Wilton tubs. I find dipping bits of color out of the tubs with toothpicks to be extremely annoying and downright messy. That said I know they’re a lot easier to find but if you can, look for the gel tubes. Of all colors, red is the most challenging. You need A LOT of gel to get a deep red color. Luckily these cookies only need small bits of icing so it’s not that big of a deal.
And there you have it. If you want to get fancy you have a few options:
Polka dots: when the base coat is still wet, pipe a few dots of varying sizes over the surface. If the icings are of the same consistency, the dots will smooth out and blend in as they dry.
Tie-dye: same as the polka dots above but run a clean toothpick through to swirl. Don’t overdo it; just a few swirls will keep the colors distinct.
Marbling or Chevron: this is super easy (see pics above.) Pipe stripes into the base coat then run a clean toothpick through the stripes, wiping it between swipes and changing direction each time.
Hearts: similar to the chevron but pipe dots into the wet icing and run a toothpick through the center in one direction.
Script: Use a firmer icing than the flood consistency. Do this after the base coat has dried for a raised 3-D effect. If you do while the base coat is still wet, it’ll sink in and won’t be as clearly defined.
Sparkly texture: once the base coat is dry, pipe designs with detail icing such as dots, stripes, etc. While the icing is still wet, sprinkle heavily with sugar (colored, crystal or plain granulated). Tap off excess and let dry. Keep in mind that the sugar will stick to anything that is wet, even partially wet. You can also use different colored sugars but it’s important to let the dots dry completely before switching to a different color.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY EFFECT: HIGH. Assuming I stop at 5 or 6 cookies. More and any therapeutic effects are greatly at risk as my annoyance level increases. Its a sliding scale. Keep in mind, this is an individual barometer. Yours, I’m certain, is probably much higher. Now then, there is the distinct possibility that this sliding scale may be greatly impacted by the bake and release effect. People go nuts over these and it’s a pretty good feeling to make them smile. So whip up a batch for those single ladies in your life! Lord knows we’re probably not getting the Smurfette valentine from little Billy this year.
Makes approximately 16 large cookies
Here’s a tip – roll the dough between two sheets of plastic wrap right after you make it. It’s much much easier to roll when it’s room temperature. Then chill the dough on a sheet pan for at least ½ hour or overnight. The dough cuts much better when cold.
4 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
- Preheat oven to 325°F.
- Sift flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl; set aside.
- Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
- Add the eggs, one at a time, then the vanilla and beat until well blended.
- Divide the dough into 3 pieces and roll each between two pieces of plastic wrap to about ¼ inch thickness.
- Stack the dough sheets on a sheet pan and chill for at least 30 minutes. Or you can freeze, tightly wrapped for up to 2 months.
- Once the dough is cold, cut the cookies as desired and space at least 1” apart on a parchment or Silpat lined sheet pan. Group cookies according to size, e.g., large cookies on one sheet, small on another to ensure even baking.
- Bake 10-15 minutes; larger cookies may take up to 20 minutes. Rotate pans halfway through baking. – top to bottom, front to back.
- Let cool completely.
Makes more than enough to ice the cookies above. Excess can be frozen for up to 3 months.
3 egg whites
1 pound powdered sugar
½ teaspoon lemon juice
- Place all ingredients into a mixing bowl and beat until stiff peak and the icing is thick and glossy.
- Keep icing tightly wrapped – it dries out very quickly. Keep main icing covered with a damp paper towel and plastic wrap and use small batches as needed.
- Royal icing will keep in the refrigerator for 1 week or in the freezer for up to 3 months. Rewhip before using – the icing may need to be thinned with a little water.
- Note: if egg safety is a concern, use powdered egg whites (meringue powder) and follow the recipe on the package for royal icing.