It’s time to break out the cookie cutters. Despite a forecast of canceled parties and virtual family gatherings, baking traditions go on. In fact, a scaled-down holiday season offers the perfect opportunity to try your hand at new decorating techniques.
Sweet, surprising and modern: these cookies were designed by three baking experts to impart cookie-decorating wisdom. You can use the Basic Sugar Cookie recipe from the Times’s Food section, or any simple sugar cookie recipe you prefer. Once your dough is made, lightly dust it with flour and roll it between two pieces of parchment paper to about a uniform quarter inch thickness. Place it in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.
Firm, well-chilled dough won’t stick to the cookie cutter, making it easier to cut detailed shapes. And don’t overwork your dough. While it can be tempting to use every last scrap, once dough has been kneaded and rolled a couple of times, it won’t hold a shape. After cutting them out, place cookies back into the refrigerator for about 10 minutes before baking. Once baked, allow to slightly cool and firm before placing them on a wire rack to fully cool.
While you don’t need fancy kitchen tools to achieve great design results, the experts agree that a few key supplies are necessary. Invest in a quality icing tool kit, which consists of piping bags, couplers and a range of tips. To create colorful icing and tinted dough, gel food coloring is essential. Finally, a set of small baking-dedicated paint brushes is useful for applying fine details and dusting off runaway sprinkles.
Amisha Gurbani, the recipe developer and food photographer behind The Jam Lab, a cooking website, designed these stunning metallic snowflakes inspired by a favorite polka dot wrapping paper. “I love metallic and glitter on cookies; the extra sparkle exudes joy,” Ms. Gurbani said. Instead of dousing cookies in sparkles, she prefers detailed designs.
Once you’ve baked and cooled your cookies, apply a single layer of royal icing. Start by piping the royal icing around the edge of each cookie, working your way toward the middle. Give your cookie a few gentle shakes to smooth the surface of the icing, before allowing it to dry. Once the icing is completely dry, use a paint brush and stencil — which can easily be made from cardstock and a large hole punch — to paint uniform circles of royal icing on top of it. Sprinkle liberally with gold or silver sanding sugar and gently shake off the extra. A small, dry paintbrush is handy for brushing away stray sugar.
If you’d prefer intricate designs, Ms. Gurbani recommends using a piping tip, preferably a Wilton size 0 or 1, for clean, detailed lines. Before starting on your cookies, draw straight lines, curves and dots on a piece of paper and practice tracing them with your icing. When piping details, give icing time to dry between patterns so that the lines don’t run or smudge. Also, keep toothpicks handy for fixing mistakes, popping air bubbles that can occur and for cleaning out the tip, which can clog with dried icing.
Warda Pâtisserie in Detroit is known for its sophisticated sweets, thanks to the owner and pastry chef Warda Bouguettaya’s aesthetic. Her menu relies on unique flavor combinations paired with elegant flourishes, as is evident with her stunning botanical cookies. You may be able to find dried culinary grade rose petals at the grocery store, as well as fresh herbs. Local flower farms may have edible dried flower offerings.
To begin, use two different sized circle cookie cutters to make a wreath-like cookie. Once the cookies are baked and completely cooled, apply a thin layer of royal icing. Allow the icing to nearly set, and then use tweezers to place flowers onto the icing, giving them the gentlest press to secure. Fresh herbs can be candied by whisking one egg white with a teaspoon of water until frothy (use pasteurized egg whites, sold in many grocery stores). Using a paint brush and working one sprig at a time, apply a thin layer of egg wash, followed by a sprinkle of sugar. Set them on a wire cooling rack to dry for at least an hour.
If you’d prefer to bake the flowers directly onto the cookies without icing, simply lay the dried flowers on each cookie before baking, cover with parchment paper and press gently with a rolling pin to make sure the flowers stick to the cookie. Avoid pressing too hard and flattening your cookie. Take off the top layer of parchment paper, and bake cookies at 320 degrees for 10 minutes, rotating the tray halfway through. The slightly cooler oven temperature will help the dried flowers retain their color. Once baked, sprinkle with sugar.
By transforming dough with gel food coloring, and getting inventive with cookie cutters, the photographer and food stylist, Lisa Tutman-Oglesby created this cookie within a cookie. “Make sure to use gel food coloring,” she instructs. “Liquid food coloring can change the consistency of the dough.”
Using plastic gloves, take half your sugar cookie dough and add just a few drops of red gel, kneading until the color is evenly distributed. Roll the dough between parchment paper and chill until firm. Using a small star cookie cutter, make as many stars as possible and then place them back in the fridge to chill. Whisk an egg white with a teaspoon of water. You are now going to create a stack with your stars, one on top of the other, binding them together with a wash of egg white, applied with a small paint brush. As you stack, press them firmly together while also maintaining the shape. Once your star stack is complete, freeze until very firm.
Now take your plain dough and roll it into several long, thin ropes. Lightly brush the frozen star stack with egg white to help secure the dough that will be placed around it. Press the ropes around the stars, molding the dough until it completely surrounds the stars in a rough cylinder, with no air pockets. Once the plain dough surrounds the stars, gently roll the entire cookie dough log until it becomes smooth and round. Place a generous heap of red sanding sugar on a baking sheet, and roll your log through the sugar until it is well coated. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill until firm, at least three hours. With a very sharp knife, slice half inch rounds, place on parchment paper and bake.