If you’re tempted to reach for the refrigerated slice and bake cookie dough this time of year, I have to say I’m right there with you, and I bet I know exactly what’s going through your mind, too…does anybody really notice the difference anyway?…isn’t it the thought that counts? etc. etc. I totally get it, and I know that you have, like, zero free time these days, but just hear me out. These cookies are completely doable…I’ve divided them up into three easy steps, so you can even stretch it out over a few days if you want to. Got sugar? Of course you do. Got food coloring? Check. How about meringue powder? Get it right in the supermarket baking section. Ok maybe you have no idea where your cookies cutters are, but once you find them…you got this!
These classic holiday cookies are a once a year tradition, and when you break it up into manageable chunks, like I’ve done here, there’s no reason to miss out on the fun. The cookie itself is a basic vanilla/almond flavored sugar cookie, firm, but also soft to bite into. The royal icing is so simple to make, I don’t know why I avoided it for so long. It forms a blank canvas for you to get a little wild and crazy with the sprinkles and the sugar.
STEP ONE: Making your own colored decorating sugar is a no-brainer. I’d even go so far as to say it’s therapeutic, and they looked so pretty all lined up in their little jars. You can save money and make custom colors that you could never find in the stores anyway. I was decorating a forest of tree cookies, so I wanted lots of interesting greens and icy blues. You can get all kinds of different results using different sugars and types of colorings. Get creative and mix the colors for unusual shades.
Measure out 1/4 cup of your sugar in a small bowl or jar. I like to use raw sugar, or any larger crystal sugar because it sparkles better. Next, take a drop or two of food coloring and stir it right into the sugar. I like to use gel food coloring for this because they give the most vibrant color. If the gel is too thick, thin it with a tiny bit of water before adding it to the sugar. The more coloring you use, the deeper the color will be. The sugar will be slightly damp afterwards, so I spread it out on a paper towel to dry. When it’s dry, just break up any clumps with the back of a spoon, and pour it into a little jar. It will last indefinitely.
STEP TWO: Classic sugar cookie dough is very simple, and comes together quickly. Form it into a disk and refrigerate until you are ready to roll, cut, and bake. I like this dough because it is supple, and reforms well after the first round of cuts have been made. Most importantly, it tastes good, so good that I liked the cookie all on its own.
The cookies take about 7-8 minutes in a 350F oven, and because they are thin, they cool quickly. You can make them ahead, and frost the next day if you like. I used tree cookie cutters that were in the 3-4 inch range. You can find tree cutters at cooking or home stores, craft stores, on Etsy, or Amazon.
STEP THREE: I used royal icing for these cookies because it’s really the only icing that dries hard, so the cookies can be packed and given as gifts, or piled on a plate for serving. Royal icing is made with confectioner’s sugar and either egg white or meringue powder. I use meringue powder because it keeps forever so I always have it on hand, and there’s no worry about raw eggs. It whips up super easily, and then I spoon it into a zip lock baggie, take a small snip off the tip, and keep the whole thing, tip down, in a wet paper towel lined glass so it keeps moist and fresh. I use the baggie to outline each tree and then fill in at the same time. You can spread the frosting around with a small paintbrush. You can see this is fuss free cookie decorating; once the icing goes on, go to town with the sprinkles and sugar.
- 2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 large egg
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 tsp almond extract
- 3 cups flour
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 1/4 cup water
- 1/8 cup meringue powder
- 2 1/2 cups confectioner's sugar
- raw or granulated sugar
- gel or paste food coloring
- Set oven to 350F
- To make the colored sugar, measure out 1/4 cup sugar into a small bowl and add a drop or two of gel coloring to it. Stir to combine completely. Spread the sugar out on a paper towel to dry, and then break up any lumps with the back of a spoon before storing the sugar in a small jar.
- To make the cookies, cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg and extracts.
- Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together to blend. Mix it into the butter and sugar mixture until the dough comes together.
- Turn out on to a floured surface and bring together into a ball. Divide the ball in half and flatten each half into a disk. Wrap the disks in plastic and refrigerate for an hour. (Or overnight)
- Roll out the dough to about 1/8-1/4 inch thick and cut out the shapes. Put them on a baking sheet lined with silocone or parchment paper and bake for about 7-9 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes on the baking sheet before removing them to a cooling rack.
- Frost the cookies when completely cool.
- To make the frosting, beat together the water and meringue powder until combined. Beat in the sugar and continue beating until it is glossy and smooth. If the frosting seems too thin, add a little more sugar.
- Spoon the frosting into a large zip lock baggie and zip closed.
- When ready to use, cut a very small snip off one corner. Work with one cookie at a time, and pipe a line of frosting along the outer edge, then pipe more into the inside of the cookie. Take a small paintbrush to gently ease the frosting into corners. Sprinkle on your decorations while the cookie is wet. then set to dry while you work on the other cookies.
sugar cookie recipe adapted from the kitchn