Today is kind of a big deal. It’s December’s Monthly Baking Challenge! AND day 1 in 2017’s Sally’s Cookie Palooza. If you’re new around my blog this year, my annual cookie palooza hits right after Thanksgiving. It’s a huge cookie fiesta as we countdown until Christmas. 10 new cookie recipes in a row, unapologetically full of all the butter, sugar, sprinkles, and chocolate you could imagine.
And this is year 5. (OMG!) 5 years of cookie paloozas. Can you believe it? So let’s do things real big. Dust off those cookie cutters and get your mixers revved up!
I normally post the baking challenge recipe on the 1st of every month. But since December 1st is smack in the middle of cookie palooza, I decided to bump it up to today. We’re kicking off the last baking challenge of 2017 and the 5th annual cookie palooza with DECORATED SUGAR COOKIES!
Any shape or size holiday cookie will do for December’s baking challenge. I chose snowmen and snowflakes. But mostly snowmen because they’re so darn cute! Since the cookie shape is completely up to you, I really want you to focus on working with royal icing. I know it can be intimidating. I know it can be annoying. But here’s what I’ve learned about decorating cakes, cookies, and cupcakes: set your expectations appropriately. Don’t expect to create a fancy intricate design if this is your first time. Start small and go from there. A lot of the decorated sugar cookies I create are extremely simple. Like these hearts for Valentine’s Day. (Um, please ignore how awful I am at writing on cookies. I’m sure you’re better than I am!)
But again, you have to start somewhere. You CAN do this. Watch me make the cookies, shape the cookies, and decorate the cookies in this new video:
So here’s the general scope of action:
- make cookie dough
- divide in two pieces
- roll out cookie dough
- chill rolled out cookie dough
- cut into shapes
- bake & cool
Whenever I decorate sugar cookies, I always begin with a quality homemade sugar cookie recipe. A recipe that I can always depend on, so all I have to “worry” about is decorating. My go-to sugar cookie recipe produces soft sugar cookies with slightly crisp edges. It starts with butter and sugar creamed together. Add 1 egg and vanilla (sometimes almond extract, yum!), then flour + baking powder + salt. That’s it. Only 7 basic ingredients.
Here’s my sugar cookie trick… and a ton of answers:
Notice in the video that I roll out the dough BEFORE chilling it in the refrigerator? That’s my trick! Why? The dough is so much easier to roll out before it’s chilled. But why are we chilling it? So the cookies keep their shape when baked. Wait, why divide in 2? Because it’s difficult to roll out a huge mass of dough. Dividing into smaller sections makes rolling out more manageable.
Roll out the doughs until to about 1/4 inch thickness. I like to do this directly on a silicone baking mat. Why? Because you have to chill the rolled out dough in the fridge. And you can’t really pick up a mass of dough you rolled out on the counter, right? Nor can you cut into shapes when the dough is this warm. So roll out on a nonstick surface that you can literally pick up, put on a baking sheet, and place in the fridge. So… make dough, divide in 2, roll out, chill. Got it?
After the dough is chilled (you’ll have two of these rolled out doughs ↑↑), cut into shapes.
Then bake them.
Royal Icing 101
Now let’s make royal icing. There are many ways to prepare royal icing and my favorite method is with meringue powder. Meringue powder takes the place of raw egg whites, which is found in traditional royal icing recipes. Both create a very sturdy and stable icing that hardens quickly on top of cookies. It’s awesome. Meringue powder eliminates the need for raw fresh eggs, but still provides the EXACT same consistency. You can find meringue powder in some baking aisles, most craft stores with a baking section, and online. I just buy it on Amazon in the 8 ounce container. Super inexpensive and it lasts me awhile.
This royal icing is just 3 ingredients: confectioners’ sugar, meringue powder, and water. The trickiest part is landing on the perfect consistency. Sometimes I need more water, sometimes I need less water. But the wonderful thing is that you can manipulate the icing to get the proper consistency by adding more water or more confectioners’ sugar. It’s awesome.
What consistency are we looking for?
After mixing the 3 icing ingredients together, lift the whisk attachment up. If the icing that drips off melts right back into the bowl of icing, you’re golden. If it doesn’t, add more water. If it’s super thin and watery, add more confectioners’ sugar. I made a very fancy video with my iPhone to show you:
You can also make an easy royal icing alternative that I posted on my blog a couple years ago. This icing doesn’t set/dry as quickly as royal icing and it’s not as easy to decorate with. That being said, sometimes it’s just the more convenient option! So give it a try if you prefer. (It will dry in about 24 hours, where the royal icing recipe below dries in about 1-2 hours.)
Like I mentioned above, I’m not a super fancy cookie decorator. Whenever I decorate sugar cookies, I grab two basic piping tips: a thin Wilton #1 tip and a wider Wilton #5 tip. I use the wider tip the majority of the time for big designs, outlining, and flooding. The white snowman’s body and red scarf are done with this wider tip… and so are the snowflakes. I use the thinner tip for smaller detail like the snowman hat, eyes, buttons, and nose.
For coloring the icing, I strongly recommend gel colors. I prefer Americolor’s color kit. I’ve had this for a year and haven’t even made a dent in most colors. I also recommend this kit in my baker’s gift guide. 🙂
Final Cookie Decorating Tips
- Start small– don’t attempt super intricate designs if you’re a beginner.
- Use royal icing or my royal icing alternative. I find royal icing (recipe below) much easier to work with, but you have to get the correct consistency first. Watch my video above for that.
- Take your time. Don’t expect to rush through it!
- There will be some uglies. There are always some uglies. 🙁
- Have fun. Invite friends or family over, grab your kids, whatever. Make an afternoon or evening of it.
- Don’t stress! It’s just a cookie!
If you’re not into decorating sugar cookies, here is the alternate December Baking Challenge:
- Any challenge recipe this year so far
- Any cookie palooza recipe! Choose from any cookie recipe I’ve shared in my annual Christmas cookie paloozas. So many to choose from!
After you make the baking challenge recipe or alternative, share your photos throughout this month using #sallysbakingchallenge on Instagram or email me, tweet me, or upload a photo of your recipe to my Facebook page or Facebook group.
Have fun decorating; I can’t wait to see your cookie creations!
Snowman Sugar Cookies
- 2 and 1/4 cups (280g) all-purpose flour (spoon & leveled)
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cup (1 and 1/2 sticks; 180g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
- 3/4 cup (150g) granulated sugar
- 1 large egg, at room temperature
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- optional: 1/4 teaspoon almond extract (yields an outstanding flavor!)
- Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt together in a medium bowl. Set aside.
- In a large bowl using a hand mixer or a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar together on high speed until completely smooth and creamy, about 2 minutes. Add the egg, vanilla, and almond extract (if using) and beat on high speed until combined, about 1 minute. Scrape down the sides and up the bottom of the bowl and beat again as needed to combine.
- Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix on low until combined. If the dough seems too soft, you can add 1 Tablespoon more flour until it is a better consistency for rolling.
- Divide the dough into 2 equal parts. Roll each portion out onto a piece of parchment paper or a lightly floured silicone baking mat (I prefer the nonstick silicone mat) to about 1/4-inch thickness. The rolled-out dough can be any shape, as long as it is evenly 1/4-inch thick.
- Stack the pieces, with parchment paper between the two, onto a baking sheet and refrigerate for at least 1-2 hours and up to 2 days. If chilling for more than a couple hours, cover the top dough piece with a single piece of parchment paper.
- Once chilled, preheat oven to 350°F (177°C). Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats. Remove one of the dough pieces from the refrigerator and using a snowman cookie cutter, cut into shapes. Re-roll the remaining dough and continue cutting until all is used. Repeat with 2nd dough piece.
- Arrange cookies on baking sheets 3 inches apart. Bake for 11-12 minutes, until lightly browned around the edges. Make sure you rotate the baking sheet halfway through bake time. Allow cookies to cool on the baking sheet for 5 minutes then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely before decorating. I like to decorate cookies directly on baking sheets so I can stick the entire baking sheet in the refrigerator to help set the icing. So place the cooled cookies back on baking sheets.
- Make the icing: Watch the video of the icing above so you get an idea of what the final consistency should be. In a large bowl using a hand mixer or a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, beat all of the icing ingredients together on high speed for 5 minutes. (I always start with 6-7 Tablespoons and usually need to add 8. On particularly dry days, up to 9-10!) When lifting the whisk up off the icing, the icing should drizzle down and smooth out within 10-15 seconds. If it's too thick, add a little more water. If it's too thin, add a little more sifted confectioners' sugar.
- You'll need 3 small bowls: one for red icing, one for black icing, and one for orange icing. Spoon 1/4 cup of icing into each bowl. The rest of the icing will remain white. Stir red food coloring into 1 bowl until you reach your desired shade. Stir black food coloring into another bowl until you reach your desired shade. (I find that black always dries darker so stop adding coloring when you reach a dark gray.) Finally, stir orange food coloring into the last bowl until you reach your desired shade. Spoon icings into piping bags.
- Decorate: You can watch the video of me decorating the cookies in the beginning of this blog post. Using round icing tip #5, outline and flood the snowmen with white. (Leave room for the black hat!) Allow to set. I put the baking sheet in the refrigerator to speed it up. Using this same piping tip, pipe the scarf with red icing on top of the white icing. Using round icing tip #1, pipe the hat, eyes, and buttons with black icing. Using this same piping tip, pipe the nose with orange icing. Icing will completely set in about 2 hours at room temperature.
- Decorated or plain cookies will stay fresh covered at room temperature or in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
Make ahead tip: Plain cookies freeze well up to 3 months. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator. I do not recommend freezing with icing on top. You can chill the rolled-out cookie dough in the refrigerator for up to 2 days (step 5). You can also freeze the cookie dough (before rolling out in step 4) for up to 3 months. Then allow to thaw overnight in the refrigerator and bring to room temperature before rolling out. Chill for only 30 minutes in step 5 as opposed to 1 full hour.
Interested in making the snowflake sugar cookies pictured? They're so easy! I used this snowflake cookie cutter, the round icing tip #5, an edible blue "mermaid bead" in the center, and sprinkled white sparkling sugar on top.
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See all cookie palooza recipes.
SHOP THE RECIPE
Here are some items I used to make today’s recipe.
KitchenAid Stand Mixer | Rolling Pin | Snowman Cookie Cutter | Silpat Baking Mat | Cookie Sheet | Cooling Rack | Americolor Food Coloring Kit | Piping Bags | Wilton #1 Frosting Tip | Wilton #5 Frosting Tip
Some of the links above are affiliate links, which pay me a small commission for my referral at no extra cost to you! Thank you for supporting Sally’s Baking Addiction.