If there's one time of year you feel absolutely obliged to make decorated cutout cookies, it's now. It's time to break out the rolling pin and cookie cutters, brush up on rollout sugar cookie tips and recipes, and hunker down for some old-fashioned fun — or irritation, take your pick.
I confess to being a Grinch about cookie decorating. Too much margin for error. Too little return on investment — I mean, face it, decorated cutout cookies are seldom the tastiest cookie on the gift plate. Give me Classic Peanut Butter Cookies or sweet/spicy Gingersnap any day; I'll leave Rudolph, complete with his red-iced nose, for someone else to nibble on.
Still, each year I find myself facing some holiday occasion that absolutely requires "pretty" cookies. So I dutifully click to my favorite Holiday Butter Cookies recipe, get out the gear, and put on a happy face.
And once I actually make the cookies, I inevitably remember — hey, they're not THAT tough. Especially when you've got a bunch of handy tips and shortcuts up your sleeve.
First, know your dough
Dough made without leavening will hold its shape better than dough using baking powder or baking soda. To a lesser extent, this is also true for dough made with shortening instead of butter. For intricate cutouts, choose an unleavened, shortening-based dough.
Shape dough into a rectangle before chilling
Most recipes will tell you to shape the dough into a disk, wrap, and place in the fridge to chill. Unless you're planning to cut out simple rounds, rolling dough into a rectangle rather than a circle often yields more usable "real estate." Start with a rectangular slab rather than a round disk, and you're halfway there.
Decide on cookie thickness ahead of time
Plan ahead. Dough rolled 1/4" thick will produce sturdy cookies, best for crumble-free transportation and kids' decorating. Dough rolled 1/8" thick will produce more fragile, delicate cookies — and a greater number of cookies from each batch of dough.
Roll dough between sheets of parchment or waxed paper
Rather than roll dough on a floured surface, roll it between sheets of non-stick parchment or waxed paper. Adding extra flour to dough as a result of rolling can make cookies tough. And cutout cookies release easily from paper when you move them to the baking sheet, preserving their shape.
The more cutouts you can get out of each piece of rolled dough, the fewer times you'll need to re-roll the scraps and cut again.
Create more usable real estate as you go
Make cookie cutting more efficient by mending jagged holes or uneven edges in your rolled dough whenever possible. A simple "push and press" after cutting a cookie can make it possible to cut another cookie where none existed before.
Break out your small spatulas and spreaders
Preserve the shape of thin cookies
It can be a challenge to move cookies cut from thin-rolled dough without distorting their shape. Cut thin cookies on a sheet of parchment, leaving more space between them than usual. Then peel off the dough scraps in between the cookies, leaving the cookies right on the parchment. Pick up the parchment with cookies and place it right onto the baking sheet, then pop into the oven.
So you've baked your cookies — now what? (These are actually a bit over-baked, though I prefer to think of them as caramelized, for the sake of my ego.)
I highly recommend this Simple Cookie Glaze, which spreads/flows nicely to cover your cookies' surface, then dries hard and shiny — a plus if you enjoy using a food-safe marker for decorating or writing messages.
Ice and decorate your cookies
Use your favorite tools and techniques: a knife, spreader, icing bag ... Here's how I ice and decorate cookies:
• Dip in icing, scraping off any excess
• Let icing flow and settle just a bit, to make sure cookie is sufficiently covered
• Dip in decorating sugar
• Place on parchment to set
Rollout sugar cookie tips to the rescue!
Pretty simple, right?
For LOTS more inspiration and instruction, check out our complete guide to cookie decorating. And for some very special piping techniques, see our blog post, cookie decorating techniques: easy steps for standout cookies.
If you have favorite cookie and icing recipes that work for you, use them; no need to reinvent the wheel. But if you're still looking, try our Holiday Butter Cookies recipe, which makes a light, crisp-yet-sturdy cookie, perfect for icing (and delicious to boot). Our Simple Cookie Glaze is the ideal accompaniment.