Quick tips to dress up holiday cookies

Posted Dec. 06, 2011, at 1:38 p.m.

Maybe you don’t have the time, energy or inclination to whip up a 3-D gingerbread wonderland complete with snowy Christmas trees, red-cheeked carolers and royal icing garlands for Santa’s reindeer.

But that doesn’t mean your holiday cookies have to look ho-hum.

You can tread the middle ground gracefully this season with a few simple tips, techniques and tricks from the pros.

The goal is to make your cookies look as good as they taste without spending hours piping microscopic faces onto miniature snowmen. The techniques range from classic — portion cookie dough evenly — to fresh and intriguing: Stenciling, anyone?

“Stenciling is kind of a new thing for cookies,” said Julia M. Usher, author of “Julia M. Usher’s Ultimate Cookies.”

“This is a really super-easy way to decorate. Just apply that top coat (of royal icing). Let it dry solidly overnight, and then put a stencil on top that fits the cookie and spread a contrasting color through it, not moving the stencil, and you’ve got a very, very pretty cookie,” she said.

Among the basic principles behind streamlined cookie decorating: Great-looking cookies don’t have to be fancy, but they generally do have to be uniform. Think of the humble but identical bakery-shop sugar cookies that bedazzle when piled high in a tray.

“Especially from a retail point of view, it’s very important that cookies are evenly baked and look the same and are the same size,” said Tina Casaceli, author of “Milk and Cookies.”

For unrolled cookies, use a small ice cream scoop rather than a spoon to measure out perfectly sized portions of dough.

For rolled cookies, you’ll want to start with a great dough and roll it thin so it will lie flat when baked.

“Likewise,” Usher said, “if you cream your butter and sugar to the amount that it says in my book, which is no more than a minute or two, you’re not going to create a lot of excess air, which also creates a domed effect” in the finished cookie.

Check on your cookies — rolled or scooped — every few minutes when they’re in the oven to avoid uneven cooking, turning your cookie sheets as necessary. Casaceli said that two turns of the sheet are generally sufficient for a 10-minute cookie.

For a little classic no-stress color or texture, you can apply sanding sugar to the cookies before baking. Or wait until after baking and apply a simple, child-friendly glaze, said Tracey Zabar, author of “One Sweet Cookie: Celebrated Chefs Share Favorite Recipes.”

To make glaze, add a little water to some confectioners’ sugar and mix with a fork, adding more water until the mixture is a little runny.

“Paint it, pipe it or spoon it on a cookie,” Zabar said. “It’s like glue. You can throw on M&M’s, nonpareils or sprinkles, any little decorating thing you can find in the baking section, and they’re beautiful. It’s such a fun thing to do with a child. I have four sons, and they’re big now, but that was always my idea of decorating cookies.”

Royal icing is a little more elegant but not a lot more complicated, particularly if you skip the piping.

Usher said you can use the handle of a craft brush to apply a simple top coat.

“I just kind of dab [the icing] on the cookie and kind of push it around. I don’t spread it. And I work from one area of the cookie on over to the next, dabbing it on until it flows smoothly into one uniform coat and not retreading old territory,” she says, noting that royal icing dries and crusts very quickly.

You can add sprinkles to the wet royal icing for a festive, finished look.

Cookie cutters can also up the ante. Small, simple inanimate objects (stars, Christmas trees) give you a lot of visual interest for little additional effort, and no one will wonder why you didn’t pipe on eyes and a mouth.

For presentation, Usher, whose cookies tend to be ornate, likes white plates. Zabar, whose cookies are simpler looking, goes for colorful flea market plates.

Casaceli favors boxes with colorful lining papers and cellophane bags tied with ribbons to go with her understated but exquisite creations.

Cookies “have to look appealing,” she said. “If it doesn’t look appealing, no one will bother tasting it.”

Follow our Decorating 101 tips to keep life simple:

• Cutting cookies into fun shapes is enough to make them interesting, even without elaborate decoration.

• For uniform portions, use a small ice cream scoop instead of a spoon.

• A simple glaze can be made from water and confectioners’ sugar.

• Apply sanding sugar before baking.

Stenciling

1. Top-coat cookies with royal icing. Allow to dry, preferably overnight.

2. Start with a stencil that isn’t too intricate; make sure it lies flat across the cookie, covering the top coat with at least ¼-inch to spare. Thin royal icing with a little water to achieve a very thick “glue” consistency (about ½ to 1 teaspoon water per 1 cup very thick icing). The stencil icing should be thin enough to spread easily but not so thin that it creeps under the stencil. Hold the stencil firmly on the cookie. Use a small offset spatula to spread icing over the openings. Use as few strokes as possible and don’t lift the spatula in the middle of the pattern.

3. When the pattern is filled with icing, carefully lift off the stencil. Wipe off the stencil before doing the next cookie. For best results, wash and thoroughly dry the stencil after every two or three applications.

Adapted from “Julia M. Usher’s Ultimate Cookies.” Look for cookie stencils online at designerstencils.com or wilton.com.

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