So, halfway through my afternoon activity, I knew I had a blog post on my hands. That could be the only reason for my suffering; I was destined to share my tale with the baking world.
Or, at least, with you.
I’ve been wanting to try decorating cookies for a long time. Probably since I took my cake decorating class, so for like, a year and a half. I guess once I conquered Wilton buttercream, my logical next step was royal icing.
Exceeept it wasn’t. I was given a pistachio KitchenAid stand mixer for Christmas (ain’t nobody got better in-laws than me) (yeah, there were at least three grammatical sins in that aside) and my List of Stuff I’ve Been Putting Off Trying Because I Didn’t Have the Right Kitchen Equipment exploded. Exploded. I made cinnamon swirl bread, about four batches of black bean brownies, pretzel rolls for my husband, and Swiss meringue buttercream. But no royal icing. Zilch.
Then, a friend of my mother-in-law (you may remember her as our wedding photographer) messaged me about a box of cookie cutters she wanted to re-home. A box. Of cookie cutters. I told her I would be elated to receive said box, and a short while (and, apparently, several batches of black bean brownies) later, I received an enormous box of cookie cutters in the mail. Y’all, there were eighty cookie cutters in there. Most of them had never been used. And they were all very suddenly mine.
I had no excuse to not try sugar cookies frosted with royal icing now.
I’ve blogged about my experiences volunteering with The Humane Society of Campbell County before, and, even though that blog post is a year old, I’m still spending several hours per week with these kitties! And tomorrow, we’re having an adoption fair at our PetSmart store, so I decided to bake a batch of cookies to give to humans who contribute to our donation jar.
This decision may have been influenced by the paw print cookie cutter I found in my box of goodies.
So I embarked on the journey I have detailed below. If you’re thinking of trying royal icing for yourself, this blog post is for you. Learn from my mistakes, baking grasshopper. They are many.
But for now, let’s start with a…
Cookie Decorating Success #1: Acquire necessary equipment.
I read ages ago on a forum like this that it was a bad idea to try making royal icing with a hand mixer (I have a cute little red KitchenAid handmixer, the motor on which I couldn’t bear to burn out because I bake so many cakes), so royal icing was, as I’ve mentioned, on my stand mixer to-try list. There are crazy people who make royal icing by hand, apparently, whisking it for ten minutes with just the equipment God gave ‘em. But they are worthier bakers than I, so I waited until I had a stand mixer.
Cookie decorators also use piping bags with tips (which I have in excess due to my forays in cake/buttercream), plus handy squeeze bottles, which I finally acquired (after far too much searching) at Family Dollar? Don’t forget about pantry items you may not have on hand, like meringue powder and, in some cases, cream of tartar.
Cookie Decorating Success #2: Bake quality cookies.
I looked into several recipes before settling on In Katrina’s Kitchen’s Best Sugar Cookie Recipe because of those magic words: “No chilling required.” Fun story though? I still chilled it, in a way. I used straight-from-the-fridge butter, cubed, and kept sticking the dough in the fridge to keep it from getting too warm. I also reduced the oven temperature (from 350 to 325) (our oven runs hot) when the first batch came out with too-brown edges, and my subsequent batches were perfect. Huzzah!
Don’t they look lovely? I used half clear vanilla and half almond to flavor them. Yum-o.
So far it sounds like smooth-sailing, huh? Not so. I can handle cookie-baking, but as I started into the icing-making process, things started to get messy.
Cookie Decorating Flub #1: Dive in without educating yourself.
I hesitated for a few minutes after my cookies turned out so fine, worrying about my upcoming icing adventure. Had I read enough? Sure. Ages ago, pre-stand mixer, I’d read all about royal icing and envied future Ashley the gorgeous, perfect cookies she was inevitably making. I’d pinned all the pins. I’d scoured the blog posts.
But I didn’t review.
I went straight into the surprisingly simple recipe I’d selected (also from In Katrina’s Kitchen, though the magic words this time were “small batch”). I stirred together the sugar and meringue powder, dissolved my clear vanilla in the water, then started mixin’.
I had no idea what my icing was supposed to look like.
Cookie Decorating Flub #2: Continue being wildly ignorant.
Sure, I could’ve paused the whole process and watched some YouTube videos. Except not. I was so worried about ruining the meringue magic that I just kept it up.
Was this what it was supposed to look like? I had no idea.
Nope. Nope, it wasn’t.
It needed to be watered down.
Cookie Decorating Flub #3: Be scared about watering down your royal icing.
You have to water it down, Past Ashley. Seriously. It’s not going to work.
Guess who tried to pipe that royal icing pictured above, at that insane cement-like consistency? I DID. I got so frustrated. I wanted to use the squeezy bottles I’d looked high and low for, but it was impossible. I reluctantly turned to my trusty pals Mrs. Piping Bag and Mr. #3 Tip but they were frustrating as well.
Cookie Decorating Success #3: Remember the shpritz.
Shpritzing is a technique from One Tough Cookie I had read about ages ago and pinned for this day. All you do to water down royal icing effectively is shpritz the surface of the icing with a water spray bottle. I had one ready to go, and after liberal shpritzing my icing started to cooperate.
Cookie Decorating Flub #4: Outlining. Just, outlining.
My royal icing may have still been too thick at this point because outlining was a nightmare. My hand ached and cramped. I made a lot of mistakes. I’m going to tell myself, however, that this will get easier with practice.
In the meantime, this is what I ended up with. Yikers.
Cookie Decorating Flub #5: What is flooding?!?!?!
Okay, so you’ve got your cookies lined (hopefully), with minimal mistakes (ha ha ha). Time to thin the royal icing down to flooding consistency.
Yep. Easier said than done, o optimistic baker.
Remember how much trouble I had thinning down the icing to outlining consistency? My struggles were tenfold for flooding consistency. But that brought me to my next success…
Cookie Decorating Success #4: Shpritz and repeat.
You’ll get there. It takes lots of spray-bottle water, but it happens.
Cookie Decorating Flub #6: How the heck do I get this icing in those stupid squeeze bottles?
Yeah. Yeah. Do I use a funnel? Do I pour? Do I just cry and the sadness magic from my tears makes it happen magically?
I scooped. Yes, friends, I scooped it up with my rubber spatula and let that stuff drip right in. It worked. Try everything. Something will work.
Cookie Decorating Success #5: Keep it simple for your first time.
This one is a little bit deceptive. When I determined to bake and decorate cookies for this adoption fair, I imagined gorgeous cookies. I eventually pared down my mental image to mostly-white cookies (I really, really, really hate dyeing frosting) with some black and red.
Guess what I ended up with? All white.
It was my first time. All-white should’ve been the plan all along. Besides, you’re about to see how great they look with these:
But before we get there, let’s revisit our friend the poorly-outlined cookie:
With the flooding-consistency icing in my squeeze bottle, I was ready to 40-days-and-40-nights-it-up. Ready, set —
Not a flood.
An incredibly ineffective mudslide, maybe.
There’s a fix for that, though:
A butter knife!
It works! And you know what? Those painstaking outlines? They work, too. Spreading the flooding icing to the edges turns out looking pretty darn good. And if they aren’t perfect, didn’t you know that sprinkles cover a multitude of baking sins?
That’s the same scary pawprint cookie I first showed you. You can hardly tell its outline was so shoddy.
That’s pretty much it, friends. From there, I iced and sprinkled about twenty more cookies, surprising myself with how great they turned out.
I did have one final flub for you, though…
Cookie Decorating Flub #7: Make waaayyy too much royal icing.
Remember the royal icing recipe I used? There was a note at the bottom about doubling the recipe. Guess who doubled it? This girl.
Guess who now has half that doubled batch in her fridge? This girl.
And I didn’t learn my lesson, either, because I’d rather have too much icing that I’ll probably just throw away in three weeks than not have enough.
(These squeeze bottles were seriously perfect because of that attached cap. Without it, I would’ve lost the caps, and royal icing needs caps because you can’t let it dry out. And without that little notch on the right for keeping the cap out of your way, I would’ve dragged it all around my wet icing.)
Well, I hope this proved at least mildly educational, or, at least, entertaining. I know the mistakes of others can be real knee-slappers. But for real, I want the takeaway to be that if I can do it, you can surely do it without making such a fool out of yourself.
If you want actual helpful information on cookie decorating, there are TONS of resources, including this blog post which I love by Brown Eyed Baker! And if you have any royal icing or cookie stories, please feel free to share them!