Thursday, December 8, 2011

It's beginning to look a lot like...


Bust out the garland and icing, people, it's that time of year! We put up our tree last week, and I've been in a baking mood ever since. Even if you don't celebrate the holiday, this time of year is full of baked goodies that people often don't otherwise take the time to make. (Unless they're crazy like me.)

 Our massively impressive [four-foot-tall] tree

This is a basic cut-out cookie recipe, which I tried to health-ify by using white whole wheat flour. You can sort-of taste the difference, but the nuttiness of the flour is nice with the sweet icing. I imagine I'll be making these with plain old all-purpose flour for my family, but I'm enjoying them this way quite a bit. The cookies only have 1/2 cup of sugar in them, so the result is not-too-sweet - a key aspect of any cookie you plan to ice.

For icing, I highly recommend using royal icing. It's the kind the gets really hard; it's often used in gingerbread-house making. You can make it using fresh or powdered egg whites. I haven't bought powdered egg whites yet, so I used fresh. Don't worry, it's safe - the eggs are heated to at least 160 degrees farenheit, which is the FDA-approved safe temperature to kill off any germs.

Christmas Cookie Cut-Outs with Royal Icing
Makes 40-60 cut out cookies, depending on size.

For the cookies: Feel free to use all-purpose flour here, or half whole wheat and half all-purpose, instead of the white-whole wheat. I found my flour at Trader Joe's, and have been using it obsessively in baked goods ever since. To soften your butter quickly, microwave the stick for 15 seconds. This recipe is adapted from Joy of Cooking

1/2 cup sugar
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, softened (see note)
1 tsp real vanilla extract
2 eggs
2 1/2 cups white-whole wheat flour (or other, see note)
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
about 1 tbsp water, as needed
1/4 tsp nutmeg (optional)

1. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or using a hand mixer, or by hand), cream together the butter and sugar.
2. Add vanilla, eggs, baking powder and salt, and mix until well incorporated.
3. Add flour and mix until just combined. If the dough is too dry (mine consistently is), add about a tablespoon of water, mix again, and decide if you need more water. Don't add more than a tablespoon at a time.
4. Cover your bowl with plastic wrap, and stick it in the fridge for at least an hour. At this point, you can freeze the dough to use later if you want.
5. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. 
6. Divide your dough into two pieces; put the second piece in the fridge while you work on the first piece. Roll out the dough on lightly floured surface until about 1/4 inch thick, and cut into desired shapes.  Place shapes on a cookie sheet.
7. Bake for 7 to 10 minutes (mine took 8 minutes), until the edges are just turning golden brown. Remove to wire racks, and let cool completely before icing.

For the icing: This makes enough to ice an entire batch of the cookies above generously. I prefer making a bit too much icing to making to little. Increase or decrease by a 1 egg white to 2/3 cup sugar ratio, according to your needs.

4 egg whites
2 2/3 cup powdered sugar, sifted and divided
Food coloring

1. Whisk together egg whites and half of sugar in a large microwave-safe bowl. Heat for 1 to 2 minutes on high, until a quick-read thermometer registers at least 160 degrees (but don't go higher than 175 degrees). The egg whites will be opaque and puffy when they're around the right temp. Stir.
2. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large mixing bowl, using a hand mixer), combine egg white mixture with the rest of the sugar. Beat on high for 8 to 10 minutes, until the icing becomes fluffier and forms stiff peaks.
3. Divide into bowls and color as desired. You can leave the icing at its original consistency (for piping), or water it down a bit. (See below.)
4. Let cookies set for several hours until icing is dry. If you have to store them before the icing is set, store in a single layer in a plastic container. Once the icing is set, it will be quite durable and the cookies can be stacked for storage.

To ice your cookies, you can (1) pipe designs, (2) dip the top surface in slightly-thinned icing (flip carefully - if you get the consistency right, the icing won't run off the edges), or (3) piping a border on the cookies, then drizzling well-thinned icing to fill in the border. Add sprinkles or colored sugar while the icing is wet, and add piped designs to methods 2 or 3 once the icing has slightly dried. I suggest setting iced cookies on cookie sheets to dry - the rimmed edge will catch any stray sprinkles, and the trays can be moved around easily.

If you don't have a piping bag, you can add icing to a zip-top baggie and snip a small hole in the corner.

I made another batch of these, but ate them before I took photos...I guess I'll just have to make more, so I can give you a post demonstrating the various icing techniques! Oh, the sacrifices one must make...

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