Life can take sharp twists. Sometimes you’re sailing smoothly, one careless decision later and hell breaks loose. Last month I watched a youtube of a baker working on Valentine cookies with royal icing. Picture beautiful heart-shaped cookies, all pink, decorated with perfectly round white dots, red hearts. red lips. It was amazing, truly awe-inducing. You too can watch it here. I showed her video to Phil, he got all excited and urged me to do it. C’mon, it’s just some sugar cookies with icing, you can do it! I was quite insecure about it, but after intense inner deliberations, decided to go for it. Next, I laid a plan of action for the task. Make cookie dough Sunday before noon. Let dough cool in the fridge while having lunch. Bake cookies. Do a quick stop by the lab while cookies cool. Come back home, make the icing. Let the artistic vibes flow free. Take perfectly iced cookies to the department next morning.
All steps went according to plan up to the “come back home.” That innocent video was indeed the perfect example of a siren’s call. A beautiful, irresistible song that you simply must follow. To your demise. Royal icing. Not. For. Sissies.
2 1/2 cups flour
3/4 cup superfine sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2″ pieces & softened
2 tablespoons cream cheese, softened
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Heat the oven to 375 F.
Whisk the flour, sugar, & salt together in a large bowl. Beat the butter into the flour mixture, one piece at a time using an electric mixer on medium-low speed, then continue to beat until the mixture looks crumbly and slightly wet, 1 to 2 minutes. Beat in the cream cheese & vanilla until he dough just begins to form large clumps, about thirty seconds.
Knead the dough in the large bowl by hand a few times until it forms a large, cohesive mass. Turn the dough out onto a clean counter, divide it in half, and pat each into a disk shape. Wrap the disks tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate until they begin to firm up, about 30 minutes.
Work with one disk at a time, roll out the dough to a 1/8″ thickness between two sheets of parchment paper. Cut out shapes using cookie cutters and lay on two parchment-lined baking sheets, spaced about 1″ apart. Bake the cookies until light golden brown, about ten minutes, rotating the baking sheet halfway through baking.
Let the cookies cool on the baking sheet for two minutes before transferring them to a wire rack to cool completely, about thirty minutes. When completely cooled, the cookies will be ready for icing.
Make sure you are well rested. Think happy thoughts before proceeding.
4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
2 tbsp meringue powder
5 tbsp water, plus more to thin the icing
Gel food coloring
endless amount of Zen
Call Happy Maids and set an appointment for home cleaning.
Place the powdered sugar, meringue powder, and water into a bowl of a stand mixer and mix with the paddle attachment on medium low for about 7 to 10 minutes, until the mixture looks matte. Transfer the mixture to an airtight container.
At this point, the mixture is too thick to pipe. Add more water by tablespoon to the mixture, stirring thoroughly between additions, until it is at a consistency that can be piped. Add any coloring you might be using. If you are using more than one color, divide the mixture among airtight containers before adding the color. In my case, I used some pink gel to turn the mixture pink for piping and flooding, and red gel for the decorations.
Place the flooding icing into plastic squeeze condiment bottle. Line the outer edge of each cookie with icing, allow it to set for about one hour. One cookie at a time, squeeze some of the icing in the center and spread it with a toothpick to the edges. Dot a contrasting color onto the icing with more icing of the same consistency. Drag a toothpick through the dots to create “artsy” hearts. Let the icing dry for about 3 hours.
to print the recipe, click here
Beware, long saga ahead…
The sugar cookies worked like a charm, I highly recommend the recipe and the method of rolling the dough in between two sheets of parchment paper. I think I overbaked mine slightly, but other than that, no problems. Best part? Absolutely no mess in the kitchen. Considering the state of my environment once I was done decorating the cookies, it was a blessing to have to wash only once the floor, walls, countertops and a dog.
The Royal Icing. That’s when things got dicey, and they got dicey fast. After sifting the powdered sugar (boy, that thing flies through the air like nobody’s business), adding the meringue powder and the water, I turned the KA on and walked away since it would be doing its magic for several minutes. It did not take long for the machine to make odd noises, as if badly struggling to move the paddle around. To my horror, I saw this huge white rock inside the bowl, no wonder the poor machine was having a tough time. I turned it off to lower the bowl, but the rock was bonded as a single happy entity with the paddle. Hyperventilating, I gave up on the hammer and instead turned the KA back on while drizzling cold water around the bowl. Much to my relief, that worked, and the rock slowly turned into a very thick paste. It was hard to judge how much water to add for proper consistency, but at least I had averted tragedy number one. Next, it was time to divide the icing in two batches: a bigger portion to be dyed pink, a smaller for red. I eyeballed the icing into two bowls, added pink gel, mixed very well, then tried to pour it into a squeeze bottle, only to realize that the bottle had a sadistically narrow opening. A funnel was desperately needed. We have many in the lab, none at home. Bummer. I filled the bottle with a small spoon, in a tedious and messy process. Not exactly my idea of fun, but… the afternoon was young, and I had already overcome two tragedies.
Ferdinand Leeke, 1917- via Wikimedia
I proceeded to dye the second batch. adding what seemed like a lot of red gel to get it right. Then I placed the Wilton tip #2 (as recommended in the youtube) inside a disposable plastic pastry bag. Opened the bag around my hand like I see the pros doing, but adding the icing to the bag was a nightmare. It simply would not slip down the bag like it does on TV. I suspect they use special effects, cheaters! At that point I was dealing with a bowl of red icing over the counter, a spoon on my right hand, and a pastry bag in precariously open situation on my left hand. Some help would have been nice, but the man I married had decided to go play golf the moment I grabbed the box of powdered sugar. Mind you, it was 50 F outside, with gusty winds. He told me I would need peace and quiet to ice the cookies, and it was best if he left. I married Gandhi. Can you grasp the full irony of it? The golfer was the one cheerleading me into this royal pain!
But Thelxiepeia was not done singing yet. The pink icing apparently got too hard and refused to flow down the squeeze bottle. Hyperventilation back in full blast, I added water to the bottle and stirred it as well as I could with a wooden chopstick. Disaster number three averted. Flooded the first cookie with pink icing, completely forgetting Karen’s instruction to pipe a border and let it set. Grabbed the bag with the red icing. I decided to start humble and do just a few round dots. Almost nothing came out from the tip. A lot leaked from the top, and then from the spot between tip and bag, as the bag teared right in front of my eyes. I will now pause and give you a moment to imagine the scene. Christmas Red Icing pretty much all over my hands, sweater sleeves, and the vicinity of the cookie. I concluded that the number 2 tip requires an experienced pair of hands to maneuver it. I had another tip with a slightly larger opening, so all I had to do was to transfer the icing to a new bag with the larger tip. “All I had to do” sounds pretty tame in comparison to what it involved. I make another pause so that you can imagine the process as it developed in the Bewitching Kitchen. One thought briefly crossed my mind… you should be wearing gloves... but that train had long left the station. It was a royal mess, which probably explains the choice of name for the icing. Some patissier with a sick sense of humor, no doubt. After that disaster was averted (sort of), I was pretty much spent. Emotionally drained, with shockingly pink-red hands in a kitchen that looked like a crime scene. I took a deep breath and started the process of icing twenty-seven sugar cookies, one by one. It is a lot harder than the video makes it seem, trust me on that. By cookie number 23 I felt I was getting the hang of it, but lost the touch at cookie 25. Such is life.
Just to illustrate the extent of my saga… my hands four hours later, after a few rounds of soap and hot water (sigh).
The verdict? The cookies tasted great, and were well received by our colleagues, even if they would not win prizes in a beauty contest (the cookies, not the colleagues). I was so traumatized by the process that the idea of icing cookies again made me physically ill. But now that a few days have gone by, I feel the need to re-visit the issue, knowing what to expect. I won’t overbake the cookies. I will wear gloves. I will stick with squeeze bottles as Karen did, and bag the icing bags (pun intended). I will use the needle tool the way it was meant to be used (enough said on that). And I will never ever allow a new siren song to work its magic. No doubt in my mind, that woman is some type of a goddess. My bets are on Aphrodite.
I thought French macarons were tricky, but icing these cookies was like facing Medusa’s head. It’s a good thing that in the end of that evening, Dionysus came to my rescue…
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