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Cookies That Look As Great As They Taste

How to roll, cut, pipe, layer, drizzle, and dust for the prettiest cookies

Fine Cooking Issue 42
Photos: Scott Phillips
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One of my favorite things to do come holiday time is to bake for friends and family. This usually involves a couple of pies, a rich chocolate torte, a few sweet breads, and always dozens of Christmas cookies. What makes Christmas cookies different from ordinary cookies? I think it’s the extra care put into making them look beautiful. As good as chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies can be, around this time of year you want to make, give, and serve cookies that not only taste fabulous but also look fabulous.

There are many ways to make cookies look beautiful

The first thing that comes to mind is icing them with tinted royal icing. But I draw the line at making really heavily iced cookies—they make lovely decorations but are awful to eat. (I also substitute lemon juice for the water in my royal icing to give it a better flavor.) Another flavorful way I add color to cookies is by using jams and jellies to give them a jewel-like look. I like raspberry jam for my Linzer cookies, but I use all kinds of colorful jams to give sandwiched sugar cookie cut-outs a stained-glass effect.

But pretty doesn’t always mean color. My orange stars look elegant because I pipe the dough. To dress up Florentine cookies—a sugar cookie layer topped with caramel and nuts—I cut them carefully and precisely into diamond shapes and then drizzle them with chocolate. Gilding the lily? Maybe. But you have to admit they’re gorgeous.

Throughout the recipes and in the photos and captions, I offer tips on making Christmas cookies look their best. Here are some other considerations:

If you’re rolling cookies, be sure to roll them evenly. A larger rolling pin helps keep the pressure even, giving you the same thickness throughout the dough.

Flour the counter generously when rolling cookies. This will keep the dough from sticking and ripping. Flour the cookie cutters periodically, too, but be sure to dust off excess flour before baking.

Keep the dough cool to keep the cookies’ shape. Also, use a spatula to lift rolled cookies onto the baking sheet without distorting their shape.

Let cookies cool on the baking sheet. Hot cookies can bend or warp.

Use a toothpick or a small paintbrush to add food coloring to small batches of royal icing. A little color goes a long way.

When piping a design, practice on parchment before moving to the cookies.

Top icing with sprinkles, candies, or dragées while the icing is still very wet so as not to crack the finished surface.

Take your time. Haste makes for messy results.

Finally, the right equipment goes a long way toward giving you beautiful results. I already mentioned a large rolling pin. A large offset spatula makes it easier to spread the filling for the Florentines, while a tiny offset spatula can come in handy when icing. It’s convenient to have a lot of pastry bags as well as couplers, which let you change colors and tips easily. Heavy-duty baking sheets—I like double-thick aluminum pans—will bake the cookies evenly. Half sheet pans are what I use at home, and what the Florentines require (for these, you’ll also need a candy thermometer). Cookie cutters are always fun to collect and buy; look for sturdy ones on the larger size without two many narrow points, which tend to break off.

A shortbreadlike sugar cookie gets decorated with elegant restraint. A narrow tip allows for pretty detail.
A drizzle of chocolate gives these nutty, chewy Florentines some extra pizzazz.
A pastry tube with a star tip gives a festive shape to Orange Cream Stars.
Get a stained-glass effect from sugar cookie cut-outs and jam. Dust the tops before assembling.

Decorating with a piping bag

Having several colors at the ready makes piping easier. When the icings aren’t in use, stand them upright in a container lined with a crumpled wet paper towel so that the tips don’t dry out and get clogged.
“Flooding” fills a large area quickly. Before flooding, outline the area with royal icing at piping consistency. Let dry and then fill with thinner royal icing. Use a small offset spatula to smooth it, if necessary.
Keep a steady hand and take your time when piping. Before starting a new color, check the bag for air bubbles by squeezing a small amount in a bowl.
For melted chocolate, a paper cone works just as well as a paper bag. (Fork tines dipped in chocolate also drizzle well.) The author likes to bring the tip far to the right and left of the cookie so the chocolate drizzles onto the side of the cookie as well.


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