Monday, May 4, 2009

Cookie Decorators Do What Comes Naturally . . .

It's been a while since I've embarked on making a big batch of decorated cookies, probably because it's a fairly time consuming endeavor, not to mention the fact that you need a generous space in which to lay everything out while you're working on them, along with a completely undisturbed spot in which to let the iced cookies dry. If you're like me, you don't have nearly enough room in your house to leave this sort of stuff just lying around for a couple of days. Space is at a severe premium in my household. (Let's call it the "bungalow syndrome.") In any case, though, I think I may be gearing up to create a batch any day now. I just have that . . . that. . . well, that feeling. Do you ever get that feeling? I know you do.

I've somehow managed to accumulate a hefty stockpile of tin/aluminum and copper cookie cutters over the last couple of years. Deciding which ones to use is part of the initial dilemma when you undertake a decorating project. There are so many designs and cutters to choose from. It seems best, though, to focus on only a few at a time so you can really concentrate on getting things to look just the way you want. And, this approach allows you to try numerous icing variations on each cut-out you've selected.

Though not critical, it can be fun and helpful to choose a theme when you're planning what you'll do. For example, you might want to zero in exclusively on sports cookies, seasonal cookies, apparel cookies, baby/wedding cookies, animal cookies, flower cookies, etc. The options are pretty broad. As the cliche goes--most cliches being true--you're limited only by your own imagination. So, feel free to fire up your imagination and put your spatula in gear.

Once you become addicted to this type of cookie decorating, and you've indulged in the inevitable urge to buy unique and unusual cutters, there is no turning back. I only wish I could afford to buy many more of the big sturdy copper cutters that are available primarily through websites; they're great, but they don't come cheap. Their appeal lies not only in the fact that they're rigid and made to last, but copper cutters are also charmingly pretty and shiny. One good source for these is Stores like Williams Sonona and Sur la Table sell them too, but my impression has been that their selection can't begin to compete with the sources you can find online. Local cake decorating stores usually carry a pretty good selection of smaller aluminum cutters. (In my neck of the woods, near Detroit that is, Heinrich's and Baker's Delight are two such stores that are worth visiting for cutters.) You can even find places that will make custom copper cutters in the shapes and sizes that you want but, again, that type of thing requires some serious cash.

It's a wise idea to look at images of decorated cookies online, and/or in books, to get interesting ideas before you actually haul out all your supplies. Check out a few sites like Rolling Pin Productions, or Knead a Cookie for inspiration, and don't be intimidated by their more elaborate designs. Perhaps my favorite book dedicated to cookies like this is Cookie Craft, by Peterson and Fryer. The text is extremely encouraging and makes the whole endeavor seem completely approachable, the designs are cute, and the recipes are reliable. Hey, any girl worth her salt can teach herself to make cute, colorful, appetizing cookies (boys, too--I'm not sexist).

In starting a big batch of decorator cookies, keep in mind that the cookies themselves can--and for the sake of your sanity really should--be baked ahead of time. If very carefully packed, they can even be frozen until you're ready to use them. In my experience the quality of the cookies doesn't suffer at all, once defrosted, if you've wrapped them extremely well to start with. Baking the cookies ahead of time makes sense not only because it saves time and stress, but also because these are not the sort of cookies that dry out quickly since they don't have much moisture to start with. They are quite firm and thus are remarkably durable, provided you've used a recipe expressly formulated for just this type of cookie (I highly recommend the dough recipes in the book Cookie Craft, mentioned above).

In terms of icing, I think that Toba Garrett's glace icing recipe is exceptionally good. She's a legendary decorator-cookie maven and her basic recipes have been widely disseminated on the internet. Just search on a term like 'Toba Garrett's glace' and you'll get a lot of hits. Though glace takes significantly longer to dry than royal icing, it is--in my opinion--far prettier when it's dry and it tastes delicious, much better than royal icing tastes. It's definitely worth a try if you're never given it a whirl. Royal icing has its own qualities, though, so don't ever make the mistake of writing it off completely. Cindy, my first cake and cookie decorating teacher, does wonderful, innovative things with royal icing and she prefers it. It's just a matter of personal preference.

So go ahead, choose your recipes, your cutters, clear your space, pull out your supplies, and do what comes naturally. And whatever you do decide to do, always remember that perfection in cookie decorating is not the true aim. Enjoyment is the aim. (Repeat after me, "Enjoyment is the aim." Very good. Keep saying that.) Go with the flow. After all, they're only cookies. Or, as Cindy might reassuringly comment to her students as they struggle to get the hang of a technique in her cake/cookie decorating classes, "It's only sugar, ladies. It's not the end of the world." I second that. It's about as far from "the end of the world" as one can get. Hey, that gives me an idea . . . how about a cookie decorated to look like a globe? A relief map? A crystal ball? A gypsy fortune teller? A soothsayer? Etc., etc., and so on, and so forth . . . you get the idea.

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