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Christmas Cookie Decorating 101

Many bakers ask for tips and instructions on decorating cookies. Well that's a tall order because there are as many ways to decorate cookies as there are cookies! Here are a few guidelines for novices and experienced bakers alike to help you generate your own ideas for cooking decorating.


Cookies can be decorated before baking with materials that withstand the heat of baking. Some things that you can place on your cookies before baking are:

-colored sugars or natural sugars such as pearl sugar
-jimmies, non-pareils, silver and gold drages, and other sprinkles
-raisins and dried fruits such as cranberries

These items can be placed on top of almost any cookie to dress it up a bit and give it a more festive appearance.

Paint a masterpiece
You can also paint your cookies before baking them. Make an edible food paint out of an egg yolk mixed with a few drops of food coloring and paint the cookies with a clean paintbrush. The paint will dry while baking and give the cookie a colorful, glazed appearance. This is a fun activity for kids!

A bit of trompe l'oeil
The folks at Better Homes and Gardens have a creative recipe for Colored Cream Dough ( http://www.bhg.com/bhg/story.jhtml?page=2&storyid=%2Ftemplatedata%2Fbhg%2Fstory%2Fdata%2F11429.xml&catref=SC1407 ) which is a dough of frosting consistency that can be piped onto cookies with a pastry bag fitted with a writing or star tip, and then baked. The result is a cookie that looks like it has been frosted but the frosting is baked on and hard.


Decorating cookies after baking them requires that you apply some kind of liquid-based substance that will adhere to the baked cookie, or that will act as a glue to attach other items. Usually, this takes the form of frosting, icing, or melted chocolate.

Frosting vs. Icing
There is a big difference between frosting and icing. Frosting is thick and holds shapes like rosettes and shells like those you see piped around the edges of a birthday cake. It remains soft to the touch and has a creamy texture, and most people think it tastes better because of the creamy buttery flavor. Icing, on the other hand, is a thinner, more liquid substance, and as it dries it thins out, becomes very smooth across the surface of your cookie, and hardens. This is the icing to use for the most beautiful, professional results.

Working with frosting
You can use frosting in two ways. One way is to simply use a knife or rubber spatula to spread the frosting across the whole surface of your cookie. The other way is to place the frosting in a pastry or decorating bag fitted with a small tip and piping out thin lines or rosettes of icing onto the cookie. Either way, once the frosting has been applied to the cookie you can then further embellish it by using colored sugars, non-pareils, or any of the decorating items mentioned in the Decorating Before Baking section above. Christmas-Cookies.com has a delicious recipe for Buttercream Frosting at http://www.christmas-cookies.com/recipes/recipe.php?recid=306. See detailed instructions on piping frosting from Better Homes and Gardens at http://www.bhg.com/bhg/story.jhtml?page=3&storyid=%2Ftemplatedata%2Fbhg%2Fstory%2Fdata%2F11430.xml&catref=SC1407

Working with icing
Icing is a little more difficult to work with but its smooth surface produces the most beautiful results! Icing should always be piped onto a cookie because it will run off the edges if spread with a knife. Once iced you can apply silver drages, or other sprinkles just as mentioned with the frosting above, before it hardens. Christmas-Cookies.com has an excellent recipe for Royal Icing at http://www.christmas-cookies.com/recipes/recipe.php?recid=42. There is also a recipe for Powdered Sugar Icing ( http://www.christmas-cookies.com/recipes/recipe.php?recid=288 ) that dries less hard than Royal Icing and has a shiny surface. Martha Stewart's website features an excellent article on how to pipe icing onto cookies for professional-looking results ( http://www.marthastewart.com/page.jhtml?type=content&id=channel172011&catid=cat258 ).

Melted chocolate
Just about any cookie can be embellished simply by dipping it in chocolate or drizzling chocolate over it. You can even dress up the everyday chocolate chip cookie for gift-giving or serving at parties. Melting chocolate is a simple process, but a few rules must be followed in order to make it a success. For Easter, try using white chocolate tinted in pastel shades with food coloring. Use the gel, paste or powdered kind of food color, because the liquid drops may make the chocolate seize up.

What you need
You can either use chocolate chips or baking chocolate (the kind that comes in 1-ounce squares) and the same process applies whether you use dark chocolate or white chocolate. A small amount of shortening should be added at the ratio of 2 tablespoons shortening for 1 cup of chocolate chips or chopped up baking chocolate.

Double boiler
Place chocolate and shortening in the top half of a double boiler or in a metal bowl that has been placed on top of a saucepan filled with hot water. The water must be very hot, but not boiling, because the steam generated by boiling water could get moisture into the melting chocolate which makes it curdle. Allow the chocolate to melt over the hot water and stir it occasionally until it has achieved a liquid consistency.

Place your chocolate and shortening in a microwave safe bowl and microwave it on medium power for 1 minute. Stir. Continue microwaving 20 seconds, stir again. Keep doing this until the chocolate is almost melted. Remove it from the microwave and stir it until completely melted.

Dip one end of your cookie, or half the cookie, or even the whole cookie into the melted chocolate. Set the cookie on a wire rack to let the chocolate harden. If you wish, you can sprinkle chopped nuts, coconut, or non-pareils over the melted chocolate before it hardens.

Scrape melted chocolate into a ziplock baggie. With a sharp scissors, snip off a very small corner of the baggie. Drizzle top of cookies with zig-zags of melted chocolate. Cool until chocolate is set.

Using these simple techniques will help you produce a variety of beautiful-looking cookies at Christmastime and throughout the year.

Copyright 2004 Mimi Cummins. All Rights Reserved.

Mimi Cummins is co-author of the book "Christmas Cookies Are for Giving: Recipes, Stories, and Tips for Making Heartwarming Gifts." This book, "enthusiastically recommended" by Midwest Book Review, is full of baking tips and hints, including nearly 50 recipes each with a full-color photo. For more information visit http://www.christmascookiesareforgiving.com/ or order from your favorite online bookstore.

[Note to webmasters: you may include a link to the book using your affiliate program (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or other) if you wish.]


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