Cookies make the world go around – it’s amazing how a simple sweet can create so much happiness. And they make such great gifts that I spend a lot of time each holiday season baking my favorites to share with friends and family. When it comes to the fancy decorated cookies, though, I believe in a group effort. Thus has evolved my annual cookie-decorating and holiday party. It’s a great way to bring family and friends together and make cookies at the same time. Everyone has more fun at a party when there is a project that gets conversations flowing. Hosting a cookie decorating party is not difficult, and I’ve developed a plan over the years to help it all run smoothly. The key is organization.
Here are some tips to help you have fun:
- Make the cookie dough in advance. I usually make the dough over Thanksgiving weekend. I always make two kinds of dough – sugar cookie dough (recipe below) and gingerbread cookie dough, but one type of dough is certainly enough. I usually triple or quadruple the recipe below so I have plenty of cookies on hand, but even a double batch will yield enough cookies for a small party.
- Roll out the cookie dough as soon as you make it. This is when the dough is easiest to roll, though if you find it difficult and sticky, you may want to chill the dough for 20 minutes or so. Roll the portions out between two sheets of parchment paper, following the directions in the recipe below, to 1/8-inch thick, and about the size of a baking sheet. I stack the rolled-out dough portions (still between parchment) on a baking sheet. Then I wrap the whole baking sheet in plastic wrap several times and stash it in the freezer until baking day.
- Bake the cookies the day before the party. Once the oven is preheated, I choose the cutters, remove the dough from the freezer and let it defrost on the counter for 5 to 10 minutes, until still cold, but not frozen hard. Cut out the shapes you want, placing the cutters as close together as possible, then carefully transfer the shapes to parchment-lined baking sheets and bake until light golden brown. Remember to bake similarly-sized cookies on the same pan – if you have very large or very small cookies, bake them on separate sheets.
- Once the cookies have cooled, stack them up according to shapes on a baking sheet lined with parchment, then wrap the entire sheet several times with plastic wrap to keep the cookies airtight and fresh.
- Make the frosting the day before the party. I like to use meringue powder for the icing, and whip up great mounds of it. Then I separate it into bowls and add food coloring.
- Use disposable piping bags secured with twist ties for decorating. Once the frosting is done, spoon it into disposable piping bags until they are 2/3 full, then twist the ends tightly, and secure them with a twist tie (available in the produce section at the supermarket). This will prevent icing from coming out the back end of the bag while your friends and family are piping their masterpieces. I always have several bags of each color – especially the popular colors – so guests aren’t waiting around for someone else to finish.
- I put a selection of colored frosting-filled pastry bags into a large bowl at several points around the table, and cover their ends with a wet, wrung-out kitchen towel. Once the ends of the bags are cut and the decorating begins, you want to keep the cut ends moist, or the frosting will harden there. Let everyone know that when they are finished with a color, they should put the frosting back into the bowl with the tip of the bag under the damp towel.
- Buy a selection of fun garnishes, like colored sprinkles and sanding sugars, silver dragées, colored candies, and anything else that strikes your fancy. Make a couple of small bowls of each kind to spread around the table(s). You can also use paper cupcake liners to hold these decorations.
- Put out a selection of toothpicks, new paintbrushes (kid-size), and mini offset spatulas so those who want to spread things around can do so easily.
- I put holiday-themed plastic tablecloths on any surface that might be used as a work area, so clean-up is a breeze. A roll of paper towels and 2 or 3 wet and wrung-out kitchen towels on each table make it easy to clean up sticky hands or spills.
- I buy large paper plates, and each guest writes their name on the rim of the plate. They use the plate to choose their cookies and decorate them. If they want to decorate even more cookies, they simply get another plate. This eliminates any “hey, that’s MY cookie” discussions at the end of the evening.
- Have something simple to eat so everyone doesn’t fill up on sugar – I usually make a hearty soup or stew and serve it with some good bread.
- Have a roll of plastic wrap or a box of ziptop bags at the ready as guests go home. Wrap each plate tightly, or slip it into a ziptop bag so the cookies don’t end up on the seat of the car or someone’s clothing.
I started the tradition of this party for the kids, but have been pleasantly surprised over the years to see just how much the adults love the decorating. The kids decorate a few cookies then move on to playing in another room. It’s the adults who really get into the decorating, and allow their creativity to shine. Sitting around a big table sharing stories, food, and cookie decorations is one of the best ways I can think of to celebrate the season.More Cookies, Cookies, Cookies ideas and recipes follow after the jump
Classic Sugar Cookies
Makes 40 to 50 cookies
Here’s a deliciously crisp and tender sugar cookie that can assume many shapes and be served as is, or sandwiched with jam, chocolate, or your favorite filling. The cookies also make a great canvas for decorating at holiday times.
Equipment: Stand Mixer Fitted with a Paddle Attachment or a Hand Mixer and a Medium Bowl, Small Bowl, Whisk, Parchment Paper, Rolling Pin, Three Baking Sheets, Cookie Cutters, Fine-Mesh Strainer, Cooling Rack
- 2¼ cups (11¼ ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
- ¾ cup (5¼ ounces) plus 2 tablespoons sugar
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 2 sticks (8 ounces) cold unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch pieces
- 2 large egg yolks
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- Place the flour, ¾ cup of the sugar, and the salt in the bowl of the stand mixer and beat on low speed for 15 seconds, just to blend the ingredients. You can also use a handmixer and a medium bowl, though it may take a little longer to achieve the same results. Add the butter and mix on low until the butter is broken into tiny pieces, 2 to 3 minutes. Turn the mixer to medium-low and mix until the mixture forms small clumps about the size of peas, 2 to 3 minutes longer.
- In the small bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and vanilla. Add the egg mixture to the butter mixture and blend on medium-low until the dough comes together to form several large clumps. Turn the dough out onto a work surface and knead several times, just to bring it together. Divide the dough in half and shape each half into a disk about ½ inch thick. Wrap the disks in plastic and refrigerate for about 30 minutes, or until cold but still pliable.
- Place one disk of dough between two sheets of parchment or waxed paper and roll ¹⁄8 inch thick. If the dough cracks when you start to roll, it may be too cold. Let it sit for 10 minutes, then try again—this dough rolls most easily when it is at cool room temperature. As you roll, the parchment will wrinkle, especially on the bottom. When this happens, peel off the top parchment paper, smooth out any wrinkles, and place it back on the dough. Flip the dough over and repeat with the paper on the other side. You may need to do this several times during the rolling process. Note: The dough may also be rolled out on a lightly floured work surface, but be sure to brush any excess flour from the top and bottom of the dough before chilling and baking (the parchment method is easier and cleaner). Place the rolled-out dough, with the parchment still attached, on a baking sheet and transfer to the refrigerator to chill for 30 minutes. Repeat with the remaining disk of dough.
- Remove the parchment from top and bottom of one piece of rolled out dough and place the dough on your work surface. Line the baking sheet with new parchment paper. Use cookie cutters to cut the dough into desired shapes and transfer to the parchment lined sheet, spacing the cookies about 1½ inches apart. Stack the cookies on the sheet pan with a piece of parchment paper between each layer. Scraps of dough can be gently kneaded and then rerolled, but the more they are rerolled, the less tender the cookies, so strategically place your cookie cutters to leave as few scraps as possible. Repeat with the remaining sheet of dough. Chill the cut shapes while the oven preheats.
- Preheat the oven to 375°F and position an oven rack in the center. Sprinkle the cookies on each baking sheet with some of the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar (you may not use it all) just before they go into the oven. Bake one pan at a time, rotating the sheet about halfway through, for 10 to 13 minutes, until light golden brown. Transfer to a rack to cool completely. Repeat with the remaining cookie shapes. Decorate the cookies as desired or leave them plain and simple.
Storing: The cookies can be stored in an airtight container, layered between sheets of parchment or waxed paper, at room temperature for up to 1 week.
Getting Ahead: At the end of Step 2, the dough can be wrapped airtight and chilled for up to 3 days, or frozen for up to 2 months. You may find it even more convenient to chill or freeze the cutout dough at the end of Step 4, wrapping the entire baking sheet. There is no need to thaw the frozen shapes before baking—simply add a minute or two to the baking time.
Tools of the Trade:
- Holiday Bake Shop
- Professional Baking Shop
- Professional All-Clad Gourmet Ovenware Baking Sheets
- Copper Snowflake Cookie Cutters
- Silicone Nonstick Tapered French Rolling Pin
Recipes and Photos are reprinted with permission from Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC. The Art and Soul of Baking © copyright 2008 by Sur La Table, Inc.