Christmas Sugar Cut-Outs

Per usual, I went a bit overboard with Christmas baking. Gingerbread and shortbread for colleagues, pear tart and spice cake for Christmas day dessert, and these sugar cut-outs and some Russian tea cakes for my trip to Deep Creek to see my cousin Barb and her family this past weekend. I’ve eaten an inordinate amount of sugar in the past few weeks, even for me.

These Christmas sugar cut-outs may be a bit over the top, but seriously, how can you resist a cookie that looks like this? I also made some trees and stars, but the houses pictured here were my best creations. I used a gingerbread house cookie cutter and decorated them to look like little village houses, complete with snow-covered rooftops and evergreens.

Ingredients

For the cookies

  • 8 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 3 teaspoons vanilla

For the frosting

  • 1/4 cup shortening
  • 1-2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 2 1/4 cups powdered sugar
  • Red, green, yellow, and black food coloring (gel coloring is best)

Preparation

Stir together flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl; set aside.

Cream together butter and sugar until fluffy. Add egg and beat well. Add vanilla and about half the flour mixture, beating until combined; beat in remaining flour. Form dough into a ball, then flatten out into a square; refrigerate until just barely firm, about 20-30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper.

Roll dough to about 1/8 to 1/4 inch thickness and cut into desired shapes; I made stars, trees, and houses. Place same-shape cookies on each baking sheet to ensure even baking. For example, make all the stars on one sheet and all the houses on another so you don’t burn the stars while the houses are still baking.

Bake for 8-10 minutes, until just golden. Cool on a wire rack.

To make the frosting, in a mixing bowl, combine shortening, vanilla extract, water, and 1 cup powdered sugar. Mix on low speed, then increase to medium-high and beat for 10 minutes, until smooth. Add remaining powdered sugar and additional teaspoon of vanilla extract, beating until smooth.

Reserve a portion of untinted frosting for snow, windows, and doors of houses. Divide remaining frosting into small portions for your other colors; I used yellow for my stars, green, yellow, and red for my trees (which featured stars and garland), and red, white, green, and black for my houses. Fill piping bags and decorate as you like; I used a star tip to make the snow and evergreens on my houses above and plain tips to pipe the windows, doors, and window/door outlines.

Allow frosting to set before storing cookies between sheets of waxed paper in airtight containers at room temperature. Makes about 2 dozen, depending on cutter sizes.

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Halloween Sugar Cut-Outs

halloween-cutoutsMike loves Halloween. Each year he impresses our neighbors with elaborately carved pumpkins, and this year I decided to make him some elaborately decorated cookies. A few weeks ago I picked up a set of Halloween cookie cutters, and I chose my favorites for this job. I admit, though, that I’ll never make 15 different varieties of cut-out cookies again in one project because it literally took me all afternoon – about four hours – to decorate them all.

Tips for decorating each type of cookie appear next to their photos below, but in general, I recommend baking the same (or similar) shape cookies in each batch so you get even browning; for example, I baked pumpkins and tombstones together because they are a similar size, but I wouldn’t put bats and pumpkins on the same cookie sheet. Also, I chose this icing recipe, my grandma Zella’s original, because it yields an easily spreadable icing that sets up very well once it dries, making stacking your cookies in a container much easier.

This batch made 70 cookies (yes, almost 6 dozen). Happy Halloween!

Ingredients

For the cookies

  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 4 cups flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1-2 teaspoons water

For the frosting & decorating

  • 3 egg whites*
  • 9 tablespoons shortening
  • Dash of salt
  • 6 cups powdered sugar
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract
  • Orange, green, yellow, brown, and black gel food coloring
  • Bat sprinkles
  • Flower-shaped sprinkles

*Your three leftover egg yolks will be great for pastry cream, which can be used for all types of other treats. If you’d like, tint it a fun Halloween color and use it in some cupcakes. 

Preparation

Stir together flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl; set aside.

Cream together butter and sugar until fluffy. Add eggs and beat well.

Add vanilla and about half the flour mixture, beating until combined; beat in remaining flour. If necessary, add 1-2 teaspoons of water for a less crumbly dough; you’ll need a more pliable dough to roll and cut later.

Divide dough in half and knead each just slightly until dough sticks together.  Form each half into a disc and wrap in plastic.

Refrigerate until just barely firm, about 20-30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Roll dough to 1/8 inch thickness and cut into desired shapes.

Bake for 8-10 minutes, until just golden. Remove from oven and allow to cool on cookie sheets for 2-3 minutes before carefully transferring to wire racks to cool completely.

For the frosting, combine egg whites, shortening, salt, and 2 cups powdered sugar in a mixing bowl.  Beat on low speed until combined, then increase speed to medium, then high, and beat for one minute.

Add additional cup powdered sugar and beat on low speed until combined, then on high speed for one minute.

Add vanilla and almond extracts.  Beat on high speed for one or two minutes, until very well combined.

Check the frosting’s texture; it should be like very, very soft peanut butter and very easily spreadable.  If necessary, you can add one to two teaspoons of water to thin the frosting and beat well to combine

Decorating tips for each type of cookie appear below. In general, I recommend the following:

  • Tint your frosting in small batches. You’ll use several of these colors on more than one type of cookie, but you can always make more of a certain color from your main batch of white.
  • I started with the cookies that needed white bases first, then moved onto my other colors.
  • Once you’ve used your yellow for the witch brooms, you can tint whatever you have leftover orange for the pumpkins.
  • The remainder of the gray from your tombstones can become darker gray for your cauldrons.
  • The remainder of the dark gray from your cauldrons can become black for the witch hats, bats, and piping.

tombstonesTombstones

You’ll need gray frosting and black frosting, as well as black bat sprinkles.

Tint frosting gray by adding a small amount of black food coloring. Frost cookies as evenly as you can to create a smooth surface.

Tint frosting black using a generous amount of black food coloring. Fit a small but sturdy zip-top bag with a plain frosting tip and pipe letters, then add a bat to the corner of the tombstone.

 

 

 

jackolanterns

Jack-o-Lanterns

You will need orange, green, and black icing.

Frost pumpkins with orange icing, pulling your spatula or knife downward to create the pumpkin ridges.

Fit a small but sturdy zip-top bag with a plain or leaf tip, then pipe on stems.

Using black icing, pipe faces.

 

 

skullsSkulls

You will need white and black icing.

Frost cookies with white icing as evenly as you can to create a flat surface.

Using black frosting, pipe on faces.

 

 

 

 

batsBats

You will need black icing; frost to fill in the shape, then pull your spatula or knife downward to create texture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

mummiesMummies

These cookies use a coffin cutter. You will need brown and white icing.

Frost cookies with brown icing.

Fit a small but sturdy zip-top bag with white icing and pipe on mummies.

 

 

 

 

websSpiderwebs

You will need white and black icing.

Frosting cookies with white icing as evenly as you can to create a flat surface.

Pipe on webs; start with four lines that create a star shape, then fill in web strings by connecting each line.

 

 

 

pumpkinsPumpkins

You will need orange and green icing.

Frost pumpkins with orange icing, pulling your spatula or knife downward to create the pumpkin ridges.

Fit a small but sturdy zip-top bag with a plain or leaf tip, then pipe on stems.

 

 

 

cauldronsCauldrons

You will need dark gray/light black and green icing.

Frost cauldrons with dark gray icing, coming up to the top of the cauldron but leaving space in the middle for the witch’s brew.

Using green icing, pipe on witch’s brew.

 

 

 

 

candycornCandy Corn

You will need white, orange, and yellow icing.

Begin at the top with the white and frost each cookie with a band of white, orange, and yellow icing.

 

 

 

 

 

diadelosmuertosDia de los Muertos Skulls

These cookies celebrate Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, the Mexican celebration of those we’ve lost.

You will need white, black, and green icing, as well as flower sprinkles.

Frost cookies with white as evenly as you can to create a flat surface.

Using black frosting, pipe on faces and decorative swirls.

Using green frosting, outline the eyes, mouth, swirls, and edges of each cookie. Add flower sprinkles for eyes and other embellishments.

 

monstersMonsters

These cookies are a combination of spiderweb cut-outs and the scrap cookies that were left over from all of my rolling and cutting.

You will need green, orange, black, and white frosting.

Frost cookies with green, then pipe on eyes using orange and black frosting, fangs using white frosting, and fur using orange frosting.

 

 

 

broomsWitch’s Brooms

You will need yellow, brown, and orange icing.

Frost broom bottoms with yellow, pulling your spatula or knife back and forth to create the straw. Pipe on an orange line to show where the broom is gathered.

Frost broom handles with brown icing.

 

 

 

 

ghostsGhosts

You will need white and black icing.

Frost cookies with white icing, then use black icing to pipe on eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

catsCats

You will need brown and green icing.

Frost cookies with brown icing, pulling your spatula or knife back and forth to create the fur texture.

Pipe on green eyes.

 

 

 

 

hatsWitch Hats 

You will need black icing; frost hats with black and pull your spatula or knife back and forth to create a fabric texture.

 

Sugar Cut-Out Tips

 

 

 

 

 

For a long time, sugar cookies were my nemesis. I loved how they looked, but didn’t really love to make them, because I always had trouble getting the right consistency in my dough. The following tips may help you reach sugar cookie nirvana:

  • Softened/room temperature butter should be the texture of ice cream, not peanut butter. It should hold some of its shape, but not be too soft.
  • Flour incorporation takes a few minutes. The dough will go through a crumb-like stage and then change to a more cohesive dough that pulls away from the side of the mixer. When it pulls away, it’s done.
  • If your dough is too crumbly, even after a few minutes of mixing, go ahead and add another teaspoon of vanilla extract or water. Take care not to add too much water; your dough needs to be stiff enough to roll out, so if you end up adding more liquid (or your butter was really, really soft) add another tablespoon of flour to help stabilize the dough.
  • Place your dough in large  Ziploc bags or between sheets of waxed paper and roll it slightly before chilling.
  • Chill your dough for about 30 minutes; I’ve found that this gives enough time to make rolling easier, but isn’t so long that your dough is hard.
  • Remove your dough from the fridge and let it sit out for a few minutes before you roll it.
  • If you have trouble with breakage when transferring your cut cookies to the baking sheet, keep the cookie cutter in place once you’ve cut your shape, then slide an offset spatula beneath the cookie and move the whole thing, cutter and all, to the baking sheet and then remove the cutter.
  • Chill your cut-outs for 5-10 minutes before baking.
  • Different shapes = different baking times, so bake one shape at a time. For example, if you’re baking moons and stars, bake all of the moons on one sheet and all of the stars on another to ensure even baking.

Turkey Sugar Cut-Outs

 

 

 

 

 

Several Thanksgivings ago, in our tiny kitchen in DC, I made sugar cut-outs in the shape of turkeys, pumpkins, maple leaves, and acorns. Rolling out sugar cookie dough in a galley-style kitchen is next to impossible, but the little dining table we had in our living room worked very well. Decorating sugar cookies is a fun endeavor, and because I had colored sugar that year, I decided to embellish the turkeys so that both toms and hens were on the platter.

When the cookies arrived at Aunt Liz’s house, they were a big hit. My cousin-in-law, Robb, first called the turkeys “anatomically correct,” but we later agreed that “gender specific” was a more appropriate term. Either way, I now make these turkeys every year.

Ingredients

  • 1 recipe sugar cut-outs
  • 1 recipe Zella’s icing
  • Brown gel food coloring
  • Miniature chocolate chips, for turkey eyes
  • Colored sugar sprinkles, for tom feathers

Preparation

Bake and cool sugar cut-outs.

Prepare icing; add enough brown food coloring to reach your desired turkey color.

Frost turkeys with a small offset spatula or butter knife, using a swirling motion to make feather patterns.

Press a miniature chocolate chip onto each turkey for the eye.

For the toms: starting on the outside of the feather end, use a teaspoon to sprinkle on a generous amount of colored sugar; repeat with two additional colors. Gently press the sugar into the icing with your finger, then lift the cookie and shake off any excess.

Allow icing to set before storing; store between sheets of parchment or waxed paper.

Great Pumpkin Sugar Cut-Outs

 

 

 

 

 

One of my favorite things about Halloween is “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!” I admire Linus for his dedication, waiting all night in the pumpkin patch, even if all that came was a beagle.

The Great Pumpkin inspired me to bake these rather large sugar cut-outs, and that’s one of the things that I love about sugar cookies–the endless creative possibilities. Pick your cutter, whip up your icing, and you’re making edible art.

To make these cookies, you will need:

  • 1 recipe sugar cut-outs
  • 1 recipe Zella’s icing
  • Yellow, red, and green liquid food coloring (or orange and green gel food coloring)
  • 1 large pumpkin cookie cutter (mine is 3 3/4 inches)

Preparation

Bake and cool sugar cut-outs.

Prepare icing; reserve a small portion of icing to tint green for pumpkin stems.

Combine yellow and red food coloring until you reach the desired orange tint.

Frost with orange first, using a small offset spatula or butter knife and a back-and-forth vertical swirling motion to create the pumpkin ridges.

Frost stems, using a small dab of green frosting.

Allow frosting to harden before storing; store at room temperature in an airtight container between layers of waxed paper for up to four days.

Steamed Crab Sugar Cookie Cut-Outs with Vanilla Icing

 

 

 

 

 

The Great State of Maryland has played a huge role in my life.  My mom was born and raised there, and I chose Frostburg State University for college, married a Maryland boy, and lived there for a while before moving to DC.

Marylanders are proud of the Chesapeake Bay, its history, and its industry.  Mike can tell you, in great detail, about the pollution that led to a serious reduction in the crab and oyster populations in the 1980s, precipitating the “Save the Bay” initiative. Fortunately, Marylanders are environmentally-minded, and the bay is now a healthy source of tasty seafood, the most famous of which is the blue crab.

Crab feasts are social events, involving iced tea, beer, Old Bay, newspaper-covered picnic tables, and epic storytelling.   They last for hours and hours.  I had never eaten a crab until I met Mike, and his dad taught me how to whack the shell open with a mallet and extract the meat with a knife.  I admit that I had the patience for one crab-whacking only; to this day, I prefer my crab in cake form.

These crab cookies are dedicated to all of my favorite Marylanders.

You will need:

  • A crab-shaped cookie cutter
  • One double batch of Sugar Cut-Outs
  • One batch vanilla icing (see below)
  • Red and brown gel paste food coloring

Vanilla Icing

Ingredients

  • 6 tablespoons shortening
  • 2 egg whites
  • Pinch of salt
  • 4 cups powdered sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1-2 teaspoons water

Preparation

Combine shortening, egg whites, salt, and 1 cup powdered sugar in a mixing bowl.  Beat well on medium speed for about one minute.

Add one cup of powdered sugar at a time, beating well on medium, then high speed for about one minute after each.

Add vanilla extract and beat well; if you want a thinner consistency, add one to two teaspoons of water and beat very well.

To create cookies:

Reserve a small portion of the icing to tint brown for eyes; tint remaining icing red.

Frost crab bodies red, then pipe on eyes.

Let icing harden for a few hours before storing; store between sheets of waxed paper in an airtight container.

Sugar Cut-Outs: Rabbits

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Easter!  For this cookie recipe, please see sugar cut-outs.

Decoration

  • Single recipe Zella’s icing
  • Brown gel food coloring
  • Blue liquid or gel food coloring
  • Pink flower-shaped sprinkles

Prepare icing and reserve about 1/4 cup for white and blue details.

In your mixing bowl, tint icing brown using gel food coloring.

Frost rabbit bodies brown, leaving the tails bare.

Fit a pastry bag (or sandwich-sized plastic bag) with a large star tip; fill with small portion of white icing and pipe on tails.

Replace the star tip with a plain round tip and pipe a small circle for the eye.

Tint remaining icing blue; fit a pastry bag or sandwich-sized plastic bag with a small round tip and pipe on eye detail.

Press one pink flower-shaped sprinkle on each rabbit for the nose.

Allow icing to harden before storing.