The most beautifully decorated cookies are made using frosting. It takes practice, but piping is a very versatile skill for decorating cookies and cakes.
The simplest types of cookie icing are made using confectioners' sugar, butter or shortening and milk or water, such as Sugar Cookie Icing and Decorator Frosting. These icings have a somewhat softer texture than royal icings, which dry to a very hard crunchy finish. (Royal icing is great for gluing gingerbread houses, but it's not very tasty.)
Coloring and Flavoring
If you want a different flavor for each color of icing, use vanilla, lemon, orange, or almond extract (vanilla will discolor the icing slightly). Juice can also be substituted for the liquid in a recipe. For brighter colors, paste food coloring--available at craft and kitchenware stores--works better than the more commonly available liquid colors.
- When adding color, first mix the color into about 1 tablespoon of icing, and then blend that into the rest of the icing.
- Frosting can easily be thinned to the desired consistency by adding liquid such as milk, juice or water.
- For a smooth glossy finish, warm the icing slightly in a microwave, or in a bowl over a pan of simmering water.
- Be sure to stir frequently so that a crust does not form on the top.
- Keep icing covered with a damp cloth and plastic wrap in between uses.
Frost cookies with a pastry brush, small metal spatula, or by simply dipping the cookies into a shallow bowl of icing: hold the cookie by its edges, dip into the icing, and lift up with a twisting motion to let the excess drip back into the bowl.
- Use a knife or spatula to spread icing over any bare spots.
- Set the freshly frosted cookies onto a tray or waxed paper to dry.
- Once the first coat of frosting is dry, you can pipe another color of frosting over the top to add details such as stripes, spirals, polka dots and names.
Disposable plastic pastry bags work well and give you control over your piping, or you can improvise by filling a small plastic baggie with frosting and cutting off the corner to make the pastry "tip." Smaller children can press pieces of candy into the frosting before it hardens, or sprinkle the cookies with different colors of sugar or edible glitter.
Dipping in Chocolate
There is nothing quite as enticing as a chocolate-dipped cookie. Darker chocolates generally need to be tempered to keep them shiny and firm. If you don't want the mess and process of tempering, look for "coating chocolate." Designed to maintain a shine without tempering, coating chocolates contain a different type of fat in addition to the cocoa butter found in good chocolate. (Most coating chocolates are of a lower grade and may not taste as chocolaty as couverture.) Many bakers add a few drops of vegetable oil or melted paraffin to warmed chocolate as an alternative to tempering.
Working from right to left, dip cookies halfway into the chocolate, and scrape the excess off of the bottom using your finger or the side of the bowl. (Disposable latex gloves will keep your hands clean and the cookies fingerprint-free. You can find them at drugstores and some supermarkets.) Then give the cookie a gentle shake and once again, scrape the excess chocolate off. This will keep the chocolate from forming a puddle around the cookie while it sets up. Place the cookies onto the waxed paper starting at the farthest end and working inward. This prevents you from dripping onto the finished cookies.
- Dip one end of each cookie into ground pistachios, hazelnuts, pecans or other nuts while the chocolate is still wet.
- When the first coat has set, apply another color of chocolate. Try dipping one half of each cookie in dark chocolate, and the other half in white. (You can even color white chocolate a nice pastel color: use candy coloring pastes from craft stores or kitchen supply stores.)
- Use a pastry bag (or a plastic sandwich bag with a hole cut in the corner) to drizzle stripes on cookies for an elegant touch.
Decorating Before Baking
For pretty cookies that don't require an all-day production, add a garnish before the cookies are baked. Rolled cookies can be shaped into logs, chilled, cut, and baked. Roll logs in colored sugar, finely chopped nuts, coconut, sesame seeds, or sprinkles before baking. Even a light dusting of confectioners' sugar or cocoa powder will give any cookies an elegant finish. Dust the cookies again, right before serving, to freshen their appearance. For more elaborate cookies, try pinwheels or checkerboards.