"The only real stumbling block is the fear of failure. In cooking, you have got to have a what-the-hell attitude." ~ Julia Child

Decorating Sugar Cookies: Harder Than it Looks

by Julie on December 22, 2011

in Sugar and Spite

OK, here’s a question for you, sincere and coming in the desperate final days of the seasonal baking frenzy.

How the HELL do you decorate sugar cookies?

This seems to be a skill women pick up when they become mothers, like menu planning and being able to hem pants. Except once again, I never got the memo.

I know, I know, I’ve read the cookbooks and the blog posts. I’m supposed to make the icing, and then I either do little things with a toothpick or else put it in some kind of pastry bag and pipe it on.

Neither one works for me, though. Never has. Didn’t this time, either.

bad sugar cookie

She's not impressed either...

Baking and decorating sugar cookies is supposed to be a basic, easy, family-fun sorta thing.  And this year, with visions of elaborately decorated holiday cookies dancing in my head, I thought I’d do a little research and do it right this time. How hard could it be, really?

Turns out, everyone admits this takes some thought, preparation, and skill. Three things I’m not known for…

But I did manage to make what I think is a sugar cookie. The page had fallen out of my well-loved volume of How to Cook Everything, so I couldn’t read the intro to make sure. It was in the cookies section, and it did look like the basic sugar cookie. But the end result wasn’t quite as sweet as I thought sugar cookies should be. Which isn’t to say they weren’t delicious tea cookies.

I made the dough, chilled it for a couple of hours, rolled them out.

sugar cookies

So far so good...

Here’s the recipe:

two sticks of unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 egg
3 cups all-purpose flour plus some for dusting the work surface
pinch salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Use an electric hand mixer to cream the butter and sugar together until light (it’s just easier). Beat in the egg.

Combine the flour, salt and baking powder in a bowl. Mix the dry ingredients into the butter/sugar mixture, adding the milk a little at a time as needed (you might well need more than one tablespoon…I did). Stir in the vanilla

Shape the dough into a disk, wrap in wax paper and refrigerate for at least two hours (or as long as two days).

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. I find it easiest to let it warm just a bit, then roll it out between two sheets of wax paper. Cut into shapes. Or, if like me you suddenly can’t find your cookie cutouts, use a glass, rim dipped in flour, to at least make nice circle shapes.

Bake on a lightly-greased baking sheet until the edges are lightly browned and the center set, about 6 to 10 minutes. Let rest on the cookie sheet for  a few minutes before transferring onto a rack.

Here’s where some strategic Googling came in. I know. I should have done this first.

Come to find out there are many different ways to decorate sugar cookies: Frosting vs. icing. Decorating before baking vs. decorating after. Different ways of making icing. Royal Icing is stiff and not that sweet but it’s great for use on gingerbread houses, for example. You need to buy something called meringue powder for this.

In the end, I opted to make icing instead of frosting, even though I didn’t have the goods to make royal icing.  I just like the word “icing” better.

So I made icing in three little bowls using powdered sugar and a little milk. Then I added food coloring. Just the basics.

sugar cookie icing

Red, green and blue

Ah, and here’s where it got tricky. How to get the colors on the cookies. I’d tried the toothpick trick in years’ past, to no success. This year, I found these:

disposable decorating bags

An idea whose time has come

It was easier to get the frosting into these little bags than it was to get the meringue into the pastry bag last week. Remember that debacle? But then I lost my focus. The kids stormed the kitchen and demanded to help decorate the cookies, even as they were shoving them into their hungry little mouths. What could I say? I handed them each a pastry bag and let them have at it.

And it was indeed good, clean family fun, if not exactly producing sugar cookies Martha Stewart would have approved of:

devil sugar cookie

Guess which child did this one?

Still, even though the cookies were cool to the touch, the icing quickly lost its shape and blended into blahs.

bad sugar cookie

Well it was a good idea, anyway...

Maybe I should have tried the toothpicks?

empty icing bags

Naw. These were more fun. And at least we could pretend we knew what we were doing...

That I can’t make adorable little faces and scenes on cookies like many of my stay-at-home mom friends shouldn’t surprise me. I could never cut a neat shape out of construction paper in Kindergarten either. And it’s been all downhill since then.

At the end of the day, however, the sugar cookies, badly decorated though they were, are all gone. That’s a plus, right? At least the cookies came out?

Here’s what I learned this year about decorating sugar cookies:

  • The cookies have to be absolutely cool. Like, cooled for two hours on the rack, before you can attempt to decorate them. How you keep the kids away from them that long is another vexing problem I have not yet been able to crack.
  • You should have a plan. An idea of how you want to decorate your cookies. If only so you can make enough icing, and in the right colors.
  • Decide beforehand whether you want to make frosting or icing or royal icing, and follow a legitimate recipe for making this. Don’t wing it if you don’t really know what you’re doing (ahem).

And if you still have time, here are a few very worthy tutorials:

Brown-eyed Baker Everything I didn’t know about royal icing and other ways to do things the right way

How to Decorate Sugar Cookies  From Baker’s Royale. (this chick is an artist. I include this link for inspiration. But please, leave me on the ice flow and go on without me…)

Christmas Cookies.com — Everything you need to know to make better decorated sugar cookies than me…

Good luck out there! And Happy Holidays!


{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Bruce December 22, 2011 at 11:11 am

Wow, those are sadly beautiful. Like a clown getting hit by a car.


Justin December 22, 2011 at 11:26 am

Julie – I laughed out loud at so much of this. Thanks for making my day. Hope the holidays are great for you and your family.


Laura Zinn Fromm December 22, 2011 at 12:26 pm

Kudos to you for trying, Julie! Decorating cookies requires too much effort from the small-motor skills department. I made a really easy chocolate chip pound cake and called it a day. Happy, merry!


Jamie December 22, 2011 at 1:05 pm

I really like the one that looks like tie dye.


Julie December 22, 2011 at 1:07 pm

Yeah, I did that one on purpose….cough….


Bonnie McCarthy December 22, 2011 at 2:30 pm

I’m not sure, but you may have stumbled upon a whole new category of cookie decorating! It’s brilliant -maybe post-modern?


Victoria December 22, 2011 at 6:42 pm

I just loved reading this. Thanks for the laughs and the smiles. As usual, I can totally relate!


Julie December 22, 2011 at 9:05 pm

Thanks, Victoria!


kouign aman December 22, 2011 at 9:00 pm

You dont need meringue powder for royal icing. You just need eggwhites, sugar, and patience.
Butter cream frosting works quite well on sugar cookies – see the back of the powdered sugar box for a recipe.
the glaze/icing you chose makes lovely stained glass window effects in the hands of my 4, 5, ,6 and now 7 year old, but looks sort of sorry when I do it. I think lack of inhibition is key. also saturated colors.
I liked yours. I’d eat them, and that’s what matters, no?


Julie December 22, 2011 at 9:04 pm

Kouign – You know it! And the cookies did turn out…so…half a victory!


Marisa Mendoza December 24, 2011 at 9:03 am

Awe…Lol. They’re unique, perfection is over-rated anyways. I would have bought these in a bakery over any others. They would be a cute conversation piece. And at least no one would challenge you that they’re homemade. lol.


Gordon December 25, 2011 at 8:34 am

Maybe sugar cookies are a medium suited to Impressionism? Perhaps something that doesn’t melt could work using pointillism?


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