Chalkboards and Royalty

The September 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Mandy of “What the Fruitcake?!” Mandy challenged everyone to make Decorated Sugar Cookies based on recipes from Peggy Porschen and The Joy of Baking. Honestly, this one made me nervous. Although I have an art background, decorating desserts isn’t my forte, and the beautiful, detailed piping I imagine always seems to end up lumpy and sloppy, which drives the perfectionist in me crazy. If you want further proof, just look at the last sugar cookies I made. Add in my rather primitive decorating tools, distaste for food dyes, and limited toddler-free time for delicate work, and you get me procrastinating until the challenge-sharing day.

The first step of this challenge was just making the sugar cookies. The provided recipe has just five ingredients—sugar, butter, flour, egg, and vanilla—creating very crisp, flat cookies that don’t spread as they bake. (Incidentally, every time I think of sugar cookies now, I remember Giada de Laurentiis using store-bought cookie dough and then gushing about how easy it is to make your own frosting at home. It drove me completely crazy, since this dough only has two additional ingredients and takes 3 minutes to mix up. She has no excuse.) I divided my dough into three chunks and rolled each out between waxed paper for easy storage in the refrigerator.

Nolan really liked the dough; he called it “cheese” and kept stealing pinches off the counter while I was working. Although the recipe suggested chilling for half an hour, I ended up leaving my dough alone overnight.

When I had a little time the next day, I pulled some of the dough out and cut it into neat rectangles to bake. In my oven, this size cookie took about 14 minutes to set up with just the faintest hint of golden brown around the edges. I ended up with about 2 dozen cookies, plus an irregular one mushed together from scraps that kind of looked like the state of Virginia—Jeremy and Nolan shared that one as a sample, and then I made a chocolate bread pudding to distract them from eating the rest before I had a chance to decorate them.

Part of our challenge this month was to shape and decorate our sugar cookies in a way that said September personally to us. My first thought was something related to school, since my son’s very first day of preschool (toddler edition) is later this week. Knowing my extreme tendency to complicate artsy projects—when I make a relief print, for instance, it always seems to start out as a simple black-and-white design and end up as a multi-color reduction, otherwise known as a “kamikaze” print—I decided to make chalkboard cookies that I could write on. I imagine this could be a fun way to handle making fancy sugar cookies with kids: a blank chalkboard or framed canvas for them to write or draw in. My little guy is still too young for cookie decorating, as he has only just started showing interest in holding a pencil or crayon, but I will definitely be keeping this thought in mind for future projects.

I’ve never worked with royal icing before—it is basically a mixture of egg whites and powdered sugar that sets up hard. I had some notions initially to try and make natural food coloring with things like beets and turmeric, but I suspected that they would dilute the icing too much to pipe effectively, and possibly also make it taste funny, so in the end I stuck with the little package of gel colors I bought way back when we all made yule logs. The basic technique here is outlining followed by flooding: I made a brown frame and then flooded it with a looser consistency of green icing, using a toothpick to nudge it into all the corners. This was mostly accomplished after Nolan went to bed, so it had a chance to set up firmly overnight. The next morning, I used a Q-tip to rub a bit of powdered sugar over the surface of the cookies for a chalky effect.

These turned out much nicer than I had expected. The cookies are crisp and didn’t spread at all, and although the icing was fiddly and rather messy to work with, I am mostly happy with the look of the finished cookies. Be sure to check out all the cookies at the Daring Bakers blogroll (link below)—some folks got incredibly fancy, both with their shapes and their icing, and made cookies that are almost to pretty to be called cookies! I don’t picture myself making more of these cookies anytime soon, but it is an excellent resource to pull out for special occasions, so thank you, Mandy!

I am a member of the Theta Class of the Daring Bakers, induced in July of 2007. For more information and a list of my previous challenges, click here.

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