We have a lot of social events coming up in the near future, and one that we’re pretty excited about is Lane’s nephew’s graduation from the United States Military Academy at West Point. What has us even more excited is that he is not only graduating from West Point, he has worked hard to cross-commission into the United States Marine Corps. When he graduates in May, he will have a Bachelor of Science degree and he will be a Second Lieutenant in the Marines. We know he will have great success and we couldn’t be more proud of his accomplishments.
We weren’t able to rush out to West Point to raise a glass in his honor, so we celebrated by baking and shipping cookies. Sugar cookies with royal icing might seem like a challenge akin to finishing four years at West Point (and I know how hard these men and women work to accomplish that), but it really is much easier once you have a few basics down. I have consistently used this sugar cookie recipe because the cut-out cookies don’t lose their shape once they’re baked. The biggest annoyance when I’m making sugar cookies for decorating is when the butterfly shape I was expecting comes out of the oven looking like something from an ink blot test. The recipe has few ingredients, mixes up quickly and is very easy to work with. The result is a buttery and not overly sweet (you’re going to add plenty of sweetness in the icing) cookie with a nice bite to it. You will need to leave plenty of time to chill the dough though, both after mixing the dough and after cutting out the cookie shapes.
As for the royal icing, it’s incredibly forgiving. After mixing the ingredients together initially, the icing will be at its thickest consistency. Adding a tiny bit of water makes it suitable for piping the outline, and thinning it just a little more makes it perfect for filling the outline, or “flooding.” When I plan on writing with royal icing as I did for some of these cookies, I prepare the icing for the outline and when I’m done making the outline, I set aside some of the icing at that consistency before adding water to the rest so I can flood. I find it’s very easy to thin the frosting but thickening it again is more difficult so it’s easiest to just pipe the words on using icing as thick as the icing for the outline. Playing mad scientist by going back and forth adding water, then powdered sugar, then water again and so on is possible here, but I like making these best when I can skip that part. Royal icing is forgiving that way, so adding more powdered sugar if you’ve thinned the icing too much is an easy fix. These are time-consuming because you do have to let the outline dry before you fill in the outline, and then they must dry completely before piping on any additional details. The results are so worth every bit of effort. After the recipe, I’ve provided more in-depth detail as to how I decorated each type of cookie but having the basics, you can make gorgeous cookies to celebrate any occasion.
Sugar Cookies with Royal Icing
for the cookies:
- 1 C. butter, softened
- 1 C. powdered sugar
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 1/2 tsp. almond extract
- 1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
- 1 tsp. salt
- 2 1/2 C. flour, sifted (sift after measuring)
for the royal icing:
- 4 C. powdered sugar, sifted (sift after measuring)
- 2 Tbsp. meringue powder
- 5 Tbsp. water
To make the cookies, beat the butter for 2 minutes on medium-high speed in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large mixing bowl using a hand mixer).
Add the powdered sugar and beat to combine.
Beat in the egg, almond extract, vanilla extract, salt, and flour.
Cover the dough and chill until firm, at least one hour.
Roll the dough out on a well-floured work surface to 1/4 inch thickness.
Cut out desired shapes with cookie cutters.
Heat oven to 375 degrees.
Place the shapes on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
Bake for 8-10 minutes, cookies should not brown.
Cool completely on wire racks before icing the cookies.
To make the royal icing, combine all of the icing ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until the icing has a matte appearance (7-10 minutes).
Decide how many colors you will need to decorate your cookies and divide the frosting into that number of air-tight containers.
At this point, the icing is at its stiffest consistency and is still to stiff to use for piping the outline.
Starting with the colors you will use for outlines, add water a very small amount at a time (I like to use a spray bottle for this) and stir by hand until the icing reaches a consistency appropriate for piping (if you are having difficulty piping the consistency is still too thick, add a little more water, stir, and try again).
At this time, add food coloring to the icing to reach desired shades of the colors you will need (if you are using liquid food coloring, I suggest adding it before the water so that the icing doesn’t become too runny).
Transfer the outlining icing colors into pastry bags fitted with piping tips, or resealable bags with a tiny piece of the corner snipped off, or squeeze bottles.
Pipe around the edges on the top of each cookie, then let the cookies stand so the outline completely dries before proceeding. Keep all of the other icing covered so that it doesn’t start to dry while you’re working.
If you are going to pipe writing or other fine details onto any of the cookies, you may need to separate icing in those colors into additional air-tight containers and set them aside at this time (for instance, if you’re going to flood the cookies with blue icing and later add blue details, separate out some blue icing while the frosting is at piping consistency before thinning the rest to flooding consistency).
For flooding the outlines, add water to all of the icing colors you will use for flooding a little at a time, stirring by hand, until the icing reaches flooding consistency. The icing should drip off of a spoon easily and smooth in with the remaining icing. If you thin the icing too much, add sifted powdered sugar until it thickens again.
Transfer the flooding icing to pastry bags fitted with piping tips, or resealable bags with a tiny piece of corner snipped off, or squeeze bottles.
Squeeze the flooding icing into the piped outline, using a toothpick to help the icing reach the edges if needed. Use a toothpick to pop any small bubbles that may form in the flooding icing.
Allow the flooded cookies to set completely before piping on any details.
Use the remaining piping consistency icing that was set aside earlier to pipe any details or writing onto the cookies.
Allow the cookies to dry completely before serving or packaging.
Makes about 40 cookies.
To make these cookies specifically, and other cookie words of wisdom:
For the round cookies, I mixed piping icing in yellow (using Wilton Golden Yellow gel food coloring) and piped the outline, then added water until the icing reached flooding consistency. I then flooded the cookie as described above, and allowed to set before writing on the cookies.
When planning to write on cookies, be realistic about what you’d like to write. Originally, I wanted to include some that said “Congratulations” and then some. The final cookies say “Congrats!” because it wasn’t all going to fit no matter how I tried. Also, piping words requires a little more precision than piping the outline which can make for tired hands (read: sloppy lettering) quickly, so allow some time to give your hands a break if needed.
To write on the cookies, I mixed blue and red icing separately (using Wilton Royal Blue and Wilton Red Red gel food coloring) to piping consistency and when the yellow icing was completely dry, I used squeeze bottles to write on the cookies.
For the camouflage stars, I mixed khaki icing to piping consistency (using a combination of Wilton Red Red and Wilton Kelly Green gel food coloring) and piped the outline.
When the outline was completely dry, I added water to the khaki icing to thin it to flooding consistency. I flooded the camouflage pattern using that same khaki color (the lightest one in the pattern), drawing puzzle piece-like shapes with the icing and using a toothpick to move icing to the edges of the outline.
Next, I added some more green and a tiny bit of black food coloring to the original khaki colored icing and again flooded some more of the cookie by drawing puzzle-piece-like shapes.
To complete the camouflage cookies, I mixed a small amount of black food coloring to the same icing (that was originally the khaki outline color), and filled in the remaining space on the cookie by flooding with the final, darkest, color.
I suggest using the darkest color last for both ease of mixing (just add a little more black at a time), and because starting with the darkest color results in an overwhelmingly dark looking cookie. It is okay if the shades blend together at the edges as you flood with the different colors, I did not let each color dry in between adding shades to the pattern and it works fine.