Lindsay Maitland Hunt


Not just another food blog.
Posts tagged Christmas
How to Decorate Sugar Cookies (Plus Your Essential Toolkit!)

Decorating sugar cookies is one of my favorite holiday activities. I love sitting down for an afternoon of icing and sprinkles. Once you have your batch of sugar cookies ready to decorate, it’s time for the fun part. Choose from three icing recipes (based on what you already have in your pantry) and set up your toolkit for cookie success. Let’s get started!

If you’re home with family for the holidays, I recommend getting everyone involved. For the past three years, my mom, sister, and I have decorated 200 cookies for our holiday party. Sitting together and chatting while we’re icing is fun catch-up time, and it’s inspiring to see the different designs we each come up with.

If you’re alone, I highly recommend queuing up a few podcasts to keep you company. I got through about ten episodes of Serial and Inquiring Minds during my recipe development for this post.

If you read my sugar cookie recipe post, you know I have a lot to say about best practices. This is another long post. I wanted to share everything I’ve learned over the past three years so you can have great success! With that in mind, I’m going to jump past storytelling and science to get right to the how-to.

About my icing recipes:

When it comes to something like the icing on a sugar cookie, taste isn’t a paramount concern. The icing is usually covered by sprinkles and/or spiked with food coloring. It’s all about ease for me. I want it to come together quickly with things I have in my pantry and I want it to be easy to pipe on the cookies.

Regarding food coloring: I like to decorate with white icing and use various sprinkles as my color. If you do want to use food coloring, choose your recipe below, then divide the final batch into separate bowls and color as desired.

Make measuring easy! A standard 1 pound box of confectioners sugar equals 3 ¾ cups. All recipes assume you are using one box. If you have a large bin in your pantry, weigh 1 pound or measure 3 ¾ packed cups.

Okay, commence the icing choose-your-own-adventure!

Here's what the consistency of your icing should look like when you lift the whisk out of the bowl. Slightly runny but not watery:


Royal Icing with Egg Whites This produces an icing with the trademark glossy sheen of a good royal icing. It’s easy to make, since you likely have 3 eggs sitting in your fridge. The concern here is using raw egg whites, which can be a health concern for some. You can solve this by buying pasteurized eggs (they exist!) or using meringue powder.

Make the icing: Combine 1 lb. (3 ¾ cups) confectioner'ssugar with 3 large eggwhites in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or use a handheld mixer). Whisk on medium-high until peaks form. Thin as needed with 1 teaspoons of water at a time until the icing looks glossy and bright white.

Royal Icing with Meringue Powder Meringue powder is made from powdered egg whites and is my favorite pick to make royal icing. You’ll still get the volume and body of an egg white-based royal icing, but without health concerns of raw eggs. Plus, meringue powder is inexpensive and can keep in your pantry for years. This is a great option for health safety and that classic look, but requires getting an extra ingredient from the store.

Make the icing: Combine ½ cup meringuepowder with ½ cup water in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or use a handheld mixer). Whisk on medium-high until peaks form. Add 1 lb. (3 ¾ cups) confectioner'ssugar and beat until well combined. The mixture should look glossy and bright white. Thin as needed with 1 teaspoon of water at a time.

Milk-based Icing (Egg-Free) Technically, a royal icing has to contain eggs, so this super simple version is just an icing. It doesn’t have the brilliant white shine of the egg-based royal  but it is so easy. I recommend this version if decorating with kids or if you want to quickly decorate a batch. This recipe is good for anyone with egg-allergies or who doesn’t want to buy a special ingredient or use raw eggs.

Make the icing: Combine 1 lb. (3 ¾ cups) confectioner's sugar and ¼ cup milk in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or use a handheld mixer). Whisk on medium-high until the mixture is completely smooth with no lumps remaining. Add 1-2 tablespoons milk, until the mixture is easily pourable but not too runny.

When you lift whisk out of the mixture, the icing should slowly run off the end, not pour too quickly. If you have added too much milk, just add some more confectioners sugar.


Your Decorating Tool Kit

Once you have the cookies and the icing ready, a few tools make decorating easy and efficient. I have SweetDaniB, a cookie-decorating guru, to thank for teaching me about how to decorate a cookie well, and what is helpful to keep on hand (more about her in my sugar cookie post). Check her site and instagram out for inspiration.

Squeeze bottles vs. Pastry bags I use small squeeze bottles to decorate my cookies. They are reusable, easy to refill, and easy to handle. Pastry bags, particularly plastic ones, are fine to use, but I find they create extra mess. I particularly like accordion-style squeeze bottles like these from Kuhn Rikon. If you do use a squeeze bottle, I recommend keeping it inverted it in a sturdy glass or mug between piping, so the frosting is easy to squeeze out.

Surgical Tweezers For intricate designs and accurate placement, an inexpensive pair of surgical tweezers are indispensable. Amazon stocks inexpensive ones.

Offset Spatula After piping icing into your desired shape, an offset spatula allows you to smooth the icing to evenly fill the shape. I also use a clean offset spatula to gently press  and jimmies into the icing to firm up an edge.

Toothpicks What can’t this kitchen workhorse do? A box of toothpicks is inexpensive and will see you through testing cakes, hors d’oeuvres, and now, cookie decorating. Use to smooth icing, as with the offset, above, to fill up a design or smooth an edge.

Paper plates Decorating on top of a paper plate allows you to save the sprinkles that don’t attach to the icing. After the sprinkles have covered the icing, move the cookie aside, fold the plate into a funnel-like shape and pour the remaining sprinkles back into the original jar. Repeat with fresh icing and sprinkles.

Rimmed baking sheets It’s a constant battle between my creative artist side and my inner neat freak when it comes to decorating cookies. I love the explosion of colors and shapes and it can be fun to let loose and see what fun designs you can create. However, nonpareils have a sneaky way of rolling amok. Decorating with all your tools inside a rimmed baking sheet keeps the mess at bay.


How to ice the cookies:

Now that you’ve read through all of the above, I hope it doesn’t seem too daunting. To ice is actually quite simple.

For a lined design: Squeeze or pipe the frosting into your desired design, pour the sprinkles on top, remove the cookie, fold the paper plate and pour the sprinkles back into the bottle, and repeat.

For a filled design: Pipe the outline of the shape. Then, pipe even zigzags of icing inside the shape to fill. Smooth with an offset spatula or toothpick, then pour sprinkles over the icing. Remove the cookie, fold the paper plate and pour the sprinkles back into the bottle, and repeat.

To create different areas of color, sprinkles, etc: Pipe the first area, decorate with sprinkles, then let dry for at least 20 minutes. If the icing is still wet at all, the other color of nonpareils will find a home in the already iced portion.

A big note for ultimate success!: Do not pipe your icing too close to the edge of the cookie. Start with a ¼-inch border until you feel more confident with your technique. Sprinkles will weigh the frosting down and push it towards the sides. If you do have frosting that runs down the sides, don’t panic. Use a toothpick or an offset spatula to scrape along the cookie, perpendicular to the edge. (I actually love this look and use it often now.)

Good luck and have fun!

Easy Holiday Sugar Cookie Recipe and Tips

Happy holidays, Mostess readers! I'm excited to share the results of my three-year obsession with perfecting the sugar cookie. It's a long post, because I wanted to share all my tips and techniques for success. If you are well-versed in Sugarcookiedom and "just want the recipe already!" then skip on down to the bottom of the post. For novices and baking nerds alike, read on.

How I became obsessed

Until three years ago, I had never decorated a sugar cookie. Maybe I'd adorned a gingersnap with a casual sprinkle somewhere along the line, but never with any purpose or focus. Then, at Real Simple, I was in charge of an enormous roundup of all the best sugar cookie decorating products. Everything from cutters to sprinkles to the best store-bought icing. As part of this project, which took five months and some 1,000 different bottles of sprinkles, I was lucky enough to hire Sweet Dani B, a master of cookie decorating, to decorate the trial cookies and our final shoot cookies. I spent two full days sitting by her side, learning the tricks of icing and applying sprinkles. (For more on decorating, check out my guide to cookie icing and your essential toolkit.)

After learning how fun and easy it was to transform this blank canvas, I was hooked. I made 150 cookies the first year to test out my skills, 300 last year, and this year, I don't even want to know how many I've gone through. All to get to the perfect cookie that's not too buttery (which causes the dough to spread and lose its shape,) easy to work with, but not too tough.

You may have noticed that I titled this post "easy" cookies. None of the steps are difficult, but they take some focus and planning. I promise the results are well worth it. Between cookie #1 and cookie #500 I learned a lot of lessons the hard way so you won't have to. Here are my tips for maximum cookie success!

The 5 Mostess Sugar Cookie Tips for Success

1. Chill out! 

The techniques for making sugar cookies are simple, but I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that these aren’t time intensive. Success—meaning straight, clear edges and cookies that don’t morph from snowflake into flower-shaped blob in the oven—requires setting aside time to let the dough chill properly.

Chilling the dough does two things: it relaxes the gluten in the cookies, (more on this in my oatmeal-raisin cookie post,) but what is more important here is that it keeps the butter chilled. Warm butter will spread in the oven, making the cookies lose their shape, and they will be hard and not crispy, crunchy perfect.

2. Think ahead.

It may seem like common sense, but prepping your workspace and double checking that you have everything you need are two essential keys to successful cooking and baking, no matter the recipe.

When you are ready to roll out the dough and cut it into shapes, clear out enough space in your refrigerator to store the cookie sheets. I tend to leave this until the last moment and it causes a few knocked-over bottles, etc. Just before rolling, set aside a small bowl with all-purpose flour for dusting. Before cutting the dough out, make sure your cutters are nearby.

3. Be a clean freak.

Rolling dough on a dirty counter means your cookies might pick up specks of food, dust, or eau-de-garlic. Make sure your work surface is extra clean before rolling. I use a vinegar-water mixture to wipe it down just before I start.

4. Give cookies space.

Do not crowd the cookies on the sheet. Despite all the great work you've done to chill the dough adequately, each shape will expand. And, as the cookies bake, the butter releases steam. Too many cookies in the oven leads to a lot of steam, which you don't want. They will take longer to bake, and could end up too hard.

So, give the cookies space on the sheet, and if you can, bake only one sheet at a time, in the center of the oven. (Baking nerds: Check out this fun animation from TEDed about how cookie chemistry works.)

5. Keep an eye on it.

As my good friend Dawn always told me, "America underbakes it's pastry." For some reason this always made me laugh, thinking of the USA as a baker, but it is a truth worth remembering. Underbaked cookies won't be crispy and flaky, which is what you are going for here. Start checking your cookies at 14 minutes and remove them from the oven when just a bit of golden brown rings the edges of the shapes.

All right, enough already! Time to get baking. For icing recipes, tips, and some visual inspiration check out this other post.


Lemon and Vanilla Sugar Cookies by Lindsay Hunt

Makes about 36 cookies

Ingredients: 3 ¼ cups all-purpose flour, spooned and leveled (400g), plus additional for rolling 1 teaspoon kosher salt 1 teaspoon baking powder 2 ½ sticks (10 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature 1 ¼ cups granulated sugar 2 large eggs, plus one egg yolk, at room temperature 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract 2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest

Equipment: Two baking sheets (ideally without rims), parchment paper or nonstick cooking mats such as Silpat, a digital scale (if you have one), rolling pin, cookie cutters, and a stand mixer or another electric mixer

Make the dough: Whisk the flour, salt, and baking powder together in a medium bowl. Set aside.

Place the butter and sugars in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or use a hand mixer). Cream the butter and sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. Stop the mixer occasionally and scrape down the sides and paddle with a rubber spatula.

Add the eggs, vanilla, and lemon zest and mix on medium speed until well combined, about 1 minute. Add the flour mixture and mix on low speed until just combined, about 30 seconds.

Divide the dough in half and pat into two balls. (You may need to mush them together so they are even and there are no cracks.) Flatten and shape into two 1-inch thick discs and wrap tightly in plastic wrap.

Refrigerate the dough until firm, at least 2 hours and up to 3 days. At this point you can also freeze the dough for up to 1 month.

Roll and cut the dough:

About 45 minutes before you are ready to roll the dough out, remove the dough from the fridge. It has to soften enough to be easy to roll but not so much that it gets too soft and starts to stick to the countertop. Check the dough every 10 minutes or so, when it feels just pliable, it’s ready to roll. This can take anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes depending on the temperature of your kitchen and how long the dough was chilled.

Meanwhile, prepare the cookie sheets and set them next to your work space so they are ready. Working with one disc at a time, roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface until ¼-inch thick. Refrigerate the dough until firm, 20 to 30 minutes. (This is the step you can skip if you are pressed for time).

Return the chilled, rolled dough to the work surface and cut out shapes, placing the cutters as close together as possible. Use a flat spatula, not your fingers, to transfer the cut dough to the cookie sheet, leaving 2-inches between each shape.

Chill the cut dough for at least 20 to 30 minutes and up to 1 hour until very firm. You should be able to pick up a shape with your fingers without it bending at all.

30 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 350º F with a rack in the middle of the oven. Bake one sheet at a time for 14 to 18 minutes, rotating the tray front to back halfway through. Pull the cookies out when they are golden throughout with golden brown edges.

Let the cookies cool on the sheet for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire cooling rack to cool completely. If you let the cookies cool completely on the warm baking tray, they will steam and become slightly soggy.

Cookies will keep for up to 1 week in an airtight container.