When I owned my Italian bakery, I made rustic baked goods. Translation: No. Clean. Lines. In the beginning, I shared a bakery space with an award-winning, seriously talented wedding cake maker and cookie decorator named Regula. She even made my wedding cake, which you can see here in a story about my potluck wedding that appeared in New York magazine.
I knew I couldn’t have the holidays pass by without decorated cookies. And, I decided to channel my inner Regula, which meant that I had to be meticulous, patient and hyper-detail oriented—or, at least, try my best. Even though my cookies are no where near her gorgeous, fine-tuned designs, mine are just as delicious—and they’re gluten and dairy-free. With a ton more practice, I’m sure my decorating skills could surely improve. Just remember that having fun is by far the most important ingredient in any cookie.
I also hadn’t conquered my lifelong royal icing fears. I was happy with my confectioners’ sugar glazes, but this year I decided that the time has come. Turns out, it was way easier than I ever expected. There is some eyeballing that needs to happen, so trust yourself and you’ll be okay. I’ve included pictures below of the two types of royal icing—thick for outlining and thin for covering the surface (flooding). I’ve listed the amounts I used, but variables may require you to add a bit more water or a bit more confectioners’ sugar as needed to get the ideal texture.
Here you see the cut-out cookies—some that I’ve outlined with the thick royal icing and some that I flooded with the thin royal icing.
Here is the texture you want for thick royal icing.
Here is the texture you want for thin royal icing.
For ingredient substitutions, please see the detailed chart at Gluten-Free 101.
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
¾ cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, vegan butter or shortening, at room temperature
½ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup confectioners’ sugar
2 large egg yolks, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1½ tablespoons powdered egg whites
¼ cup warm water
1½ teaspoons fresh lemon juice
½ pound (about 2 cups) confectioners' sugar
Sanding sugar and sprinkles, for decorating
- In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt.
- Using an electric mixer, beat together the butter, granulated sugar and confectioners' sugar on high speed until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg yolks and vanilla; beat on low speed until combined. Add the flour mixture and beat on low speed until just combined.
- Divide the dough in half. Place each between 2 sheets of parchment papers. Working 1 dough at a time, roll out each until about ¼-inch thick. Freeze the dough with parchment until firm, about 2 hours or overnight.
- Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375°. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and remove the dough from the freezer; let sit for about 5 minutes, then using a cookie cutter, cut the frozen dough into shapes and place about 1 inch apart of the prepared baking sheets; return to the freezer until firm, about 30 minutes or overnight. Repeat with the remaining dough and dough scraps.
- Bake the cookies, 1 baking sheet at a time, until just golden at the edges, about 11 minutes. Let cool slightly on the baking sheet; transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
- In a standing mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, beat together the powdered egg whites and warm water on medium-low speed until just combined. Add the confectioners’ sugar and lemon juice; beat on medium speed until combined. Increase the speed to high and beat until thick and glossy, about 5 minutes, for the thick royal icing.
- To decorate the cookies, fill a pastry bag fitted with a No. 2 round tip with thick royal icing and pipe decoratively or outline the cookies, then let set, about 1 hour. If you want to flood the cookies, let the thick royal icing set for about 15 minutes and add more water, 1 teaspoon at a time, to the remaining thick royal icing; beat until combined and glossy. To flood, fill a 2-ounce squeeze bottle with thin royal icing and fill the cookie, applying even pressure and using the tip of the bottle to spread the icing. Decorate with sanding sugar and sprinkles.
You can bake the cookies up to 2 days ahead of time. Just store them in an airtight container at room temperature, then they’re ready to be decorated when you are. For the royal icing, you can make it 1 day ahead and store it in a resealable container. Just beat the icing, adding a bit of water if necessary, for 1 to 2 minutes before using. Of course, you can tint your royal icing using food coloring, if you like.