Royal icing tips to make those Christmas cookies extra special

Royal icing can be deceptively simple. Some powdered sugar icings or glazes are made with simply powdered sugar and a little liquid, but real royal icing is a little different.

Or a lot different, depending on whom you ask. In “Christmas Cookie Swap! More Than 100 Treats to Share this Holiday Season” (Oxmoor House, $19.95), you’ll find this base royal icing recipe from that has meringue powder to get the correct consistency for decorated sugar cookies or gingerbread houses. Meringue powder is usually sold in cans in the baking aisle of the grocery store. If you don’t have meringue powder on hand, you follow Alton Brown’s recipe for a three-ingredient egg white royal icing.

Royal icing is what makes decorated sugar cookies so special. You'll have to pipe a thin line around the outer edge of the cookie and then fill it in after the outer line has dried. Contributed by Oxmoor House
Royal icing is what makes decorated sugar cookies so special. You’ll have to pipe a thin line around the outer edge of the cookie and then fill it in after the outer line has dried. Contributed by Oxmoor House

To fill in cookies like the one shown here, pipe a thin outline around the edge of the cookie and let it dry before filling the cookie in with additional icing. If you don’t let the outer line dry, your icing will spill over the edge of the cookie before it dries. A hint: If you are going to use it to decorate a gingerbread structure, decorate the panels of the house while they are lying flat so the icing doesn’t drip. Let the icing dry for an hour before you start packing them up or building your gingerbread construction.

And just a reminder: If you missed our Christmas cookie section a few weeks ago, you can find the winning recipes from our holiday cookie contest, as well as some impressively decorated cookies from local bakers and tips from Dorie Greenspan, at austin360.com/yearofbaking.

1 (16-oz.) package powdered sugar
3 Tbsp. meringue powder
5 to 6 Tbsp. warm water
1 tsp. light corn syrup
Food coloring paste (optional)

Combine powdered sugar, meringue powder, water and corn syrup in a large bowl. Beat at medium-low speed with an electric mixer for 5 to 7 minutes. Divide and tint with food coloring, if desired. Icing dries quickly, so keep it covered at all times. Makes 3 cups.

— From “Christmas Cookie Swap!: More Than 100 Treats to Share this Holiday Season” (Oxmoor House, $19.95)

Crema Bakery’s cookie drive for the Austin Children’s Shelter returns

Jessica Forkner, owner of Crema Bakery & Cafe, 9001 Brodie Lane, is again hosting a cookie drive to benefit kids who are spending Christmas at the Austin Children’s Shelter.

You can donate $10 at the counter, which will buy a box of cookies for children who receive care and other services from the shelter. This is her fourth year to deliver these little boxes of joy to those kids. The deadline to donate is Friday. You can call the cafe at 512-282-1300 with questions or visit the website, cremabakerycafe.com.

Crema Bakery & Cafe in South Austin hosts a cookie drive every holiday to send cookies to the Central Texas kids in the care of the Austin Children's Shelter. Contributed by Crema Bakery & Cafe
Crema Bakery & Cafe in South Austin hosts a cookie drive every holiday to send cookies to the Central Texas kids in the care of the Austin Children’s Shelter. Contributed by Crema Bakery & Cafe

Winning iced lemon cookies will be a keeper for your recipe box, cookie tin

Few of our contestants bake (and ship) as many cookies as Arleen Acton, who ended up winning the taste category of our Holiday Cookie Contest with her iced lemon cookies.

Arleen Action won our Holiday Cookie Contest with these iced lemon cookies that are topped with crushed pistachios. Mark Matson / For the American-Statesman
Arleen Action won our Holiday Cookie Contest with these iced lemon cookies that are topped with crushed pistachios. Mark Matson / For the American-Statesman

The Leander-based baker, who moved to Central Texas from Indiana a few years ago, starts making cookies before Thanksgiving so she can make any tweaks to the recipes and test out new ones to add to the rotation. She packs them up carefully by placing layers of bubble wrap and parchment paper — cut to match the size of the tin — between the cookies, so they won’t shake around. She then sends dozens of these cookie packages to friends and families all over the country.

The pistachio-topped lemon cookies she brought in were just perfect, in part because they were bite-size but also because they were baked and iced with such precision. Each was uniform, and the judges loved the salty, tart, sweet combination of the shortbread, nuts and lemon icing.

Iced Lemon Cookies

Acton makes these cookies a little smaller than you might expect them to be, so, as with all cookies, the yield will vary greatly depending on the size of the dough you place on the pan.

For the cookies:
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 egg
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp. grated lemon peel
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. cream of tartar
1/4 tsp. salt
3 Tbsp. sugar, for flattening cookies
For the topping:
2 cups powdered sugar
1/2 to 3/4 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup coarsely chopped shelled pistachios

In large bowl, beat butter and sugars until light and fluffy. Beat in egg, oil and lemon peel until well blended. Beat in flour, baking soda, cream of tartar and salt until well blended. Cover dough with plastic wrap, refrigerate 2 hours.

Heat oven to 325. Shape dough into 1-inch balls. Place 2 inches apart on ungreased cookie sheet. Flatten cookies into 2-inch rounds with bottom of glass dipped in sugar. Bake 9 to 11 minutes or until light golden brown.

Blend powdered sugar and enough lemon juice for desired spreading consistency. Spread frosting on cooled cookies. Sprinkle pistachios on frosting before it sets.

— From Arleen Acton

Lemon buttercream filling helps these soft gingersnaps stand out from the crowd

A few weeks ago, we were utterly charmed by the father-daughter duo of Lily and Les Canter, who had the biggest smiles on their faces when they came to the Statesman on our cookie contest day.

Lily and Les Canter goof around while they enjoy Lily's gingersnap cookies with lemon filling, which were a finalist in the Austin360 Holiday Cookie Contest. Mark Matson / For the American-Statesman
Lily and Les Canter goof around while they enjoy Lily’s gingersnap cookies with lemon filling, which were a finalist in the Austin360 Holiday Cookie Contest. Mark Matson / For the American-Statesman

They were in the office to show off 15-year-old Lily’s lemon frosting-filled gingersnap cookie sandwiches, and these cookies, I tell you, were a near-winner for the whole contest.

They aren’t too gingery and are just divine with the lemon filling, which is a somewhat new addition to the cookie in the Canter household and one that turns it into a sandwich.

Lily is the youngest of four kids in this active Austin family, and she started baking more seriously a few years ago. Dad is in charge of mixing together the dry ingredients and helps devour the results.

Some notes: Make sure you chill the dough well before baking, and Lily mixes the dough by hand in the pot in which she melts the butter.

Father-Daughter Gingersnaps with Lemon Filling

For the cookie:
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground ginger
3/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cloves
2 cups sugar, divided
1/4 cup dark molasses
1 large egg
For the filling:
2 1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
6 Tbsp. unsalted butter (3/4 stick), at room temperature
1 Tbsp. finely grated lemon zest (from 1 medium lemon)
1 Tbsp. lemon extract
1 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice (from 1 medium lemon)

Melt the butter in a large, heavy saucepan over low heat. Cool to tepid. While the butter is cooling, sift together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, salt and cloves. Set aside.

Using a wooden spoon, stir 1 1/2 cups of the sugar, the molasses and egg into butter, mixing until smooth. Add the dry ingredients, one-half at a time, and blend well. Cover with wax paper and chill for 30 to 45 minutes, until firm.

Heat oven to 375 degrees and butter two cookie sheets. Shape dough into 1-inch balls between the palms of your hands. Place the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar in a shallow dish and roll the balls of dough in the sugar. Place the balls 2 inches apart on the cookie sheet. Bake 8 to 9 minutes. Let cool.

To make the filling: Place the powdered sugar, butter and zest in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and mix on low speed until the mixture looks crumbly. Gradually increase the speed to medium and beat until smooth, about 2 minutes. Reduce the mixer speed to low, add the lemon extract and juice and beat until combined, about 30 seconds. Increase the speed to medium and beat until fluffy, about 1 minute more. Spread a thin layer between two cooled cookies and then serve. Makes about 20 cookie sandwiches.

— From Lily Canter

Pretzels, granola bring salty crunch to these Magical Cookies

Barbara Reiss was stuck in New Orleans one Christmas because it was too snowy in New York for her to fly home.

She was with her sister, who was a teacher and always received piles of granola, pretzels and nuts for Christmas from her students, and they decided to use those snacks in their own version of a kitchen sink cookie. Use any combination of salty, crunchy snacks you might find in the pantry. (And Reiss has tried them all, including Triscuits, which she does not recommend. Pretzels hold their crunch better, she reports.)

Barbara Reiss' Magical Cookies (at 1 o'clock on this clock o' cookies) are made with salty, crunchy snacks you might find in your pantry. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman
Barbara Reiss’ Magical Cookies (at 1 o’clock on this clock o’ cookies) are made with salty, crunchy snacks you might find in your pantry. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

As Reiss says, these cookies are fun, flexible, not fancy but really delicious. Ever since her husband and brother-in-law called them the best cookies ever at Christmas that year, she’s made them for birthday parties, gifts and celebrations.

“In our family, cookies make miracles,” she says.

Magical Cookies

1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup granola (or other cereal, such as rolled oats)
1/2 cup crushed salted pretzel pieces (or other salty snack food)
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips, chopped chocolate candies, or a small bar of good dark chocolate, chopped into chunks
1/2 cup chopped pecans or other nuts (optional)

Whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in medium bowl.

In another bowl, beat butter and sugars at medium-low speed until just combined, about 20 seconds. Increase speed to medium and continue to beat until light and fluffy, about 1 minute longer. Scrape down bowl with rubber spatula. Add egg and vanilla and beat on medium-low until fully incorporated, about 30 seconds. Scrape down bowl again.

Using a wooden spoon or a mixer on slow speed, add flour mixture and mix until just incorporated and smooth. Gradually add granola, pretzels, chocolate and nuts and mix until well incorporated, ensuring that no flour pockets remain and ingredients are evenly distributed. (Restrain yourself from eating the raw cookie dough.)

Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper. Scoop dough into balls, each about 1 1/2 tablespoons, then roll between palms until smooth. Place cookies on prepared baking sheets, spacing them about 2 1/2 inches apart, or about 8 to 12 per sheet. Freeze at least 20 minutes or refrigerate at least one hour before baking. (They will still spread a lot.)

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees. Bake one sheet at a time until cookies are deep golden brown, 13 to 16 minutes, rotating baking sheet halfway through.

Let cool completely before gently moving cookies to wire rack. They will be fragile, especially on the edges. Makes 24 to 30 cookies.

— From Barbara Reiss

Despite cancer treatment, baking was therapy for this cookie contest finalist

Anna Núñez has had an incredibly difficult year. Earlier this year, the single mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent various treatments for breast cancer.

The day we emailed her in November to let her know her white chocolate cranberry cookies were a finalist for our Austin360 Holiday Cookie Contest, she was in Houston, recovering from a mastectomy.

She couldn’t make it to Austin to drop off her cookies, but she was able to bake a batch to send to the Statesman with two women from her office. Those same women had already donated sick days so that Núñez didn’t have to miss a paycheck and cooked her food while she was in treatment.

Anna Núñez made these white chocolate cranberry cookies. Mark Matson for American-Statesman
Anna Núñez made these white chocolate cranberry cookies. Mark Matson for American-Statesman

Núñez’s story was a powerful reminder of not only the joy in giving but the necessity of generosity. Baking and sharing holiday cookies might simply brighten someone’s day, but for someone else, it could provide an even greater lesson about the deep goodness in humanity.

“At church and school, I have always shared my baked love, and in an incredible twist of fate, I was blessed for the gifts of food in return during my cancer battle,” she wrote after finding out she was a finalist. “To me, food is love, which is why I love to bake and share my cookies, breads and cakes with everyone. Even throughout my chemotherapy, I have continued to bake cookies for daughter’s school monthly Teacher Appreciation Lunches because I wanted to do my part as a parent. I cannot volunteer or donate money, but I can show my love and gratitude through my baking.”

This cookie bakes at a low temperature, allowing it to spread more slowly as it bakes. Her trick to making soft cookies is moving them from the hot cookie sheet to a clean, cooled one, not a wire rack. The combination of white chocolate and cranberry is a delicate one that kept me coming back for seconds even though I usually don’t like white chocolate.

Anna’s White Chocolate Cranberry Cookies

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground Saigon cinnamon
1 cup (2 sticks) salted butter, at room temperature
1 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated white sugar
1 Tbsp. Mexican vanilla
2 eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups dried cranberries
1 bag (11 oz.) white chocolate chips

Heat oven to 325 degrees. By hand, whisk together flour, baking soda, salt and cinnamon in a small bowl. Set aside.

In a large bowl, cream together the butter, sugars and vanilla. Beat in the eggs, cranberries and white chocolate chips.

Combine dry ingredients into the creamed mixture, being very careful not to overmix. Carefully spoon dough onto a cookie sheet and bake for 8 to 10 minutes until golden brown.

— From Anna Núñez

Skip the trip to Starbucks with these knock-off Cranberry Bliss Bars

Starbucks sells a cranberry bliss bar that lots of bakers have been able to re-create at home. One of them is Debbie Crowe, whose recipe was part of our Austin360 Holiday Cookie Contest. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman
Starbucks sells a cranberry bliss bar that lots of bakers have been able to re-create at home. One of them is Debbie Crowe, whose recipe was part of our Austin360 Holiday Cookie Contest. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

Among the many submissions to our holiday cookie contest were cookie bars, which in my mind are cookies because you can eat them without a fork and they’re small enough that you can eat a few at a time.

Although we didn’t end up with any bars in our top five, we decided to publish three bar recipes that very nearly cracked into the finalist round.

Reader Amy Robertson’s holiday squares use raspberry jam, raisins, walnuts and oats, a lovely combination of sweet with just a hint of the bitter from the walnuts and the slight chew of the oats. Laurie Nelson wasn’t afraid of rocking the pecan pie boat by adding both spices and chocolate to her pie-inspired bars, and with this blondie recipe, Debbie Crowe convinced me that I do like white chocolate, as long as it’s paired with cranberries and cream cheese frosting.

Cranberry Ginger Blondies

Crowe, who lives in Lakeway, has been working on her copycat recipe for the popular Starbucks’ cranberry bliss bar. Line the pan with parchment paper for the easiest removal.

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter, softened
1 1/4 cups packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
3 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
2 Tbsp. minced crystallized ginger
1 cup dried cranberries
4 oz. white chocolate chips
For the frosting:
4 oz. cream cheese
1 tsp. vanilla extract
3 cups powdered sugar
1 tsp. lemon juice
1/2 cup dried cranberries

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Cream together butter, brown sugar and salt. Add eggs and vanilla, mixing until fluffy.

Add flour, baking powder and ginger. Stir until well mixed. Fold in cranberries and white chocolate chips. Spread batter evenly in a 12-inch-by-16-inch baking pan. Bake for about 20 minutes. Allow to cool.

Combine the first four frosting ingredients and mix until smooth. Frost uncut bars and sprinkle with dried cranberries. Cut into shape of your choice and arrange on holiday platter.

— From Debbie Crowe

Check out this Paramount Theatre made out of gingerbread

This Paramount Theatre-inspired gingerbread creation won the top prize at last night's competition at the Omni Barton Creek Resort & Spa. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman
This Paramount Theatre-inspired gingerbread creation won the top prize at last night’s competition at the Omni Barton Creek Resort & Spa. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

 

Yes, that’s a Paramount Theatre gingerbread “house.”

Pretty amazing, right?

It was one of the creations at last night’s competition at the Omni Barton Creek Resort and Spa. This is the 9th year for the contest, and crafty bakers at Blue Note Bakery made this amazing Paramount Theatre gingerbread and walked away with a $1,000 prize. Other entries in the Texas-themed contest included versions of the Alamo, a Congress Avenue bridge and several ranch scenes.

How do you gingerbread? Learn from the best at Omni Barton Creek, Faraday’s Kitchen Store

We might still have Thanksgiving leftovers in the fridge, but I’m sure many of you are thinking about gingerbread houses you’d like to make this year.

Omni Barton Creek Resort and Spa hosts an Austin-themed gingerbread competition every holiday season. This year's event takes place on Nov. 30. Contributed by Omni Barton Creek.
Omni Barton Creek Resort and Spa hosts an Austin-themed gingerbread competition every holiday season. This year’s event takes place on Nov. 30. Contributed by Omni Barton Creek.
On Wednesday, I’ll be judging the 9th annual gingerbread competition at Omni Barton Creek Resort and Spa, where I’ll be checking out some spectacular gingerbread creations. You, too, can browse the gingerbread sculptures and displays from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the resort at 8212 Barton Club Dr. They’ll have a Christmas tree lighting, holiday carols and complimentary desserts.
Once you check out those cool projects, you might get the itch to learn how to make one yourself. Faraday’s Kitchen Store in the Shops at the Galleria in Bee Cave, 12918 Shops Parkway, is hosting a gingerbread house decorating class with pastry chef Rory Haff from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday. The class costs $49, and includes a small gingerbread house to decorate. The class is open to anyone over the age of 10, and you can sign up at faradayskitchenstore.com.

Pecans make this pull-apart bread extra sweet

My family loves monkey bread. We make a savory pull-apart bread with canned biscuits, cheese and chopped peppers, but “Deep South” author Brad McDonald has grown to love a sweet one that is topped with pecans.

With the butterscotch pudding, it’s totally old-school, but I have a feeling your family would love this on Thanksgiving morning or one day during this long holiday weekend.

Pull-apart bread is a popular weekend breakfast, but you could also serve it for dessert, especially when it’s topped with pecans, like this version from “Deep South.” Contributed by Andy Sewell
Pull-apart bread is a popular weekend breakfast, but you could also serve it for dessert, especially when it’s topped with pecans, like this version from “Deep South.” Contributed by Andy Sewell

Butch’s Monkey Bread

I married into this recipe, which comes from my father-in-law, Butch Petersen. He’s famous for these sticky, gooey, yeasty rolls, and special mornings in the Petersen house always call for this breakfast treat. Put the recipe together the night before, so the morning can be spent opening Christmas (or birthday) presents, reading the newspaper and drinking too much coffee.

— Brad McDonald

For the dough:
3 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. instant or active dry yeast
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1 small egg
1 cup warm water
For the topping:
1/2 cup unsalted butter, plus 1 1/2 Tbsp. for greasing the tin
1 cup light brown sugar
1 large box Jell-O butterscotch pudding mix
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 1/2 cups whole pecans

Put all the dough ingredients in a freestanding electric mixer fitted with a dough hook and mix on low speed to make a soft dough, adding more flour if the dough is too wet. Knead until the dough is smooth and elastic, then cover and leave in a warm place for about 1 1/2 hours, until doubled in size. Punch down the dough, cover again and leave to rest for about 15 minutes.

On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out to about 1/2-inch thick, then shape into 35 to 40 small balls. Place on greased baking sheets, cover loosely with cling film and place in the freezer.

While the dough balls freeze, make the topping: Melt the butter in a pan over medium-high heat, add the brown sugar and stir until smooth. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Combine the Jell-O mixture with the cinnamon. Remove the frozen dough balls from the freezer. Toss the dough balls with the Jell-O and cinnamon mixture.

Grease a large fluted bundt tin with the extra butter. Scatter the pecans evenly over the bottom of the tin, then arrange the frozen rolls on top. Finally, pour the melted butter and sugar mixture over the rolls. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until golden brown. Leave in the tin for a few minutes before turning out. Serve warm. Makes one large loaf.

— From “Deep South: New Southern Cooking” by Brad McDonald (Quadrille, $35)