Sometimes—maybe for a gift or a special occasion—you want to make pretty cookies. Valentine’s Day calls out for such fussed-over treats, so we enlisted Bernard S., one of our crazy-talented resident bakers (and Union Hill Photo Studio Business Operations Manager), to give us the instructions and pro-tips we need to dive into cookie decorating with total confidence.
I’ve always loved Valentine’s Day. It’s pink and sparkly, and that’s fun. And it’s perfect for cookies. You’re in the doldrums of winter and it’s gross. People are done with their January fasting. And it usually falls near Fat Tuesday—so, you know, more sugar.
For this workshop, we got a new color palette to work with from Hallmark’s Trends Studio—a masculine palette. Along with red and white, there’s black and yellow and teal—colors you don’t normally associate with Valentine’s Day.
Cookie decorating supplies
- Bernard’s sugar cookie recipes
- Bernard’s royal icing recipes
- Gel food coloring
- Sanding sugar
- Optional: Edible glitter/disco dust, cinnamon hearts, dragees/pearls
- 12″ pastry bags
- #2 round top
- #3 round tip
- Paper plates or parchment (for experimenting)
How do you decorate cookies?
I use two different techniques for decorating cookies: flooding and painting.
The “flooding” or “flow” method gives you a really pristine surface. You can keep it smooth with “wet-on-wet” designs or add detail when the flood coat dries. Or you can paint a cookie with royal icing, coat it with sugar, and do a simple accent. That’s quick—down and dirty.
I bake and decorate five to six dozen cookies in an average week—30 dozen around Christmas—so I subscribe to the high/low philosophy. For an order, I’ll do a few perfect cookies with the flooding method, and a bunch of easy ones.
[Editor’s note: We focus on flooding in the cooking decorating instructions below. To see how painting works, check out Bernard’s video series, Cookies and Cards.]
Baking your cookies
[Editor’s note: We’re focused on the cookie decorating here, but if you’d like to get all of Bernard’s hints on making perfect, ready-to-decorate cookies, you can check out his video series on making, rolling, cutting, and baking sugar cookies.]
I’ve tweaked and used this recipe for years, and it’s the best.
Once they’re baked, your cookies have to be absolutely cool before you start decorating them. Remember how grease breaks down the royal icing? That’s what the warm, gooey butter in your cookies does. Let them cool so the fat will set. If you have to bake and decorate the same day, pop the cookies in the freezer for 10 minute.
You can bake the cookies up to a week before, put them in a zipper bag, and throw them in freezer.
How to make royal icing
The flow cookie decorating method uses A. Lot. Of. Icing.
Start with the basic royal icing recipe. Mix it to regular consistency—like cake frosting. Resist the urge to thin it down while you’re mixing it. Use a metal or glass bowl. Grease breaks down the icing, so you can’t make it in the plastic bowl that holds on to those spaghetti leftovers.
Once it’s done, put some in a smaller glass bowl to thin it down with a teeny bit of water at a time. To see if you’ve added enough water, draw a trough through the icing in the bowl or drop a dollop on a plate, and count the seconds it takes to fill back in or spread out. For flooding, you want it to take a good 12 seconds, because it should flow and flatten out, not fall off the cookie.
Use a spray bottle filled with water to thin the icing. It’s the best way to control the amount of water you use.
How to flood cookies
To flow icing onto a cookie, you’ll want to put royal icing in your pastry bag with a #2 round tip. Close the top with a rubber band or a twist tie—this icing is loose enough to ooze out everywhere.
Start by making an outline around the edge of the cookie or the part you want to color. Then fill it in with icing, just like you would color a picture in a coloring book. This is where practice makes perfect: You can try it out on parchment or a paper plate to see how much you icing you can flow before it breaks the dam.
If there are spaces where the icing didn’t flow, use a toothpick to move it around. Gently shaking the cookie will help the icing flatten out.
If the royal icing starts to ooze over the side, let it sit and set up for a minute. Then take a toothpick and carefully scrape the icing off the edge.
How to add designs
For “wet on wet” designs, draw with royal icing before your surface color dries. You’ll get a completely flat, smooth, shiny surface. Experiment with making dots and stripes and pulling a toothpick through them: Drawing a toothpick from one side of a dot to the other will turn it into a heart.
To add dimension, draw on your royal icing after it dries: You’ll want to wait at least an hour. Use thicker icing (normal spreading consistency) in a pastry bag with a #3 round tip.
How to store (and when to eat) your Valentine’s Day cookies
Cookies decorated with royal icing dry hard and shiny, so you can stack them up, and will stay fresh two to three days. You don’t have to refrigerate them—it doesn’t help anything or make them last longer.
If you want to keep them longer than that, you can freeze fully decorated, completely dry cookies. Just put seal them in a zipper bag and freeze. When you bring out the bag, let it come to room temperature sealed to avoid condensation.
Photography by Kevin Hosley.