Fancy decorated cookies, without the fuss

Maybe there was a time, long, long ago, when I actually enjoyed making cutout cookies. Perhaps I gleefully anticipated the rolling pin, flour all over the counter, cookie cutters, sticky icing, overturned bottles of food color, and crunchy red and green sugar underfoot.

If so, those happy memories are gone, disappeared like glad-handing politicians the day after an election.

I don’t like to make cutout cookies. I find them fussy, time-consuming, and devoid of any great reward at the end. And I know the reason why.

I’m not a looks person. At all. I’m a word person.

Show me a beautifully designed catalogue spread—luscious-looking food photography, an eye-catching design, gorgeous autumn colors—and I see an extra space between the words “tasty” and “brownies.” Or I see “it’s” where “its” is the proper incarnation.

I mean, these things jump up and hit me right between the eyes. Just like the clash between two subtly different shades of red that sends our art director up the wall.

So cutout holiday cookies? Yawn.

Hey, I’m not alone. I know there are others out there like me. You know who you are—you eat with your mouth, not your eyes. A bite of warm brownie is worth 10 intricately decorated cookie snowflakes. But there comes a time in every baker’s life when, fuss and fight all you want, you’re backed into a corner and HAVE to make decorated cutout cookies.

Maybe it’s your daughter’s 6th birthday party. Or the fact that you know your mom loves pretty holiday cookies, and she no longer has the energy to make them. Or your grandson is visiting, and says you simply must make reindeer cookies for Rudolph… One of these days, you’re going to make cutout cookies.

And when you do, take a page out of my book: Simplify. Imaginative use of a few basic cutters, some icing, and colored toppings are all you need to make some pretty darned good-looking cookies.

If you love to spend hours piping icing from a pastry bag, go for it; check out our cookie decorating tips. But if you’re more of an “I’m in a hurry let’s get this over with” decorated-cookie baker, follow the steps below for fancy, fuss-free cookies.

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Let’s start with some cookie basics: butter and confectioners’ sugar. Plus an egg yolk, salt, and eggnog flavor, in a salute to the holidays. Substitute vanilla, almond or your own favorite flavor, if desired.

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Beat till well combined.

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Add the flour. At first, the mixture will look very dry. Just keep beating…

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…and it should come together. If it looks like it’s simply not going to become cohesive, dribble in 1 tablespoon of water to help it along.

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Scrape the dough out of the bowl, divide it in half…

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…shape each half into a rough disk, and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate for 1 hour.

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Meanwhile, flour your work surface. Well, there it is again—my silicone rolling mat! If you read this blog regularly, you see how often I use it.

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Take one of the pieces of dough out of the fridge, flour it, and place it on the mat.

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Roll it 1/8” thick; it should roll pretty easily. If it starts to stick to mat or pin, pick it up (a giant spatula works well) and throw more flour underneath, and dust a bit more flour on top. Don’t go crazy; you want to use just enough flour to prevent sticking. Too much, and your cookies will be tough.

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There! A nice 1/8”-thick circle. By the way, if you have any trouble rolling the dough that thin, do the best you can; you’ll just end up with thicker, less-crisp (but still yummy) cookies.

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Use your favorite cutter(s) to cut shapes. I love my star cutters; stars (and hearts) are always in season, in my book.

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Now comes the “ah-HA!” part: use a smaller cutter to cut out the centers of some of the cookies.

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Here we have large cookies; large cookies with centers cut out (and sprinkled with sparkling white sugar); and the smaller cookies cut from from the centers. Just two cutters, and look what you’ve made already—a nice array of stars.

Cut as many cookies as you can from the first piece of dough, re-rolling and cutting the scraps. Then bake the cookies. While the first batch is baking, roll and cut cookies from the second refrigerated piece of dough.

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The cookie on the left was baked for 12 minutes; the one on the right, for 14 minutes. Watch carefully: for light-colored cookies, you really have to watch through the oven window for the final 2 minutes or so, to make sure they don’t brown.

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I was just fooling around with my stars and made a little constellation. All work and no play… While the cookies are cooling, make the icing.

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This Simple Cookie Glaze, made from 2 1/4 cups confectioners’ sugar, 2 tablespoons corn syrup, and 1 1/2 tablespoons milk makes a smooth, spreadable glaze that dries nice and hard; if the glaze is too thick, dribble in another teaspoon of milk, 1/2 teaspoon at a time.

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Stir until smooth; a fork works fine.

This glaze is a little on the thick side, and it isn’t perfectly smooth when you apply it, but should settle into a smooth surface within half a minute or so. Glaze one cookie and set it aside for a minute. Has the glaze settled into a smooth surface? If so, it’s the right consistency. Remember, it’s easier to add more liquid than to stir in more sugar, so start with a glaze that’s thicker than you think it should be, then add milk little by little to adjust the consistency.

Add food color, if you like. I’m leaving the icing white, because I’m going to add colored sprinkles.

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Now for some suggestions. Drizzle/spread icing on a solid-center cookie.

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Put a cutout-center cookie on top: instant linzer! I’m using six-sided Stars of David cutters here. Celebrating Chanukah? Our nested set of six-sided star cutters makes pretty treats.

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Sprinkle sparkling sugar atop the icing in the center.

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Here’s another way to decorate. Ice a solid cookie, using your fingertip to spread the icing all the way to the edges of the cookie.

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Then simply sprinkle with sparkling sugar.

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Sparkly blue cookie!

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Ice a solid cookie…

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…ice a cookie with its center cut out…

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…decorate with sprinkles

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Sandwich atop the solid iced cookie…

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…and add sparkling sugar in the center.

I tell you, I’m SO not a cookie decorator, but this was actually kind of fun, and certainly easy. None of that piping or fiddling around with tweezers and toothpicks that devoted cookie decorators fuss with. Not putting anyone down here; simply saying spending a whole lotta time decorating cookies just isn’t for me.

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It helps to do all of this on a piece of parchment, in order to keep the spills contained.

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Here are some of the finished cookies. All I used was two sets of star cutters: standard, and six-sided; and four kinds of colored sugar. Martha Stewart, eat your heart out!

Read, rate, and review (please!) our recipe for Holiday Butter Cookies.

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P.S. What do you do when you had to test that cookie dough one more time, and no way were you going to fuss with cookie cutters? Use a rolling pizza wheel to cut squares, bake, and splatter with leftover chocolate ganache. Hey, looks like something you’d serve at a NYC dessert party, no?

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P.P.S. Couldn’t resist sharing this photo of the first snowfall, taken out our window here in the Web-team room at King Arthur. The picnic tables won’t be getting much use for the next 6 months, but we still like to venture outside and get some fresh air on our breaks, as hardy members of our purchasing team demonstrate.

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. Grace Kratovil

    I share your feelings about cut-out and decorating! I thought I was done with them but now we have grandkids…

    Reply
  2. Kelli Summers Sorg

    Can I make this cookie dough a day ahead (up to chilling it) and then let it warm at room temp for a little while before rolling? In other words, can I chill it overnight with no adverse effects?

    PS: I’m in the grammar police, too 🙂

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Thanks for stopping by our blog, Kelli! You can certainly prepare this dough one day, chill it overnight in the fridge, and roll out your cookies the next day. Just be sure to wrap it well in plastic wrap so it doesn’t dry out. Pulling it out about 30 minutes before rolling will allow it to soften up a bit. Happy baking! Annabelle@KAF

  3. AJ

    My one obstacle to overcome is the dreaded rolling out the dough! I am so afraid of ruining the dough with too much flour, have granite counters which didn’t eliminate the problem either, so I guess I will have to just do it and practice and if they don’t work out with any of the many tips offered here then I will resign myself to drop cookies. I do enjoy the decorating part but as a novice its hard to move fast enough with out help (dealing with cut out cookies)Maybe king Arthur offers a class for making rolled out and cut cookies? I may need to hire a teacher! But it is fun I do enjoy it and will have immense satisfaction if I ever master this rolling out dough and cutting out cookies myself.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      AJ, have you tried rolling your cookies on a rolling mat? It prevents the dough from sticking and reduces the amount of flour that you need to add to your work surface. Also, we do have a class where we teach the ins and outs of making all kinds of holiday cookies, including roll-out cookies. It’s our Holiday Cookie Decorating class, offered multiple times in December. Check it out on the class calendar for more details. Kye@KAF

    2. Lynn

      My mother’s secret weapon to prevent tough cookies but still roll out the dough 70 billion times? Thin plastic. She used unscented, smooth sided plastic bags. When we were kids, I think they were garbage bags cut into pieces. Once she found 2 gallon ziplock freezer bags, that was it! She taped one cut open to the kitchen table with painters tape, and used a second to drop over the dough. Absolutely no flour required to prevent sticking meant we could roll and cut out however we wanted without making the cookies weird. When I started with my girls, I bought thin plastic table covering material that was clear from the fabric store and washed it really well. It worked as good as my mom’s trash bags, but now I use a massive ziplock freezer bag cut open. Cheap and disposable for the win!

      Good luck baking!

      ~Lynn

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Lots of bakers experiment with coconut oil as a substitute, Merry, but it can be tough to get the same result when you need to cream the fat and sugar together, as in this recipe. Vegan buttery sticks or shortening may offer a texture more comparable to butter. For a closer look, take a read through our blog article on fat substitutes. While it is written for a gluten-free recipe, gluten-full bakers can still learn from it. We also have a few great comparisons between butter and shortening, which you can check out on our blog as well. Hope this helps! Mollie@KAF

  4. Donna

    I LOVE iced sugar cookies. As I get older, I find I am less patient than before, so I agree with the simplify idea. For the last few years, I made all my Christmas cookies with my favorite holly leaf cutter. Then I iced them green and threw on a red hot or 2 (like the icing-red hot flavor). I use a powdered sugar-vanilla milk mixture for icing. I’m curious as to what the corn syrup does in your recipe. The holly leaves look really pretty together on a plate. I like my cookies cooked a little more golden than some, and the icing mellows them and keeps them from being too crisp.

    Reply
  5. Linda Rocchi

    The simple cookie icing was not so simple for me when I made it last year for Christmas cookies. The icing never hardened and remained sticky. It was not humid so I know that wasn’t a contributing factor. I followed the recipe exactly. Any suggestions ?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Linda, sounds like you might have added a bit too much liquid to your icing. Try measuring your confectioner’s sugar by weight using a scale if possible to ensure you’re using the right amount, and start by adding only add 1 tablespoon of milk. The larger amount (2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon) will make a thinner, more drizzle-able glaze. Happy decorating! Kye@KAF

  6. Brian

    After years of experimenting with sugar cookies recipes I think I found a winner. Thank you! The taste was great and this the only recipe that holds the shapes of the cookies. I can finally bring out some of the cutters I was not using because the shapes were too intricate.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      I agree, Brian – this is a great recipe for holding its shape, due to absence of leavening. Nice sharp designs, great flavor. Winner! PJH

  7. Marcia Wilheim

    I apologize in advance if this has been addressed. I live at an arid 7,000′ and baking can be a challenge! This cookie dough is wonderful, except it won’t hold together, even with addition of 1 T water.
    I think there was too much flour for my altitude. (?)
    Also the few I managed to bake (rolled 1/8″ thick w/medium star cutouts) were very brown at 10 min at 350. Hmmm….. ??
    But, THEY WERE DELICIOUS!!
    So, could you advise how to recast this recipe? Thank you so very much. LOVE KAF!!!

    Reply
  8. Barbara Macey

    Years ago I made many “cut out” cookies with lots of different shapes. So loved all of them & the fun the children & I had together.

    The children are now adults with no desire for cookies–I decorate the tree with the cutters & the coppery ones pick up the shining lights & are beautiful. People who see the trees always regret tossing theirs or giving them to charities.

    The cutters have so many wonderful memories–give them try. They can always be used again for cutting out cookies. Thank you PJ for your honest discussions/tips.

    Reply

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