RECIPES: Get creative with holiday cookies

How to make holiday treats look like a pro’s

Every Christmas brings magazine spreads and Instagram feeds overflowing with photos of rolled cookies cut into adorable shapes and decorated with all manner of artistry.

I admit, I turn the page, scroll on past. Cookie dough you have to make, then chill, then roll out to an even thickness? And then cut out and carefully transfer to a baking sheet? And then try not to overbake? All that to get to the fun of decorating? No, thank you.

Then I was introduced to Marietta “maker and baker” Sam Opdenbosch of Sam’s Cookie Company. Opdenbosch had just placed second in the advanced decorating competition at CookieCon, a cookie art convention and show that’s held around the country. She won in the Dallas competition this past October. Her winning entry? A whimsical 3D cookie ice cream truck with ice cream cone headlights, an awning over a window filled with more ice cream cones, and chocolate and gum paste balloons ready to carry the ice cream truck up into the heavens.

Victoria, Texas, is where she learned to bake cookies. Each Christmas, she’d get together with her mother and sister and bake cookies. They’ve been doing this for 12 years, and Opdenbosch says, “Every year, the cookies looked like a 4-year-old made them.” Mother and daughters would research year after year and trade techniques, but it wasn’t until they attended CookieCon in 2019 that Opdenbosch was inspired to take her cookie creations to a new level.

Working in the commercial furniture industry, she decided that her holiday gift to clients would be beautifully decorated sugar cookies. “After all, you cannot be in a bad mood when someone gives you a cookie.”

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Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

With techniques she taught herself and lots of practice, she developed what came to be called “Sam’s cookies,” as in “Are those Sam’s cookies?”

Not only did she make cookies, but she used her 3D printer to design and create unique cookie cutters. Now the only limit was her imagination. Instead of spending hours of time searching and hundreds of dollars purchasing someone else’s cookie cutters, she could make her own.

Sam’s Cookie Company officially launched with a private Facebook community and a Cookie University with baking and decorating tutorials as well as tutorials on designing 3D cookie cutters and access to hundreds of cutter files created by Opdenbosch.

“When I first got started, this was just something fun, but I’ve become extremely addicted to how it feels when you give someone cookies you made for them. The reaction, how excited they get. Some people cry because they’re overwhelmed with how beautiful the cookies are. Now I can’t stop.”

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Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Her approach to royal icing:

• She adapted her recipe from one she found on cakecentral.com. “It’s the one everybody uses in the beginning. But I found when I added corn syrup, I got a really nice shine.”

• For coloring the icing, she uses gel coloring and says a little bit goes a long way. “And you only need to have maybe nine or 10 different colors to create hundreds of variations.”

• She uses tipless piping bags because it is easier for cleanup. These are thin disposable pastry bags with very little seam and a finished point. “You put your icing in the bag and tie off the end. Then cut the tip to produce just the size stream of frosting for the effect you want.”

• Set your decorated cookies in a dehydrator or in front of a table fan to make them shine even more.

• The most important tip of all: “It’s always important to keep in mind that your cookie doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s a cookie and will likely be eaten pretty quickly, so don’t stress about it.”

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Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Vanilla Sugar Cookies

To make this full batch, you’ll need a stand mixer that holds at least 5 1/2 quarts. But it’s also an easy recipe to cut in half. The dough is ready right out of the mixer to roll out and bake. And a rolling pin with removable rings that determine the thickness of the dough makes rolling out the dough practically foolproof.

Opdenbosch works with a small amount of dough at a time due to the size of the waxed paper squares she uses for rolling out the dough and prefers baking her cookies on a silicone mat. If you don’t have one, parchment paper will do fine.

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

VARIATIONS

Chocolate or Chocolate Peppermint Sugar Cookies

Opdenbosch prefers Valrhona or Rodelle cocoa and LorAnn peppermint emulsion.

Using the Vanilla Sugar Cookies recipe, add:

1 cup lightly packed light brown sugar

1 egg

1 teaspoon peppermint emulsion, if desired

1 cup cocoa

Add the brown sugar to the butter and granulated sugar in the first step. Add the extra egg and the peppermint emulsion, if using, when the eggs and vanilla go into the creamed butter and sugar.

Add the cocoa when whisking together the flour, cornstarch and salt.

Otherwise, proceed with the Vanilla Sugar Cookies recipe as written.

Makes 36 (3-inch) cookies or 60 (2-inch) cookies.

Pumpkin Spice Sugar Cookies

Opdenbosch prefers LorAnn pumpkin spice emulsion.

Using the Vanilla Sugar Cookies recipe, add:

1 teaspoon pumpkin spice emulsion

1 tablespoon pumpkin spice seasoning

Add the pumpkin spice emulsion when the eggs and vanilla go into the creamed butter and sugar.

Add the pumpkin spice seasoning when whisking together the flour, cornstarch and salt.

Otherwise, proceed with the Vanilla Sugar Cookies recipe as written.

Makes 30 (3-inch) cookies or 48 (2-inch) cookies.

Cinnamon Sugar Cookies

Opdenbosch purchases cinnamon chips from nuts.com.

Using the Vanilla Sugar Cookies recipe, add:

1 tablespoon Saigon cinnamon

1 cup cinnamon chips

Add the cinnamon when whisking together the flour, cornstarch and salt.

When the dough comes together, remove the bowl from the mixer and stir in the cinnamon chips.

Otherwise, proceed with the Vanilla Sugar Cookies recipe as written.

Makes 30 (3-inch) cookies or 48 (2-inch) cookies.

Lemon Sugar Cookies

Opdenbosch uses Nielsen-Massey lemon paste.

Using the Vanilla Sugar Cookies recipe, omit vanilla and add:

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon lemon paste

Zest of 1 lemon

Add the lemon juice, lemon paste and lemon zest when the eggs go into the creamed butter and sugar. Remember to omit the vanilla.

Otherwise, proceed with the Vanilla Sugar Cookies recipe as written.

Makes 30 (3-inch) cookies or 48 (2-inch) cookies.

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Royal Icing

Opdenbosch uses Genie’s Dream Meringue Powder and Americolor Gel. She adapted her recipe from the Antonia74 Royal Icing recipe from cakecentral.com. She has found that the white gel coloring is needed to prevent color bleeding. You’ll add other gel coloring to make colors other than white.

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

DECORATING TECHNIQUES

Base Flood

• Make royal icing in two different consistencies:

1. For the thicker consistency, use the recipe as written.

2. For the thinner consistency, thin the icing with a little warm water.

• Fill a piping bag with the thicker consistency icing and cut a small hole. Touch the tip down on the cookie and apply pressure, then raise the bag about a half-inch above the cookie and follow the cookie outline. This gives the icing a chance to smoothly fall onto the cookie and creates a straighter outline.

• Fill a second piping bag with the thinner consistency icing and cut a slightly larger hole. Place the piping bag just above the surface of the cookie and use more pressure to force out the icing and allow it to cover the cookie. Start working at the piped outline and move around the cookie toward the center. If there are holes in the coverage, use a toothpick to pull the icing to fill in the hole. Once the cookie is covered with icing, lightly shake it and tap it to help the icing cover the cookie evenly.

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Layering

Wet on Wet

This method gives you icing that’s all one layer.

• While the icing is still wet, pipe details in another color icing that is the thinner consistency and lightly shake and tap the cookie. The new icing will “melt” into the base flood and the icing surface will be flush.

• Another option is to pipe a different color thinner consistency icing on the wet surface and use a toothpick to drag the wet icing through the base flood to make a new shape. For example, pipe a round dot on the cookie and then insert the toothpick in the center of the cookie and pull it out of the dot. This will form a heart.

• Or pipe parallel horizontal lines of the thinner consistency icing across the cookie and then drag the toothpick through the lines to create a wavy design.

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Wet on Dry

This method gives you icing with raised details.

• Let the base flood layer dry for 10 to 15 minutes.

• Using thicker consistency icing, add details like polka dots or any other design.

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Texture

• Let the base flood layer dry for 10 to 15 minutes. Then using a fan brush, lightly tap fresh thinner consistency icing across the surface of the cookie. This makes a texture like a sweater, fur on a fluffy bear, or snow for a snowman or snowball.

• Or use the thicker consistency icing to cover the entire surface of the cookie. Then crumple a piece of parchment paper and open it up, then place it on top of the iced cookie and gently press in. Let the cookie dry overnight and remove the parchment the next day.

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Transfers

Transfers are essentially small decorations made of royal icing that are made ahead of time and then applied while the cookie surface is wet, or attached to the surface of a dried iced cookie with more icing.

• Tint your icing into all the colors you’ll need and put each in a separate piping bag.

• Pipe whatever shapes you like directly onto a piece of cellophane. This is the stiff shiny plastic used to make cookie gift bags. The smooth, stiff plastic means the back of the transfer will dry very flat so it will sit flush on the cookie when it is applied, looking as if it was made directly on the cookie.

• Let the transfer dry for 24 hours, then gently peel it off the cellophane. You can store the transfers in an airtight container or use them right away.

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