Have you started to read Longbourn by Jo Baker yet? If not, you should, because it’s the official pick for the next meeting of The Comedy Wives Bookclub. (The unofficial pick is Dr. Sleep by Stephen King, which is also pretty good, but makes for a less adorable cookie).
Longbourn is a reimagining of Jane Austen’s beloved classic, Pride & Prejudice, from the perspective of the household servants. Having just reread P&P, and nearly halfway through this month’s selection, I was inspired to create these tasty cameo sugar cookies to serve over tea at the next meeting.
I love making decorated sugar cookies for a couple of reasons. The main one being that they can be made in stages. Perfect for the busy mom who can only find a few minutes here and there at nap time. Once dried the royal icing transfers, which are used to decorate the cookies, can keep indefinitely if properly stored in an airtight container. The cookies themselves can be frozen at almost any stage during the process – you can freeze the uncooked dough, freeze them undecorated after they’re baked, or freeze the completed cookies! (Pick one, though, it’s best not to thaw and refreeze).
The other reason is that royal icing is so versatile. Once you’ve had a bit of practice, you can make cookies or cupcakes to suit nearly any occasion. I’ve been meaning to do a proper post on royal icing transfers for awhile – this tutorial will cover the basics, but I’ll try to get a more elaborate one up soon and I’ll show you some of the fun things that I’ve made!
Let’s get started. Here’s what you will need.
For the icing:
- 4 c. Confectioners’ sugar
- 3 tbsp Meringue Powder
- 6 tbsp Water
- Piping Bag (I use disposables)
- Coupler (optional)
- Small Round Tip (such as Wilton #2 or #3)
- Gel Food Colouring
- Clear Plastic Sheet Protectors
- Vegetable Shortening (such as Crisco)
For the sugar cookies:
- Cookie Sheets
- Parchment Paper
- Oval Cookie Cutter (optional)
- Butter, Sugar, Flour, Vanilla Extract, Salt, Egg, Baking Powder*
*You can use any cut-out sugar cookie recipe that you want. This time I used this recipe from Martha Stewart. It was pretty good, although next time I might add a little bit of lemon zest, and maybe a little lemon juice to the icing to give it a little extra something.
1. The first thing that you need is a pattern for your cameo. You can either draw your own or you can go ahead and use this one. Make sure you scale it to the size that you want. If you own an oval cookie cutter, make sure that the silhouette will fit inside your finished cookie! Print a few copies, enough for the amount of cookies you plan to make (this recipe should make about a dozen) and maybe a few extras in case of breakage.
2. Insert your printed pattern into a transparent sheet protector. Schmear it all over with a thin layer of Crisco. It’s best to place the whole thing onto a cookie sheet or another sturdy flat thing so that you can move it out of the way while the transfers dry.
3. Combine the confectioners’s sugar, meringue powder and water together in an electric mixer. Beat on low speed for 10 minutes.
4. Take about a third of your icing and transfer to a small bowl. The remainder can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge. The hardest part of working with royal icing is getting the consistency right. You want it to be stiff enough to pipe clean lines with, but still loose enough to be able to fill in smoothly. Getting it perfect takes practice more than anything else (I still never get it quite right), but the best way to test it is to drag a knife across the top. Mix in a few drops of water at a time (go slowly, a few drops can take it from too stiff to too loose in a flash) until it takes 20 seconds for your knife cut to “heal” over completely. If you add too much water you can always stir in a bit more confectioners sugar to stiffen it back up.
5. Equip your piping bag with the small round tip and fill with the icing. Pipe carefully around the edge of your cameo pattern. Use a toothpick to guide the icing into the smaller areas. Keep a damp cloth handy to wipe down the toothpick and the piping tip between touches. You will need to work quickly, otherwise the icing will start to dry and you will end up with lumps and cracks. If you find the icing is drying too quickly, it means your icing is too dry. If it’s spreading out and you’re unable to pipe defined lines, it means the icing is too wet. You can stop and dump the contents of your piping bag back into your bowl to adjust the consistency of your icing. Alternatively, like me, you can just forge stubbornly ahead and accept the fact that your cookies will be imperfect (but still better than anyone else’s cookies).
6. Once you’ve completed the border, quickly fill-in the rest of the cameo with icing. Use the toothpick to swirl the icing in small circles until it spreads out and fills in the entire shape. You can give the entire sheet a little shake to help encourage the icing to spread.
7. After filling all the silhouettes, set them aside to dry for about 24 hours. Once dry you can store the completed transfers in an airtight container pretty much indefinitely.
8. Prepare the sugar cookie dough according to your recipe. Roll it out to 1/8″ thick. (It’s around this stage that you’ll start to realize that you hate making sugar cookies. The dough is annoying and crumbly. If you can’t get it to hold together just add a few drops of water. Remind yourself that at least you’re not a servant working at Longbourn and don’t need to worry about your chilblains weeping into the dough.) If you have an oval cookie cutter, use it now. If not, cut around your pattern using a sharp knife.
9. Bake on parchment lined cookie sheets. Let cool completely on a wire rack.
10. Take about 2/3 of the remaining icing (it should be in your fridge in an airtight container, remember?) Tint it to your desired shade using the gel food colouring. I actually made three different shades of pink because I wanted to end up with a gradient effect. If you’ve never used gel food colouring before, first of all, you’re welcome because it’s the best. Secondly, it’s a lot stronger than your regular liquid colouring, so add it slowly – just a little bit goes a long way. After you’ve added your colour, you can loosen the icing with some water. You’re aiming for about the same consistency as with the transfers that you made (about 20 second “healing” time), although it can be a bit more liquidy now since you won’t be piping any super precise lines.
11. Fill your piping bag with icing and equip with your small round tip (or a slightly bigger round tip, if you happen to have one). Pipe a border about an 1/8″ inside your cookie.
12. Fill-in with icing, swirling with a toothpick if necessary.
13. Centre your dried cameo transfer and place it on the wet background. Press gently to adhere.
14. Let dry completely (overnight is best) on a wire rack.
15. Prepare the remaining white icing as before (20 seconds etc.) Fill your piping bag equipped with the small round tip. Pipe little balls all around the edge of your cookie. Use the toothpick to poke down any little points that stick up.
16. Let dry completely. If freezing, wrap each cookie individually in plastic wrap, or in a small ziplock baggie. Stack gently inside a tupperware container and place in the freezer. The day before you plan to serve them, remove the container from the freezer and let thaw completely before opening. It seems counterintuitive, I know. Just trust me. Do not open that box. Let them defrost completely before opening.
17. Serve with tea and conversation.