I always find myself lusting after gorgeously decorated sugar cookies. Even though I consider myself pretty skilled when it comes to decorating cakes and cupcakes, cookies are not really my thing. Or I guess I should say they weren’t my thing. After baking and decorating (with Eric’s help) nearly 300 of them, I feel pretty confident that I can try more complicated techniques in the near future. Even though it involved baking at night after Clara went to sleep and staying up way too late to decorate them, I’m definitely ready to do it again.
You may be wondering why on earth I made so many cookies, and it’s for a very special reason. My sorority, Alpha Xi Delta, recently formed a chapter at VCU. Their recruitment was a couple weeks ago, and an entire day was dedicated to philanthropy. The puzzle piece cookies were made to match the logo for Autism Speaks, an organization that Alpha Xi Delta has been partnering with since 2009. While enjoying these cookies, women heard stories of how Alpha Xi Deltas all across the country are helping to raise awareness and funds for Autism Speaks. The VCU chapter recently started working with a bowling league for children with autism, and that’s just one event of many that they’ll be participating in and/or hosting this year.
I was nervous about making cookies for so many people, but I’m happy to report that they were a huge success. Unlike standard sugar cookies, these have a dose of lemon zest and vanilla bean that makes them much more flavorful. Since the icing is nothing more than confectioners’ sugar, meringue powder and water, it’s important that the cookies have a lot of flavor. There are plenty of variations on traditional sugar cookies, but I’m quite sure this one is my favorite. The entire downstairs of our house smelled amazing while these were baking, so much so that Eric commented on the last night that he was going to miss our house smelling like a bakery.
For the cookies:
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 large egg
1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste
Zest of half a lemon
2½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
For the icing:
4 cups confectioner’s sugar
2 tablespoons meringue powder
5 tablespoons water
In the bowl of a stand mixer or a large mixing bowl, cream together the butter and sugar on medium-high speed until smooth, 1-2 minutes. Add the egg, vanilla bean paste and lemon zest and beat until combined. Decrease speed to low and add the flour and salt, mixing until just combined. Form the dough into a disc, wrap tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate until completely chilled and firm, 1-2 hours.
When ready to bake, remove dough from refrigerator. Heat oven to 375º. Line baking sheets with parchment paper or nonstick baking mats. On a well floured surface, roll the dough to ¼-inch thickness. Cut with cookie cutters and transfer to baking sheets. Bake for 8-10 minutes, rotating the sheets halfway through, until the cookies are fully cooked but not at all browned. These cookies will harden as they cool, so take that into account when testing for doneness.
Allow to cool on the baking sheet for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Gather dough scraps, roll again, and repeat cutting and baking process. Refrigerate dough as needed during this process. Once all the cookies are baked and cooled, decorate as desired.
To make the royal icing, combine all ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and mix on low speed. Mix until the ingredients are well combined and the sheen has disappeared, 7-10 minutes. Add water, about a tablespoon at a time, until the icing reaches a consistency appropriate for piping. If the icing is too thick, it will be difficult to pipe. Transfer to an airtight container, color as desired (gel colors work best) and transfer a small amount to a piping bag fitted with a #2 tip. Cover the icing that is not in use. Pipe around the edges of each cookie and allow this to harden for at least an hour.
Thin the remaining icing (if you’re not using it for piped designs on top of the flooded cookies) with additional water, a small amount at a time, until it reaches a consistency appropriate for flooding (the icing should drip off the spoon easily and disappear into the bowl within about 5 or so seconds). Transfer to a squeeze bottle and flood within the piped border of each cookie. Use a toothpick to move the icing to the edges, if needed. Allow to set, preferably overnight, until the icing is hard and matte.
If desired, use any remaining stiff icing to pipe designs onto the flooded cookies. Allow to dry for an hour, then stack and store cookies in an airtight container.