This is the first time in my ENTIRE cookie baking career–and we’re not going to count how many years that is folks– that I have EVER made Royal Icing. Seriously, what took me so long? Mom always made Butttercream Icing for sugar cookies, and I followed that tradition. Now that I’ve finally tried both options, I can proclaim with absolute certainty that for taste alone, buttercream beats royal hands down. No ifs, ands, or buts: for flavor, butter cannot be beat.
Right. But sometimes, especially during the holiday season, we might make a little tradeoff on the flavor side of the quotient for an additional WOW factor. It is allowed. I’m not going to tell you, however, as is at least implied in some other cookie treatises, that an icing made with powdered egg whites, water, and powdered sugar is scrumptious. It is not. Plus, it dries to an exceedingly hard texture, like those inedible sugar thingies you sometimes see on grocery store decorated cakes. These are truths (flavor and texture) that must be mitigated.
But on the other hand, Royal Icing is so much fun to work with and yields such delicious visual effects, we might at least consider using it when the situation calls for it. Christmas cookie baking is the situation that calls for it.
You want your cookies to be beautiful and to stack layer upon layer in a large tin, without the dreaded smeared frosting issue. You want both the cookie and the icing to store for a few weeks. Uncooked, unsalted butter will turn rancid, even at cool room temperature, in a few days. Also, butter holds quite a bit of water in suspension and that water is absorbed eventually into the cookie, making it undesirably soft.
On the other hand, an egg white, aka royal, icing dries quickly and completely and stays that way over long periods of time. The hardness factor can be minimized by spreading a thin coating of icing, never more than 1/8-inch thick. This way, the silky smooth frosting is appreciated by the eyes and then barely noticed by the palate, which in the case of Royal Icing, is the best possible compromise.
Orange Vanilla Sugar Cookies
These cookies are inspired by the sugar cookies my mother, Virginia, made each year for Christmas. I fine-tuned the original recipe over the years, replacing shortening with butter, eliminating milk, and increasing the orange flavor–but the wonderful aroma, subtle sweetness level, and crisp texture remain very much the same.
These are meant to be decorated either with sanding sugar or sprinkles before baking or with a simple buttercream or royal icing after baking. Either embellishment adds just the right amount of sweetness. On the other hand, I also love these cookies unadorned and only moderately sweet with afternoon tea.
This recipe makes a Christmas-size (large) batch of cookies. It can be cut in half if you like.
5 cups King Arthur’s unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 cups unsalted butter, cool room temperature (15 minutes out of the refrigerator)
2 cups superfine sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
½ teaspoon orange oil (or 1 teaspoon orange extract)
finely grated zest of 2 large oranges
2 eggs, lightly beaten
colored sanding sugar or sprinkles
Buttercream Icing or Royal Icing
- In a large mixing bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Whisk thoroughly to distribute the baking powder. Reserve.
- Using a stand mixer, cream the butter, sugar, orange zest, vanilla extract, and orange oil until light and creamy, about 3 minutes.
- Add the eggs, a little at a time, and continue beating until very light and fluffy, scraping the sides of the bowl several times, about 3 minutes.
- Add the flour mixture and mix very briefly in short bursts, just until incorporated.
- Divide the dough into four equal portions and flatten each portion to a ½-inch thick disk on a sheet of plastic wrap. Seal the plastic wrap around each portion of the dough and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or overnight. (The sealed dough can be refrigerated for 2-3 days if necessary.)
- On a lightly floured pastry cloth, using a covered rolling pin, roll out the dough to 3/16- to ¼-inch thickness. Use a little flour to keep the dough from sticking if necessary, but try not to work too much additional flour into the dough.
- Cut out shapes with cookie cutters and place cookies on a lightly greased baking sheet.
- If desired, sprinkle with sanding sugar.
- Bake at 375° for 7-10 minutes, until edges are just beginning to lightly brown.
- Using a thin, flexible offset spatula, remove cookies from the baking sheet and cool on a wire rack.
- After cooling, cookies can be decorated with icing if desired.
Store cookies, layered with rounds of wax paper, in airtight metal cookie containers. These cookies keep well for weeks in a cool, dry place; they may also be frozen.
Makes about 8 dozen small to medium size cookies.
This versatile cookie icing can be thinned with water (1 teaspoon at a time; a little usually does it) to any desirable consistency, making it perfect to spread with a small offset spatula or to put into a pastry bag with a plain tip and pipe.
For the coloring technique used in the blue trees and stars shown here, I piped a rather fluid colored icing on top of a still wet white iced cookie and then drew a pick through the two icings to create a moire effect.
For a demonstration on royal icing techniques, see Martha Stewart’s Ideal Sugar Cookies video.
¼ cup powdered egg whites (or meringue powder)
¼ cup water
4 cups (1 pound) powdered sugar, sifted
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon orange oil (or 1/2 teaspoon orange extract)
1.Using a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, combine the powdered egg whites and water, and beat slowly for a few minutes to dissolve the powder.
2.Increase mixer speed to medium and continue mixing until the mixture is frothy.
3.Add the powdered sugar, cup by cup, and mix until incorporated.
4.Add the vanilla and orange extracts.
5.Increase mixer speed to medium-high, and mix until the icing is thick and glossy, about 5 minutes.
6.Remove the icing to a plastic storage container. Put a damp paper towel directly on top of the icing to keep a crust from forming.
7.If not using within a couple of hours, cover the bowl with plastic and refrigerate.
8.When ready to ice your cookies, thin the icing to the desired consistency using 1 teaspoon of water at a time. You may also want to divide the icing between several small bowl and add a different color food coloring to each.
Makes 1 cup icing.