Episode 36 – 123 Dough and Cookie Decorating Techniques

Episode 36

A variety of cookies made with American buttercream, royal icing, or filled with raspberry filling

February 6, 2011
123 Dough and Cookie Decorating Techniques

This is a huge episode.  I wanted to put a lot of different techniques for decorating cookies into this video, figuring once I had all the icing made it would be easy, but it ended up being an all-day project.  It was all worth it though because now you all will have a variety of cookie techniques and styles available to you for your holiday cookie making!

In the video I make heart cookies for Valentine’s Day but also snowflakes because I think snowflake cookies look pretty and elegant.  While I go over several techniques for decorating the cookies there were only two icings I used: royal icing and American Buttercream.

Before I start describing the techniques in detail I want to go over a few other points.  The 1-2-3 dough is an excellent and reliable cookie dough and qualifies as a master recipe.  It is easy to make because “123″ is a ratio.  3 parts flour to 2 parts butter to 1 part sugar.  Then you add an egg for every pound of flour, and a little flavoring like vanilla extract.  Knowing this it’s easy to alter!  You can add different kinds of spices, or use half brown sugar, or use a different kind of flour.  You can even play with the ratios a bit and see what kind of cookies you’ll get.  Keep in mind the 1-2-3 ratio only works with weights not measurements.  This is because the ratio itself is in ounces and since each ingredient weighs a different amount the ounce ratio will be off.

As it is this dough is a very predictable dough.  It barely spreads so you can plan on the shape of the cookie being almost identical to the cut out.  Adding more butter to the ratio or adding baking soda or baking powder will alter that and will cause them to rise or spread more – so keep that in mind if you try to play with the recipe. Because of those qualities it also works great as a layer in a cake or as a tart shell.  In fact, this was the cookie dough we used in school as our fruit tart shell.

Also once the dough comes together it’s ready to use – you don’t need to rest it.  That being said, as I was quickly reminded in the video, a cooled dough is a little easier to work with.  When it comes out of the mixer it’s soft so it may be a little more susceptible to tearing and stretching.  I recommend making little discs of the dough and placing them in the fridge to cool.  This will stiffen up the dough allowing it to hold it’s shape better and be easier to handle.  You can also cut this cookie dough all the way down to the last cookie.  It is highly resilient and can stand the constant rerolling and kneading so feel free to use it all up.  You may end up throwing a small amount away because it will have absorbed so much flour from the work surface that it becomes tough.  Feel free to freeze this dough.  Use it within 3 months and you should be able to avoid freezer burn.

Sandwich cookies: One of the basic styles we used for decorating the cookies was to

Heart sandwich cookies with raspberry filling. Try putting a teeny heart in the middle of the big ones for a radiating effect

create sandwich cookies using a raspberry filling.  Remember that the raspberry filling I used is shelf stable meaning that it doesn’t need to be refrigerated.  Don’t try to use Smuckers or the jelly you use for your sandwiches because you’ll have to refrigerate your cookies.  As I show in the video the way to get powdered sugar on the top cookie without getting it in the filling is to bake each cookie separately (the one with the cut out and the one without the cut out).  Then sprinkle powdered sugar on the cookie with the cut out while you spread the filling on the whole cookie – sandwich the cookie with the cut out on top and you have a very professional elegant looking cookie.  Keep in mind that sandwich cookies can get soft really easily from the filling.  Handle them carefully, especially in the next couple of days.  If they are slightly under baked they will take on a cake-like texture and if they are slightly over baked they will be stronger.

Stained-glass window cookies: Another style of cookie decorating I used was

Use hard candies like rock candy or jolly ranchers that have been crushed up. Bake normally.

something I call window pane or stained glass window cookies.  All you have to do here is cut out a cookie with a cut out in the middle and place it on the sheet pan.  Then inside the cut out sprinkle in some smashed pieces of a hard candy (like rock candy or jolly ranchers).  You don’t need a whole lot, just enough to fill the space but not over flow it.  Then you just bake it like normal.  The temperature of the oven will melt the hard candy and when it cools it will solidify creating a transparent effect.  It gives the cookies a really neat dimension and makes your cookie recipients wonder how you did it!  One thing you should know is that I found that purple jolly ranchers turn almost brown in the oven.  So if you want to use purple try to find the lightest purple you can.  After the cookie cools it is easy to peel off.  If it sticks a little lift up the entire cookie along with the parchment paper, and peel back the parchment paper.  If you try to yank the cookie you may end up tearing it or shattering the candy center.

Cookie lollipops: AKA cookie pops.  Cookie pops are easy to make.  Take one cut out

Most lollipop sticks are somewhat heat resistant. Use two cookies sandwiched together to make cookie lollipop.

and place it on the sheet pan.  Then take the lollipop stick you want to use and press it slightly into the dough – just so it sticks.  You don’t want to actually force it into the dough.  Then place another cut out of the same thickness and size as the first cut out directly on top of the first cut out – creating a sandwich with the lollipop stick in the middle.  Make sure the lollipop stick is surrounded by dough by carefully pressing the top layer around the stick if necessary.  Then bake like normal.  Remember that because the cookies are layered it will take significantly longer to bake so if possible arrange these cookies closer to the top of the oven, double pan them, or place an empty sheet pan on the rack below them in the oven to prevent them from getting burned on the bottom while the top of the cookie bakes.  You can make stained-glass window cookie pops easily using 2 cut outs with cut outs inside them.  Once the cookie pops are cooled you can decorate them just like any other cookie.  Keep in mind that sometimes the lollipop sticks may not have baked into the cookies so bake more cookie pops than you need – of course as a baker you always bake more than you need, right?

Royal icing cookies: With those styles out of the way we can get into the nitty-gritty of

Start by piping a border with the royal icing. Some cookies look nice with only piping.

the decorating.  The majority of the cookies were decorated with royal icing.  The first step in decorating with royal icing is to pipe a border around the edge of the cookie.  You’ll want to use a wilton 2 or 3 tip for this – 3 is best because it creates a taller border.  You can pipe a straight border, beads, curves – whatever your heart desires.  Just keep in mind that sometimes a more ornate border with lots of curves might get lost when you flood the cookie.  As you’ll see in the video some of the smaller snowflake cookies and the teeny tiny hearts all I did was pipe the decoration on the cookie.  With the larger cookies you’ll want to do something called flooding.  Make sure that your border is good and dry before you try to flood the cookie – normally by the time you finish piping your borders the first cookie you piped is ready to flood.  To flood a cookie with royal

A variety of snowflake cookies using royal icing

icing, you need to thin it down with a few drops of water at a time until it becomes smoother and more runny.  You want it to resemble a pate a bombe or egg yolks at ribbon stage – when a spoon is lifted out of the icing and drizzles back into the pool of icing it should build upon itself slightly and in 7 to 10 seconds it should be completely absorbed back into the pool.  Once you have this consistency you need to pour it onto the cookie.  You can do this in a variety of ways.  You can use a squeeze bottle with a fine tip, a piping bag, or a spoon – depending on how narrow the space is you’re trying to fill.  For some of my smaller cookies I just kept the thinned icing a little on the thick side and scooped it with the chopstick I was using.  You don’t necessarily need to fill the entire cookie at this point – just enough to fill most of the space.  Then depending on how thin your royal icing is depends on how you finish the flood.  If your icing is really runny you may be able to fill in the space by just tilting the cookie around.  However, I suggest in all cases you use a toothpick or chopstick to push the icing around.  The first method (thinner icing and tilting the cookie) will be much faster and easier but can be messy.  The second method (using a tool) will be a little more precise but is incredibly time consuming.  Keep this in mind when you have a lot of cookies to decorate.  Also remember that the more water you added to your royal icing the longer it will take to dry.  After you flood the cookie you need to let them dry completely before you pipe on top of them – this could take 30 minutes or 2 hours.  While your cookie is still wet feel free to sprinkle on some sprinkles or edible glitter.  On some of my snowflakes I even pressed a blue m&m in the middle of it.

Scroll work: Once the cookie dries completely you can then pipe on top of it using the

Cookies decorated with royal icing. Piping and flooding techniques were used to make these.

same thick royal icing you piped the border with.  You don’t want your icing to be runny when you’re piping decorations otherwise it will just run together all lose it’s shape.  Keep in mind the dryer/thicker your royal icing is the more it will hold its shape but the harder it will be to pipe.  You need to find a happy medium between fluidity and stability.  Anyway, you can pipe any decoration your heart desires.  Popular decorations include conversation hearts (piping words like “I love you” on the cookie), piping little hearts, and piping something called scroll work.  Scroll work is a piping technique subset that is typically used for decorating wedding cakes.  Usually scroll work refers to ornate lace-like designs that really add to the level of elegance and complexity to your cookies or cake.  There are two styles of scroll work that I go over in the episode.  One style is a squiggle that you just randomly draw around the cookie.  Think of it as controlled mayhem.  You want the piping to be as random as possible but there is a method to it.  Generally with cookies I find that working around the edge and then going into the middle is the easiest.  You also want to try and switch up the direction and paths you take as much as possible – if you keep using the same bumps and curves it won’t look quite right.  On cakes it’s a little different because you’ll want to go up and down on the side of the cake while you’re turning the cake.

Another style of scroll work is a more purposeful pattern.  Here you draw a curly cue in

The top cookies are the more random scroll work pattern. The bottom two use the curly cue style of scroll work.

one direction and then reverse it when you draw the next curly cue.  Continue this pattern until you have finished the border of the cookie.  Then, for me anyway, in the middle you’ll want to try to have a purposeful mayhem approach.  You want it to be random but you don’t want to line up your curly cues with each other since it won’t look right that way either.  On wedding cakes you would use a larger style of this scroll work and then trace it with a shell border giving it a really opulent appearance – but on cookies a lace piped design is more than sufficient.  Remember that with scroll work negative space (the space where the background shows through) is just as important as the piping.  If you pipe too much you’ll have a busy look that doesn’t look elegant.  I found that piping either style of scroll work with a wilton 2 piping tip got the best results.  To help you all out I drew two diagrams of the scroll work I described here.  Practice tracing with a pencil to get the feel for it.  Remember that piping has thickness to it so if you draw it free hand with a pencil it may not look right since the lines are so skinny.  Once you start drawing on the cookie it will all come together.

Embellishments: Feel free to use dragees (dra-JHAYZ), sugar pearls, sprinkles, edible

Use dragees, sprinkles, glitter, and candy to add to your cookies

glitter, and candy (m&m’s for example) to give your cookies more character and personality.  Dragees are those silver balls you see on really elegant wedding cakes and cookies.  Dragees are technically not food safe – they are coated in a metal that is not really supposed to be eaten.  That being said, the dragees I used here are the same ones that generations have been eating for decades.  Eating a few here and there won’t hurt you – just promise you won’t start downing shaker after shaker of dragees.  Sugar pearls are the same as dragees except they have a candy coating instead of a metallic coating.  When it comes to cookies, I prefer to use sanding sugar sprinkles for decorating.  Did you know you can make your own sanding sugar sprinkles?  Take some

Top left clockwise: Snowflake with blue sugar pearls and a blue m&m, Large snowflake with cut out with metallic dragees, Small heart with sprinkles, Snowflake with fondant snowflake, Small heart with edible glitter, Medium snowflake with metallic dragees

uncolored medium grain sugar (you cannot use regular granulated sugar for this, it won’t look right) then add some gel food coloring.  Wearing gloves, work the color into the sugar by squeezing and rubbing the sugar in you hands.  Viola!  Colored sanding sugar.  If you make gum paste flowers then you’re already familiar with how to make edible glitter – don’t believe me?  Edible glitter is made by spreading a thin layer of water with gum paste gums (aka gum paste glue) and letting it dry.  Once dry you just crinkle and shatter the gum paste glue sheet and you have glitter!  When it comes to candy your imagination is your only limit.  I really wanted to use m&m’s minis but apparently they don’t make them anymore – or at least I wasn’t looking in the right place.  Try to go to grocery stores and candy stores that have a bulk section (Wegman’s is a good example) so you can get the exact colors and amounts that you want.

P.S. Ever wonder how to make sprinkles that are typically called jimmies?  Check out this blog post by Brave Tart.  The author uses super dry royal icing to make sprinkles and jimmies!

Fondant Embellishments: Fondant and gum paste decorations can really up the level of sophistication of your cookies.  The snowflakes have this embellishment added to them.  The gum paste was cut using a plunger style cutter so that it would cut crisply and leave an imprint on the center.  Remember to use a plunger style cutter you need to make sure it is dusted with powdered sugar or the fondant or gum paste cut out will not pop out.  To adhere the fondant decoration you can apply it while the royal icing is still wet, but I recommend waiting until the icing is dry and piping a little dot of royal icing to act as glue and stick the fondant decoration on.  Remember your fondant decorations also need to be completely dry before moving them.  You can create this 3D effect with royal icing too.  Pipe on a piece of parchment paper and allow to dry completely.  You should be able to pick up the decoration as a solid piece and you can adhere it using a dot of royal icing.

American Buttercream: I haven’t even talked about the other icing I used.  To be

Home style cookies iced and piped with American buttercream

honest I thought I would make most of the cookies using American buttercream.  I don’t have a lot of experience with royal icing – on the other hand when I worked at Wegmans all we used was a cookie icing similar to American buttercream.  However, once I got started with the royal icing I couldn’t stop.

Remember that we used American buttercream in the Haunted Graveyard Brownie episode?  There we called it grease cream because we used only shortening.  Using shortening gave us a lot of control over the consistency of the icing – but the taste may have been sub par.  In this episode we used a half butter half shortening ratio to help improve the flavor while sacrificing some (not all) of the control over the consistency.  Remember to adjust American buttecream’s consistency just add a few tablespoons (to the whole batch, drops if you’re only using a portion of the batch) of water.  Keep in mind that if you use butter or shortening that is yellow in color that your icing will have an off-white yellowish tint to it.  For a pure white American buttercream you will have to use only uncolored shortening.  This is a common contention with wedding cakes as brides want white white cakes but a buttery flavor.

Anyway, American buttercream is used a little differently than royal icing.  Instead of piping a border and flooding, the first step with this icing is to literally ice the cookie.  This is easier if you have a lot of practice with pallet knives or your offset spatula.  This style of decorating also gives you a more home style look – as opposed to the professional look of royal icing.  Once your cookie is iced you can embellish it with sprinkles.  You can decorate these cookies using the same techniques as above, though the royal icing will probably look a little smoother.  American buttercream has a little bit of a jagged gritty appearance that can be controlled with water.

Shell borders: A couple techniques you can do with buttercream that you can’t really do

Upper left clockwise: Standard shell border, reverse shell border with fleur-de-lis, reverse shell border with dragees, reverse shell border

with royal icing is piping shell borders and a fleur-de-lis.  You can pipe a regular shell border around the edge of the cookie (I found that using an ateco 820 or 821 tip got the best results) but I prefer to use a reverse shell border.  Reverse shell borders, especially on cookies, have almost like a “wreath made of roses” look to it.  A fleur-de-lis is a common cake decorating design that involves three shells.  Pipe two reverse shells facing away from each other.  Then right in the middle of them pipe a regular shell.

Royal icing versus American buttercream: So why would you want to use one icing over the other?  Here is a “side-by-side” comparison:

Royal icing dries harder so you can stack it, since you can stack it it travels and

Royal icing may not taste as great as buttercream, but it travels well and can be packaged.

packages easier and resists scratching, royal icing allows for more ornate decorations, spreads flatter and smoother, is easy to control the consistency with water since there is no butter in it, whiter in color because of that same reason, and it looks professional.

American buttercream crusts but stays mostly moist even if left out over night (it can become very hard over a few days but in general it stays soft) so it has a smoother mouthfeel when it comes to texture, it is easier to make since you don’t even have to crack an egg to make it, it has a better flavor if you use butter, allows you to pipe shell borders, and has a home style look to it with texture and depth.  American buttercream does not travel well because you cannot stack them so if you arrange a cookie tray, make sure these cookies are on top (as well as any cookies with powdered sugar decoration) so they don’t get squished.

Whew!  That was a ton of information, techniques, and styles to go over.  No wonder these cookies took me forever to make.  Hopefully these designs will inspire you and help you create those super elegant and tasty cookies you’ve always wanted to make.  Here’s the recipe for the 123 dough (I’ve attached the royal icing and American buttercream recipes for ease).  You can also download the royal icing or American buttercream recipe separately here or on the recipe page.  Don’t forget to download the royal icing scroll work templates – hopefully it can inspire you to try your own scroll work designs!  Remember that you can do scroll work with buttercream as well.  Enjoy the video below!  Thanks for watching!

UPDATE (10/23/12)

I recently posted a picture on my facebook fanpage of some Halloween pumpkin cookies I did for an order. The techniques I used to make them are pretty much identical to the ones used to make the hearts and snowflakes! That’s the great thing about a solid fundamental technique – pure flexibility. Again: Just pipe the outline on the cookie with a somewhat stiff royal icing (you don’t want it to run) then flood with royal icing that has a little more egg white in it. Allow it to dry and then pipe! For the jack o’ lanterns eyes you could even use yellow or red jollyranchers to do the window pane effect. Just a heads up with the black food coloring – it can bleed into the lighter colors pretty quickly. I knew that darker colors bled but I didn’t realize how quick the effect was. There are some work arounds – you could pipe the face parts on parchment and allow them to dry and then adhere them with a little royal icing. You could also make the face pieces using fondant – like how we did the snowflakes on some of the cookies. Some bakeries actually use specially made candy pieces but I seriously doubt those are readily available.

For the spiderweb pumpkin you’ll need a technique I don’t think I touched upon in this video (they are covered in the Aztec Chocolate Cake and Dessert Sauces episodeI also have an abridged version of the video here). Basically you flood the cookie with the looser royal icing then pipe a spiral of white of the same consistency in the pumpkin. Remember it is important the consistency is the same or the white spiral will not maintain its integrity and/or it won’t drag properly. After that simply pull a toothpick from the center of the spiral outward repeating over and over. It’s important to drag outward each time to create that spiderweb look (a similar design is a napoleon style design where you drag in opposite directions – an awesome effect but not what we’re looking for here). Afterward the center of the spiral will look pretty worn out – so let it dry and pipe a spider in the center of the spiral to cover it up giving it some eyeballs with dragees. My cookies are little matte because my royal was thinned out just a little too much – to ensure a more shiny finish (as seen with the jack o’ lantern cookies) try not to thin your icing out as much. It’s hard to avoid if you don’t make royal icing cookies often so don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get a nice shine – just tell everybody you were going for the matte finish. If they protest just say, “No cookies for you.” Check out the gallery for close ups of some of the Halloween cookies. Happy Halloween!

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Posted in Cookies, Icings, Master Recipes
13 comments on “Episode 36 – 123 Dough and Cookie Decorating Techniques
  1. Jason – thank you so much for your kind words on my blog. I’m pretty sure that honey bun cake isn’t sophisticated enough for you! :) You are amazingly talented and I love that you have instructional videos as well! And these cookies are so beautiful!

    • @Brandie – No way! Baking isn’t always about sophistication – sometimes it’s just about good honest tasty food. Check out my pies for example – not super sophisticated and they are some of my favorite to make because they are easy and TASTY! haha And trust me, I use box cakes sometimes too – just like many pastry chefs. Sometimes you just need that shortcut. Thank you for stopping by and checking out my blog too and thank you for your compliments! I look forward to more tasty treats from a fellow Virginian!

  2. Katrina says:

    I like the addition of snowflake cookies in your valentine’s mix :) Great tips too. I especially think the scrollwork ones are pretty.

  3. Lin Ann says:

    Amazing cookies! I’ll have to bookmark this for your great tips, which I really need!

  4. Cristina says:

    Muchas felicidades, desde Republica Dominicana (el Caribe), me encantaron las galletas, principalmente las que decoraste con los Jolly Rancher, estan preciosas y muy ingeniosas…


  5. Karen says:

    don’t get your 123-cookie-dough recepie… What means #1? (I googled a oz to grams convertor but he doesn’t recognize the #1 thing)


    ps: keep up the good work, very nice site & looooove the recepies!

    • @Karen – I’m glad you like the recipes and my site! I’ve been slacking a little on the site lately – I need to get back on it and continue making it more and more useful!

      # means pound – or 16 ounces. I’ve been writing it like that since school and I don’t even think about it anymore but I do realize many people don’t know what it means. I hope that helps!

  6. Bonnie says:

    Thank you for this wonderful blog on cookies. This has come in very handy for me this week…Keep up the great work.

  7. Shaku Prabhakar says:

    Jason, This was simply fantastic, I didn’t know it was so easy, lovely ideas, thanks for sharing your ideas. Looking forward to watching more of your baking & decorating skills

    • Thank you Shaku! I am not an artist by any stretch of the imagination so I can totally relate when people find it frustrating to create beautiful artistic baked goods. There are tons of simple techniques that create an impressive end products. I want to make baking accessible to anybody who is willing to learn because that’s just how baking should be. If you get a chance I’d love to see your finished work! Feel free to share photos on my page on Facebook!

  8. Kelly says:

    What an informative video! I loved all the ideas and different techniques shown. I make royal icing pretty frequently and I can tell you that it can taste very, very good if you add flavoring! I actually use 2 tbsp. in mine (1 tbsp. butter/vanilla and 1 tbsp. lemon) per batch that uses 2 lb. powdered sugar. It tastes fantastic! Royal icing with no flavoring is pretty gross. Just a suggestion. Again, this is some great info :)

3 Pings/Trackbacks for "Episode 36 – 123 Dough and Cookie Decorating Techniques"
  1. [...] topping, and a chocolate finish.  The shortbread cookie in this recipe is similar to the 1-2-3 dough shortbread in that it has very few ingredients.  However, this recipe does not have any eggs and includes [...]

  2. [...] like in the 1 2 3 dough and cookie decorating techniques episode, we used jolly ranchers to make a window pane effect.  On your side walls simply cut out a window [...]

  3. [...] This cookie is very similar to the 123 dough in several ways. First of all it contains nearly identical ingredients. Second it holds its shape very well so if you’re making cut outs this cookie is for you. Third, the cookie works, bakes, and tastes much better if it’s rolled thicker – about ¼” – just like 123 dough. Finally these cookies travel well because they are safe at room temperature and freeze well. [...]

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