Last year, following the step-by-step advice in a well-known cooking magazine, I decorated a batch of holiday cookies. My efforts yielded a ghastly mess of smeared, melted, and clotted sugar.
This year, I headed over to the local Sur la Table store to take a class from a professional cake and cookie decorator. It was a revelation, and the revelation was three-fold: icing ingredients, decorating equipment, and basic technique.
Ingredients Last year, I’d mixed up a batch of royal icing, divided it in three, added liquid food coloring, and got to work. Bzzt! Wrong move. Instead of liquid food coloring, I should have blended in coloring in paste from, available at cooking stores. I’d also used decorating gels, pre-mixed, in tubes from the supermarket. Wrong again. Gels (as I discovered) melt and blur. You need to prepare your own icing, and fine tune it (adding water or confectioner’s sugar) to the right consistency.
And, as it turns out, there are two consistencies. The thick one, which I was familiar with, is for outlining. The other (very liquid) is for “flooding,” a technique explained below.
Equipment One of my frustrations last year was the discovery that I needed not just one bag for piping the icing, but several — one for each color I was working with. The Sur la Table instructor showed us how to turn zip-closure plastic bags (freezer grade) into quick, cheap pastry bags by making a tiny snip in one corner, adding a piping tip, and then filling with frosting.
Toothpicks (round ones) also turned out to be an important tool. They are used for plugging the tips of the piping bags to prevent drying out and/or leaking as you work. And they are used for making designs in the flooding icing, much the way a barista makes designs in espresso foam.
Technique The outlining technique, using firm, thick icing, was what I had previously mistaken for simple decorative lines. As it turns out, the outline of firm piped icing serves as a dike to contain the large, smooth swatches of “flooded” color (see the snowman, or the green ornament, in the photo; click for a larger version). Instead of trying to smear thick icing around with a tiny offset spatula as I had last year, we simply squirted the thin icing into the outlined area, nudging it around a bit with the piping tip, and it melted into place.
A second, very elaborate-looking technique involved taking advantage of the melting property of the soft icing. A dot or a stripe of soft icing is piped directly into a lake of soft color (see ornament and stocking top), where it melts flush to the first color. Then, a clean toothpick is used to marble the two colors into a design (see top of bell). This technique was also used to transform a red dot on the gingerbread man’s vest into a heart.We also learned to use the firm icing as glue for attaching the candy cane (stocking) and miniature candies (eyes on the gingerbread man).There were 16 people in the class, and by the end of the two hours, every one of them was creating bakery-quality cookies.
Want to try the dual-icing technique? Here are some online recipes and guidance from Country Living (good recipes and detailed instructions) and Epicurious.com (nice pictures of decorating technique).