Decorated sugar cookies, done naturally

December 11, 2012

Put Nancy Baggett’s “au naturel” holiday cookies next to more-traditional ones, and the difference is hard to miss. Her cookies whisper with soft pastels; the others shout.

Baggett relishes the comparison. “Everybody else does the same-old, same-old: the bright Christmas green and Christmas red,” she says. “The fact that these are different makes them really eye-catching.”

The Ellicott City resident’s newest book, “Simply Sensational Cookies” (Wiley, 2012; on the Food section’s list of recommended cookbooks this year), introduces the au naturel method she’s so proud of. It’s cookie decorating for the rest of us — those who weren’t born with a silver piping tip in their hand.

Rather than tint icings with what she calls “commercial petrochemical food dyes,” Baggett uses the natural colors found in frozen fruit juice concentrate from the grocery store: orange, cranberry, Concord grape, raspberry-grape and more. For darker hues, she adds cocoa powder. The palette is muted but malleable.

“You can get some beautiful colors,” she says. “And not only that, all of these icings taste good,” with flavors that aren’t so strong that they compete with the cookie itself.


Good and Easy Rolled Sugar Cookies (Deb Lindsey/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

The juice-infused icing, which also includes confectioners’ sugar, corn syrup and sometimes meringue powder, can be spread over cookies with the aid of a regular table knife. Details can be drizzled or piped on with icing squeezed from a simple cone made of rolled-up parchment paper.

“I wanted it to be something that everybody could do: kids and grownups,” she says. “A kid can get a really nice result.”

She knows, because the icing and technique have the stamp of approval from her grandchildren, ages 10 and 8: “They get such a charge out of it.”

During a recent visit to The Washington Post kitchen, Baggett used a table knife to completely cover the top of a pumpkin-shaped cookie with icing; no fussy flood-and-fill piping for her, because it’s difficult for children — “and most adults can’t do it, either, unless they practice.” While the base coat was wet, she twisted parchment paper into a small cone, spooned in icing colored by cocoa powder, snipped off the bottom of the cone and piped accent lines onto the pumpkin. They smoothed out immediately, absorbed by the icing beneath, to create a perfectly smooth surface.

She used other homemade piping bags to demonstrate another of her favorite new things: homemade decorator sprinkles. Thin lines of icing, piped onto parchment and allowed to dry, are cut into tiny pieces and used as colorful toppings on just-iced cookies. They can be bottled and stored for as long as six months.

A sensitivity to red dye led Baggett to the fruit-based colorings. She says there are probably many other people with food sensitivities who would find her icings a godsend.

“Simply Sensational Cookies” is Baggett’s third cookie compendium. It’s packed with information about ingredients, equipment, techniques and trends. One useful tip (a little too complicated to reproduce here) tells you how to estimate the cacao percentage of a chocolate if it’s not listed on the label; a three-page section fields frequently asked questions and answers.

She’ll surprise many bakers with her assertion that the traditional creaming of butter and sugar in cookie recipes is no longer necessary; instead, she sometimes melts or partly melts the butter, then mixes in the other ingredients.

“The old-fashioned method is probably a holdover from the days before baking soda and baking powder came along (in the 1700 and 1800),” she writes. “Often, these leavening ingredients lighten cookies to the point that creaming is unnecessary.”

Had we known that earlier, maybe a lot of mixer motors — and elbows — could have been saved.

Nancy Baggett will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.

Good and Easy Rolled Sugar Cookies

‘Au Naturel’ Confectioners’ Sugar Icings

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