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The Artistry That Goes Into a Cookie

By Staff Favorites
Wednesday, December 15, 2004; Page F04

An occasional series in which staff members share a recipe that we turn to time and again:

To be a real artist during the height of fancy cookie season would seem a blessing, no? Forces of creativity concentrated on canvases the size of gingerbread men, and the wherewithal to acquire the right tools for the job, can produce one heck of a decorated confection. But then again, such an artist might be so good at this craft that recipients of her cookies would find them too beautiful to eat.

Such is the manageable tsuris of Linda M. Brooks, an abstract painter and printmaker who began making and giving away her special sugar cookies almost a decade ago. She and her husband lived in the Spring Valley area of Washington for 13 years; now they live in Seattle, and she ships some of her 250 edible works of art to friends in D.C. annually.

In the spirit of the season, I'm sharing my box with you.

Brooks's roll-out sugar cookies are shaped both by the intricate cutters she has found at annual fairs in Waterford, Va., and the design theories she applies through the use of a five-color frosting palette and five sizes of cake-decorating tips. Her cookies are as thin as they can be, without trace of brown edges, their tops smoothed by an imperceptible matte glaze that goes on before the final flourishes. Those fanciful flourishes resemble low-key Mackenzie-Childs patterns in 3-D.

Still, one of her neighbors strings Brooks's cookies on fishing line and festoons her front windows at holiday time, while another, age 90, has saved the very cookies Brooks made for her eight years ago.

"But the cookies taste as good as they look. I wish people wouldn't save them!" the 59-year-old artist says with slight exasperation. People have told her that her sugar cookies are the best they've ever tasted.

Brooks got the basic dough recipe from her sister several years back, and prefers its combination of baking soda and cream of tartar to more standard sugar-cookie versions that rely on a baking soda-baking powder axis.

She first rolls out the dough on a lightly floured cotton cloth to a thickness of no more than half an inch, so that her chilled, pre-bake rollout will more easily yield the quarter-inch thickness she's after. She bakes two sheets' worth at a time, rotating front to back, top to bottom if necessary. Brooks relies on a timer set at the halfway mark of four minutes or so, and watches through the oven window for the remaining few minutes.

After the cookies are cooled and glazed with a thinned royal icing (the latter a step she says is key to give the decorations something to adhere to and for evening out the cookie's creamy color), she develops five decorating colors and fills plastic pastry bags with the icing. Brooks uses twist-ties to close off the ends of the bags so that icing does not squish up and out, and plastic couplers that make it easier to change the tips. She's mindful to create dots without "tails" and to combine pleasing per-cookie palettes: four warm colors and one cool color, or three cool colors or a warm color and white, and so forth. She never pipes the outline of the entire cookie, and she likes to repeat small shapes on the same cookie.

She has spent as long as 30 minutes on each of her outstretched-palm-size "place card" cookies, for which her husband, Michael, fashioned tabletop holders from bits of trim and dowel.

Brooks is a firm believer in the power of freezing baked goods in heavy plastic containers, which frees her to start the process in October; otherwise, she says, she wouldn't get them done in time for Christmas. She has not frozen this dough, but she reports that if it's wrapped in plastic, between layers of wax paper, the dough will last in the refrigerator for at least two weeks.

Tips she's happy to pass along:

• Use gel colors, and don't be afraid to mix different colors to create your own shades.

• Don't fill the frosting bags more than two-thirds full. If the decorating tip becomes clogged, hold it in hot water for a few seconds and then test the flow on a sheet of waxed paper before returning to the cookie surface.

• Line gives order to the design; the cookie isn't as interesting- looking without some line. Use a series of lines, either straight or with a crosshatch effect.

• Mix bigger dots (made with Nos. 2 and 3 tips) with small dots (No. 1 tip).

The cookie recipe is simple enough; will the artwork of our Ms. Brooks inspire you to give memorable masterpieces of your own -- or keep them?

Linda's Best-Tasting Sugar Cookies

About 40 cookies, or

20 to 25 place card cookies

This recipe is about one-sixth the size of the batch that Linda Brooks makes each year. It can easily be multiplied.

For the cookies:

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus additional for the baking sheets

1 1/4 cups granulated sugar

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting

For the glaze/icing:

4 egg whites (or the equivalent of in powdered egg whites)

8 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted

6 drops of glycerin (optional, for glossy icing)

For the cookies: In the large bowl of an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the egg, vanilla and almond extracts and beat until combined.

Meanwhile, in a separate bowl or on a sheet of wax paper, combine the baking soda, cream of tartar, salt and flour. Reduce the speed to low and slowly incorporate the dry ingredients into the butter-sugar- egg mixture until well blended. Halve the dough and wrap each portion in wax paper, flattening it out to about a half-inch thick. Chill the dough sections for at least 1 hour. (If the dough is to be refrigerated longer, wrap it in plastic wrap in addition to the

wax paper.)

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Using 1 portion of the dough at a time, roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface to a thickness of no more than 1/4 inch. Cut out cookie shapes and place on a lightly buttered baking sheet. Two sheets can be baked at a time. The cookies will puff slightly but relax just before they are done. Bake for a total of 7 to 10 minutes; about halfway through the baking time, you may need to switch positions of baking sheets or turn them back to front to allow for even baking. Cool cookies on a wire rack.

For the glaze/icing: In the large bowl of an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat the egg whites or egg white mixture until stiff but not dry. Reduce speed to low to add confectioners' sugar, 1 cup at a time, alternating with the glycerin, if desired. Beat for 2 to 3 minutes more. If icing is too thick, add 1 teaspoon of water at a time; if it's too thin, add more sugar.

In a small separate bowl, place about 1/2 cup of the icing mixture and make it thin enough so that the glaze is translucent when spread with a pastry brush on a cooled cookie, about the consistency of cream. This bit is a little tricky. If the mixture is too wet or applied too thickly, it won't dry properly on the cookies. Let dry for 10 to 15 minutes. Using food-coloring gels, mix desired colors with the remaining icing mixture. Fill pastry bags fitted with decorating tips and decorate cookies.

Per cookie (without icing based on 40): 97 calories, 1 gm protein, 12 gm carbohydrates, 5 gm fat, 18 mg cholesterol, 3 gm saturated fat, 46 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber

-- Bonnie S. Benwick

© 2004 The Washington Post Company