Decorating sugar cookies with royal icing is a fun and creative way to get into the spirit of any holiday season. Click through this slideshow to learn tips and tricks for cookie success.
Sift the confectioner's sugar
Before mixing royal icing, it's important to sift the confectioner's sugar, to avoid having irritating little clumps of powdered sugar in the icing.
Combine ingredients and mix
Combine the sifted confectioner's sugar, water, and meringue powder (powdered egg whites) and mix on low to medium speed with the paddle attachment until the mixture has considerably thickened, and holds soft peaks. This will take about 7 minutes, with frequent bowl scrapings to ensure that all of the dry ingredients are evenly incorporated.
Always protect royal icing from air
After the icing is mixed, I like to divide the icing in half (keeping approximately half in the bowl) and then divide one half into smaller portions in sealed pint containers, one for each color that I'll need to pipe "walls".
Coloring the icing
I'll then mix gel color into each portion, using a little at a time. Pay attention to the gels that you buy. Most standard color sets will yield pastels, but you can buy darker shades that will produce more vivid results. Mix a little at a time to maintain control of the color.
Make icing for "flooding"
To make the watery icing that you'll use for "flooding" the cookies with color, begin adding a few tablespoons of water at a time to the remaining icing in the bowl. Mix on low speed and scrape down the sides and bottom frequently. Continue adding water gradually until the icing reaches a consistency that is just runny enough to spread with ease and flow out of a bottle or piping bag. Portion the finished icing into containers with airtight lids, just as with the thicker icing, and color as desired.
Setting up for decorating
Prepare your decorating space by assembling piping bags or squeeze bottles, decorating tips (I recommend Atteco sizes 1-4), scissors, containers of icing, and (if using) a plate or bowl and sanding sugars. Think about each cookie that you're planning to decorate. If you have a limited number of tips, you may need to use a few color combinations at a time. I highly recommend (though I did not have) using squeeze bottles fitted with fine tips for dispensing the flooding icing.
Work from a cooling rack
Set up a cooling rack containing cooled cookies to be decorated. As you work, the rack is a great place to put the decorated cookies, which will require drying.
Flooding method - begin by piping a wall
Using a thicker piping tip (I like Atteco 3 or 4 for this) Pipe a contiguous border around the cookie and add embellishments as desired.
Flooding method: Creating a barrier
As you pipe, make sure to keep the line at uniform height, and avoid leaving any gaps.
Flooding method: flooding with color
Once you've crated a wall, you can begin to fill in, or "flood" the empty space with the runny icing. For greater control, use the smallest piping tip possible, or a squeeze bottle with the tiniest possible opening. Allow the icing to flow into the crevices, but don't worry about getting the tip too close to the wall.
Flooding method: even out the color
Even out the icing by gently tilting the cookie, then fill in any remaining bare spots using a toothpick.
Decorating with sugar
Sanding sugar can be used to add sparkle and texture to the cookies. Simply sprinkle it over the top after piping the wall.
Decorating with sugar
Then, shake the excess sugar off onto a plate or bowl. The excess can be reused.
Sugar and flooding
These methods may be combined. If you wish, apply the sugar to the walls first, then flood the gaps between the walls with icing, just as before.
For decor, gifting, and eating
Cookie creations can be used in a variety of ways. Once the icing has fully dried, you can turn the cookies into edible tree ornaments by poking small holes into the cookies and then looping string through them. Or, package them up as a thoughtful, handmade gift.