Even in the middle of her most extreme, raw-only, ultra-hippie phases, my mother would always make an allowance for sugar when it was time to decorate Christmas cookies to hang on the tree. Each year, she'd bake cookies shaped like men and ladies, rocking horses, and reindeer, and my sister and I would go to town decorating them with as much icing as was humanly possible to layer upon each one. How these cookies looked mattered not to such sugar-deprived children. The strategy was wholly based on our plan to sneak the cookies off the tree systematically throughout the season, ensuring the best sugar rush.
For all of her healthy intent, my mother didn't make her own icing back then; she opted for the frosting bought at the grocery store that came in tubes, like toothpaste. It wasn't until I became obsessed with cookbooks in college that I learned about royal icing and its limitless decorating possibilities.
Royal icing, at its most basic, is a mixture of confectioner's sugar, liquid, and food dye. The type of liquid depends on taste, most contain at least some water, and many folks like to add lemon juice, extract, or (for the grown-ups) booze for flavor. A little goes a long way with flavoring, but the major drawback to using it is that it can affect the color of the icing. The coolest thing about working with royal icing is that using it for decorating usually requires making it with two different consistencies; one with less liquid for creating "walls" and another used for "flooding".
After a little practice, it's easy to get the hang of decorating with royal icing, and the sky is the limit with the different ways you can use it, whether you decide to create lots of intricate webbing to flood with color, adhere sugar to the pattern, or allow different colors to bleed together circa 1960's tie dye. It's a fun activity for getting into the holiday spirit, and the cookies make awesome homemade gifts, party treats, and of course, decorations for the tree.
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About the author: Lauren Weisenthal has logged many hours working in restaurant kitchens and bakeries of Brooklyn and Manhattan. She is a graduate of the Artisan Bread Baking and Pastry Arts programs at the French Culinary Institute. You can follow her on Twitter at @evillagekitchen.