[Photographs: Carrie Vasios]

I took Santa very seriously as a child. I always wrote him a letter—you know, just to check in, say hi, and methodically list what gifts I hoped to receive. One year my letter was actually intercepted by the US Postal Service and they sent me some of the items on my list—my parents had a tricky time explaining why the US government had stolen my letter and how Santa had managed to know what I wanted anyway.

Santa's cookie plate was no small deal. We always baked about 4 dozen sugar cookies, which my sister and I (and a gaggle of invited friends) would decorate with royal icing and sprinkles. I'd hand pick the ones that went out for Santa, leaving a bowl of water and a cup of carrot sticks on the side for the reindeer.

Though a far less personal email has replaced my Santa letter, I continue to bake these cookies every year. I also continue to invite friends over to decorate them. It's pretty hilarious to watch grown up people attempt to paint cookies, and with some boozy hot chocolate, Christmas carols, and secret Santa-ing, it's one of my favorite days of the year.

While the fun of decorating the cookies is more important than producing Martha Stewart-style masterpieces, here are my tips for holiday cookie baking.


Baking Tips

The dough for these cookies is a little sticky when it's first put together, so make sure you leave the dough in the fridge for at least one hour. (Overnight is a possibility too. If it's too hard to roll out right away, just give it 15 minutes to warm up on the counter.) Before rolling out my cookies, I generously flour my work surface. Then I roll, lift, flour, flip, and repeat quite a few times to get the dough to the desired thinness, which is about 1/8th-inch thick. These are meant to be thin, crispy cookies. (You could use them as ornaments, but I personally prefer to eat them.)

I have a ton of cookie cutters in all shapes and sizes, and I hope you do too. But be aware that the cookies will cook at different times—try to group similarly sized shapes on the same cookie sheet.

If you can, invest in a pastry scraper—it will make transferring the cookies infinitely easier. I like a spatula-shaped version like this one, because it's easier to handle smaller cookies. Are you making a lot of cookies but don't have a ton of space to spread out cooling racks? A tiered cookie rack will help you out.

Decorating Tips:

Now comes the fun part. Royal icing is a snap to put together, requiring just confectioners sugar and egg whites. I mix up the white icing, then divide it among bowls. Each bowl gets a few drops of different food coloring. Think about which colors you might use most (that'd be red, green, and white in my house) and make a little more of those.

I use cheap paintbrushes (available online, at any arts and crafts store, or at many drug stores) for detail decorating and cheese knives (yup, you read that right—they tend to be short but wide) for painting larger surfaces. Your fingers will probably get a little sticky, which can make adding sprinkles difficult. I'd recommend keeping a few damp paper towels nearby. Speaking of which, if you're placing your finished cookies on cooling racks, put some paper towels underneath first—it will save you time in clean up.

These cookies transport well as long as they're completely dry. The icing will take an hour or two to harden, so if you have friends taking their artwork home, plan on a post-decorating cup of eggnog or two.

Get the Recipe

Decorated Holiday Sugar Cookies »

About the author: Carrie Vasios is the editor of Serious Eats: Sweets. She likes to peruse her large collection of cookbooks while eating jam from the jar. You can follow her on Twitter @carrievasios

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