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.”
Baggett’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.
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.
‘Au Naturel’ Confectioners’ Sugar Icings
Makes about 1/2 cup icing
Cookbook author and cookie maven Nancy Baggett is proud of this icing, which doesn’t rely on commercially made food dyes for its colors. “Simply by relying on the gorgeous natural colors of frozen (thawed) fruit juice concentrates from the supermarket … you can create a whole rainbow of tempting and tasty cookie icings,” she writes.
She’s also proud of the colorful homemade sprinkles that can be made from the same recipe. The sprinkles deteriorate in high heat and are best applied to cookies as they are being iced.
The optional meringue powder or dried egg white powder helps set the colors so contrasting shades don’t bleed together as the icing hardens. Meringue powder is sometimes sold with cake decorating supplies; many supermarkets stock Deb El Just Whites or another brand of pure dried egg whites in their baking aisle.
This recipe makes enough icing to generously decorate twelve to fifteen 2 1/2-to-3-inch cookies.
MAKE AHEAD: The icing can be refrigerated in airtight containers for up to 1 week. If it has thickened, thin with a small amount of water, stirred in thoroughly. The sprinkles can be stored in airtight containers for up to 6 months. Adapted from “Simply Sensational Cookies,” by Nancy Baggett (Wiley, 2012).
1 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted after measuring, if lumpy, plus more if needed
1 teaspoon commercial meringue powder or pure dried egg white powder (see headnote; optional; omit if preparing sprinkles)
1/2 teaspoon light corn syrup
2 tablespoons frozen (defrosted) cranberry, orange, Concord grape, raspberry-white grape or cherry-grape juice concentrate (or a combination), plus more if needed
1/2 to 3 teaspoons unsweetened natural (non-alkalized) cocoa powder or Dutch process cocoa powder, sifted after measuring, if lumpy (optional)
For each color of icing you want to make, vigorously stir together the confectioners’ sugar and the meringue powder, if using, in a small, deep bowl. Stir in the corn syrup. Add the juice concentrate (or a blend of concentrates) and stir until completely smooth. If a brown color or tint is desired, stir in cocoa powder as needed. You want a uniformly colored icing that’s thick enough to coat the cookie but not so thick that it’s hard to spread. Adjust the texture as needed by adding confectioners’ sugar, juice or cocoa powder, stirring to combine thoroughly.
Use a table knife, pastry brush or artist’s paintbrush to spread a thin, even layer of icing on the cookie. This is your base color.
To add details, stir in more confectioners’ sugar so that the icing has some body. Spoon the icing into a small cone of parchment paper with just the tip of the pointed end snipped off, or into a plastic food storage bag with the tip of one corner snipped off. (Don’t fill a bag more than half full.) Use the bag to pipe accents onto the cookies. If you want the accents to blend into the existing icing, pipe when the icing base is still wet; if you want them to stand out and hold their shape, wait until the base has dried.
To make homemade sprinkles, omit the meringue powder from the icing. Pipe very fine lines of icing onto a sheet of parchment, spacing them far enough apart so they don’t run together. Let the icing dry for at least 12 hours, or at least 18 hours if the weather is humid. Slide the parchment onto a cutting board and use a large knife or pizza wheel to cut across the piped lines, creating sprinkles that are 1/2 inch long or shorter. Let stand for at least 4 hours, then transfer to airtight containers and store in a cool spot, away from bright light, for up to 6 months.
Good and Easy Rolled Sugar Cookies
Makes forty to fifty 2 3/4-to-3 1 /4-inch cookies
These are good, basic sugar cookies that you can decorate for any occasion. The dough is easy to mix and cut out, and the cookies are pleasingly crisp.
MAKE AHEAD: The dough needs to chill in the refrigerator for at least 45 minutes or in the freezer for 25 minutes. The dough can be wrapped and frozen for up to 2 months.) Adapted from “Simply Sensational Cookies,” by Nancy Baggett (Wiley, 2012).
24 tablespoons (3 sticks) unsalted butter, slightly softened
1 2/3 cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract or lemon extract (optional)
4 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
Purchased or homemade sprinkles, colored sugar, glaze or frosting, as desired
Beat together the butter, sugar, baking powder and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer on medium speed until very light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in the eggs, vanilla extract and the almond extract, if using, until smooth and well blended, stopping the mixer to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.
Reduce the speed to low and gradually beat in about half of the flour. Beat or stir in the remaining flour to form a smooth, slightly stiff dough. If it is very soft, beat or stir in up to 4 more tablespoons of flour; if it is too dry to hold together, beat or stir in a little water, 1 teaspoon at a time. Let the dough stand for 5 to 10 minutes to firm up a bit.
Divide the dough into thirds. Place 1 portion of dough between 2 sheets of parchment or wax paper and roll out to a scant 1/4-inch thickness; check the underside and smooth out any wrinkles. Repeat to roll out the remaining 2 pieces of dough. Stack the 3 dough portions, still with their paper, on a baking sheet and refrigerate for about 45 minutes or until cold and firm; or freeze for about 25 minutes. (Alternatively, divide the dough into three pieces, wrap well and freeze for up to 2 months. Defrost overnight in the refrigerator.)
When ready to bake, position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Spray several large baking sheets with nonstick cooking oil spray.
Working with one portion of dough at a time and leaving the remainder in the refrigerator, place the wrapped dough on a work surface. Gently peel away the top sheet of paper, then pat it back into place. Invert the dough and peel off and discard what is now the top sheet of paper. Use 2 3/4-to-3 1/4-inch cutters to cut out the dough into your desired shapes. If at any point the dough softens too much to handle easily, return it to the refrigerator until firm again. Use a metal spatula to carefully transfer the cookies to the baking sheets, spacing them about 1 1/4 inches apart. Repeat to use all of the dough, re-rolling any scraps and refrigerating them until they are firm enough to cut out. If desired, add sprinkles or decorating sugars.
Bake 1 sheet at a time for 8 to 11 minutes or until the cookies are faintly colored on top and slightly darker at the edges, rotating the pan front to back about halfway through baking. Transfer the baking sheet to a cooling rack for several minutes, then use a spatula to transfer the cookies to the rack. Allow to cool completely before adding glaze, sprinkles or other decorations.
NUTRITION Per cookie (based on 50): 120 calories, 1 g protein, 15 g carbohydrates, 6 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 25 mg cholesterol, 35 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 7 g s