29 December 2019

Cookies and a year of learning a new skill

In December of 2018 I tried my hand at decorating sugar cookies with royal icing. It was my first time using piping bags and different consistencies of icing. Dear reader, it was fun.

an assortment of decorated Christmas cookiesfirst batch of cookies from December 2018

Soon after I went down a rabbit hole of blogs and Instagram videos and holy cow people are making some amazing edible artwork. In my spirit of trying all the things, I made my 2019 resolution to get better at decorating cookies.

I spent a year baking and decorating, trying to make a batch or two each month. I experimented with different recipes and techniques, tried my hand at custom cookie cutters, and ended the year with two big orders for paying customers.

You can jump to the recipes I landed on or see a timeline of all the cookies I made this year, but I also wanted to share some of the things I learned (which are super relevant to design/development or learning any new skill, really).

Utilize shared experience from the community

The cookie decorating world is very open source. Recipes, tips and tricks, and how-to videos are everywhere. We joke a lot about the stories you have to scroll through to get to a recipe, but I read through a lot and found a ton of helpful information.

I watched a bunch of Instagram videos and took a class at Smith-o-lator Cookie Shop in Mesa. Watching experienced folks do their thing helped me level up quickly. It’s very similar in the design and dev world. We like to say we’re self-taught, but a lot of us truly are community-taught.

Map it out

I’m usually a “let’s wing it and see what happens” kind of designer, but with cookies I really did better with a plan. Buying ingredients, chilling, baking, and mixing icing is a process that takes hours and was usually spread across a few days. There’s almost no ‘undo’ or ‘reset’ equivalent here. Makes you appreciate digital work for sure.

I’d make lists of what cookies to make, what icing colors I’d need, and, with some more complicated cookies, I drew things out to provide myself a guide. This was so effective, my husband (with no decorating experience) was able to make a pretty decent Baby Yoda cookie on his own.

Baby Yoda guide, my husband’s version, and my version

Slow down

Icing videos are super sped up and the rare realtime one still shows an experienced hand. It took me a while to find the right pace for me, which always ended up being “slower than you think.” If things started to feel difficult, it always helped to slow down and take my time.

A few icing behaviors I’m still trying to figure out are craters forming as the icing dries and icing colors bleeding into one another.

small icing indentations and color bleeding

Research and experimentation tells me it’s a combination of the chemistry of the icing recipe, how viscous you mix the icing, humidity (or in my case, lack thereof), and especially not waiting long enough for things to dry before adding another color. Patience is key!

Cookies are meant to be eaten

Cookie decorating is a decent developer experience vs. user experience analogy. Lots of people were surprised when my cookies tasted good. They’d say, “Pretty sugar cookies never taste good.” It makes sense to me now: almost every technique I found to make the cookies easier to work with or better looking made them taste worse.

Reducing the amount of butter made the cookies easier to cut, held shapes better, and reduced butter bleed (small amounts of grease seeping into the icing), but made them less delicious. Using meringue powder instead of egg whites made the icing so smooth to pipe but dried with a crispier, less pleasant texture. And surprisingly, lots of cookie decorators add corn syrup to their icing. If you see cookie icing that’s got a gorgeous sheen, it likely has corn syrup.

I decided to optimize for taste with the most natural ingredients I could. It made the decorating processs a bit more difficult, but is worth it!

Make all the mistakes

As with learning anything, I made so many mistakes. A cool thing about royal icing is it starts to dry immediately so you have a pretty small window of time to fix a mistake. After that, trying to fix it tends to make it worse. A nice built-in reminder to just accept mistakes and continue on.

This is a skill that requires a lot of hands-on practice and luckily every mistake or ugly cookie you make still tastes just as good.

Tips and tricks

Here’s the advice I can boil down to quick tips and tricks:

sheets of rolled cookie dough pressed between plastic wrapa plastic piping bag inside a glass

A year of progress

Here’s all the cookies I made this year. I can see steady improvement and where I took a few steps backward. I had a lot of fun and I think my friends and family liked this hobby too. Excited for all the cookies and progress I’ll make in 2020!

February 2019 - footballs, pretzels, ice creamMarch 2019 - basketballs, cactus, heartsApril 2019 - skateboards, Xbox controllersApril 2019 - Pop Tarts, paint palettes, unicornsMay 2019 - graduation caps and gowns, balloons, starsJune 2019 - elven lembas breadJune 2019 - yarn and goldfishJune 2019 - cactus, stars, and lemonsJuly 2019 - cacti in potsJuly 2019 - succulentsAugust 2019 - cacti in pots, ice creamOctober 2019 - fall leaves, ghosts, pumpkins, cauldronsDecember 2019 - Monomyth logomarksDecember 2019 - Christmas giftsDecember 2019 - Christmas cactiDecember 2019 - computer mouse cursorsDecember 2019 - meltmedia logomarksDecember 2019 - Baby YodasDecember 2019 - snowflakes, assorted Christmas cookies

Cookie and icing recipes

And finally after a whole bunch of other stuff, here’s the recipes I use.

Sugar cookies

Prep dough

Sift flour and combine with baking powder, salt, and cream of tartar in a large bowl. Set aside.

Crack egg into small bowl. Add vanilla and almond extracts and lightly beat. Set aside.

Cream butter and sugar in mixer on low-medium speed.

Add and mix in cream cheese.

Add egg mixture to bowl and beat on low-medium speed until combined.

Gradually add the flour to the bowl on low speed. Continue to mix until the dough starts to pull away form the sides of the bowl.

Divide dough into thirds. Using a roller, flatten each piece of dough to ¼ inch thick between two pieces of plastic wrap. Chill in the fridge for at least 2 hours.

Bake

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Cut out cookies and place on parchment-lined cookie sheets.

Chill cut cookies for an additional 5 minutes.

Bake 8-12 minutes, depending on size and shape of cookie. Remove cookies when you see the slightest hint of golden brown on the bottom edges.

Royal icing

Sift the powdered sugar into a large bowl. Add the salt and cream of tartar.

Add the vanilla and egg whites. Mix on low speed and scrape sides of bowl.

Once combined, continue to mix with increasing speed for 4-5 minutes. The icing should turn more opaque and white, with firm peaks.

Add more water to make the icing looser. Add more powdered sugar to firm it up.

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