As I was saying yesterday, my thing for sugar happened somewhere way back. Could it have anything to do with an incident that took place when I was hiked up on my father’s shoulder at a Buck Owens concert when I was a very small child? Buck Owens himself (brace yourself: of Hee Haw fame) came over to us and gave a little shake to my white patent leather shoe: “Hey there Sugar Shoes!” he said in his long southern drawl. The name stuck. I like to think sugar-love is in my genes, right there along with the kibbe and za’atar. One of my grandmothers, Alice Abowd, loved cake decorating with a passion, and finally found time to take it up later in life. Her hands were so arthritic, my mom says, that she could hardly squeeze the piping bag. But she did do it, and made what to me was the most beautiful cake I’d ever seen (next to the Necco house cake) for my brother Chris’s First Communion.
That must have been the moment I started studying the piping pages of Betty Crocker, dreaming of the cakes I would someday decorate. My mother has kept many nostalgic treasures from her mother—the diamond lavalier, the set of rose china and the blue china we use in Harbor Springs (she received the china from the bank where she opened an account…), the black plush velvet cape from my grandmother’s winter wedding. The best of the stash, though, is Grandma Abowd’s set of cake decorating tools. I absconded with them from my mom’s kitchen long ago, and I’ve had them with me in Chicago, in San Francisco, and now up north, knowing that my time would come to use them and until then just enjoying their presence on my pantry shelf.
The time did come last week, when I put Grandma’s kit to use for the first time to pipe the wedding cake sugar cookies I’d determined to make for the bridal shower for my brother’s fiance. I decided I ought to plan out my designs, drawing some ideas and then practicing on waxed paper. As I changed out the tiny-holed tips, I found it impossible to clean the icing from them. I ran over to the kit and saw two small pipe cleaner-like brushes…so thaaaaat’s what those are for, I thought. They worked great, even after a 40-year hiatus.
That’s when it hit me that what I was doing was much more than just satisfying a creative urge. After all, I could have done lots of other things, including, as my mom suggested, buying some chocolates for everyone and putting them in nice little boxes and calling it a day. What I was doing was akin to what I do when I write stories, or when I interview my elders about what went on back in the day with all of the people I didn’t get to know first-hand: I see the way the piping, or the story, or the photo, can be so beautiful, and I want to recreate it and experience the pleasure of creating something beautiful myself. The piping led me to the kit, which led me to conversations with my mother about Grandma’s enormous creativity, which led me to memories of cookbooks and cakes and photos in the old family albums, which led me to this page where I wanted to capture it, and share it with you. “There are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up a pen to write” (that’s Thackeray). It’s true of writing, but I think we could exchange “taking up a pen to write” with “taking up a bag to pipe”…or even better, “taking up a kitchen to cook.”
Oh, I almost forgot the most important part: the shower! It was one of those gatherings that fills you with the sense that you are part of something much larger, a history, and in our case a history of great, strong women. Among them are the women who have given my generation no fewer than 70 first cousins, the women who have supported one another through crisis and calm, the women who are sometimes the quiet (well, not the cousins; we are never quiet) but always the solid backbone of their families. Laughter floated over every table, and if I could give you verbatim the remarkable words my sister stood up and gave off the cuff, or the words the bride-to-be gave in the same way, or the food- and-family talk that pervaded much of the conversation, I would (cousin Teresa said of gathering her kids for meals: “if you cook it, they will come.”). One of the servers at the luncheon happened to be Lebanese; she commented as we left that “you can always tell a group of Lebanese women because their talk is so … humble.” Suffice it to say that there was something palpable among us, and that something was love.
Cut out Cookies with Royal Icing Do’s and Don’ts
The cookies themselves went through a few iterations before I landed on the best outcome. I was looking for cut-outs that would hold their shape, and sugar cookie flavor that was more than edible. My first experimental batch was taste-tested by my nephew John. He’s five and a cookie monster. I’ve seen him eat some pretty questionable packaged cookies from the grocery store, so I wanted to get his reaction to these. He took one bite and ran away to play hockey. I chased him with the cookie and asked him ever so sweetly and perhaps with a hint of desperation in my voice if he wanted the rest. No, he said matter-of-factly, but could he have a different treat? I’d better change direction on the cookies. Not only had I under-baked them in an effort to keep their shape, I double-salted them by using the salted butter that was already on hand as well as some of the salt called for in the recipe. No no; and I know it’s a no-no but for some reason that day I ignored what I knew (not the first time I have ignored what I know to no good end).
Here’s the deal: if you want to bake these cookies, you’ve got to plan ahead so you can chill the dough. Three times. You thought three times was a lot for washing parsley for tabbouleh so you washed yours only once or twice? Well this three times warning is serious; if you don’t do it, the butter will be too soft and your cookies will spread and lose their shape. It just dawned on me that some people may not care if the cookies spread and lose their shape. In that case, you don’t have to chill the dough three times.
Here’s the other deal: if you don’t want to outline, flood, and pipe your cookies with royal icing, you can just sprinkle colored baking sugar on top. It looks nice and as long as the cookies taste great, guys like little John don’t notice the difference, you can count on that.
After each application of royal icing, the icing has to dry and set. The flooded icing that fills the cookie should rest overnight in a cool, dry place. Mine were lined up like tidy soldiers on my counter. I didn’t notice that many of them were directly under the window, which is 100 years old and leaks air and condensation painfully well. No fewer than 10 of my 50 cookies were pitted across what the night before was a perfect layer of flooded royal icing. Good thing I was alone, because what came out of my mouth when I saw them would not have been appreciated by my mother or anyone else for that matter, especially because it was in reaction to cookies, not war, death, destruction. I tried smoothing these with a damp fingertip and that helped, but taken too far it just dissolved the icing altogether. That made for a very nice mid-morning tea and cookie break, so it can’t hurt to have a few wrecked cookies in the mix for just such a purpose.
The cookies can be stored in an airtight container for many days. I kept a cookie or two out of the container all week and tasted each day to be sure they hadn’t gone stale, and they were good all week. In fact, I just ate a leftover cookie last night that was decent; that’s nine days. I transported the whole team downstate on numerous cookie sheets wrapped with plastic wrap. I should always drive around with decorated cookies in the car because they ensure the kind of careful driving that would no doubt prevent a lot of accidents, even if that same driving incites other motorists to honk at you or worse. Every morning leading up to the shower I went out in the garage, where the sheets of cookies were kept, to be sure they hadn’t gotten damp. One night I dreamed that all of the piping melted away from the rain.
As for piping: hold and squeeze the bag with your dominant hand; the other hand is just a guide. Stop squeezing the bag before you pick up the tip from the icing you’ve piped. Practice your design before piping it on the cake. Be prepared for sore hands at best, carpel tunnel at worst, because all that squeezing hurts. Turn back the edges of the piping bag and rest it in a tall glass or your hand while you fill it with icing. Disposable piping bags make the process and clean-up that much easier.
Cut-out Sugar Cookies with Royal Icing
These make excellent Valentine or holiday cookies, cut in any shape you like and decorated with colored royal (or buttercream) icing or colored sparkling sugar. The cookie recipe comes to me from my dear friend Rebecca, who I met in culinary school and who happened to be making these cookies for her son’s birthday at the same time I was making them for the bridal shower. She found the recipe in the book Confetti Cakes for Kids. The recipe can be doubled easily, just divide the dough in two before the chilling and rolling process.
For the cookies
3 cups (11 oz.) all-purpose flour (preferably unbleached)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
6 oz. unsalted butter, softened
½ cup (4 oz.) sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
Sift or whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt to evenly distribute the ingredients.
In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the butter until soft. Add the sugar and mix until light and fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla and mix on medium speed until combined. Be sure to stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl all the way down to the bottom to ensure even mixing as you go.
Turn off the mixer and add half of the flour. Mix on the lowest speed with very brief on-off turns until it is just incorporated, then on low until you can no longer see any flour. Add the rest of the flour in the same manner, mixing just until combined.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface (it will have many crumbs) and push together into a ball. Flatten the ball into a disk and cover with plastic wrap. Chill for 30 minutes.
Roll out the dough evenly to ¼ inch thick between two pieces of parchment paper. The thickness of the cookie is important especially if you are going to decorate with royal icing. You may need to hold the parchment in place with something heavy (or another set of hands if someone is around) as you roll. Chill the rolled out dough between the parchment on a baking sheet for at least one hour.
Remove one of the sheets of parchment from the rolled dough and cut out the cookies, arranging the cutter as close as possible for each cut to maximize the number of cookies out of each roll-out. The less the dough is handled, the more tender the cookie will be. Do pull up the remainder dough after the cutouts have been lifted to a parchment lined baking sheet. Chill the remainder dough in a plastic wrapped disc and repeat the process.
Transfer the cut-out cookies to a parchment lined baking sheet. Chill the cutouts on the baking sheet for 15 minutes in the freezer or 30 minutes in the refrigerator.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Gently press decorating sugar into cookies now if using. Bake the cookies until light golden brown. The large wedding cake cookie took 17 minutes to bake properly; smaller cookies may take only 10 minutes. Watch them closely and turn the sheet as needed for even baking.
Cool the cookies on wire racks completely before decorating.
For the Royal Icing
4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
3 tablespoons meringue powder (find it online or at craft stores)
6-10 or more tablespoons warm water
Mix all ingredients on low speed using the whisk attachment in a standing mixer, until stiff peaks form.
Different consistencies of icing are needed for various tasks: thicker icing is necessary to pipe the outer edges of the cookie and to decorate the top, but not so thick that you can barely squeeze it out of the piping bag. Thinner icing is necessary to flood the cookie with icing—the icing should run in a ribbon off of the whisk into the bowl of icing, forming a line that stays on top of the icing briefly before sinking in.
If you are coloring the icing, divide it into bowls at this stage and add very small amounts of coloring at a time (a little goes a long way). Adding a small amount of brown to any color can give it depth. Be sure to keep the icing covered directly on the surface with plastic wrap at all times, or a skin will form. The icing will keep in the refrigerator for several days; be sure to reconstitute it by stirring it vigorously and adding a touch of warm water as needed.
To spread or ‘flood’ the outlined cookie with icing, spooning it on and pushing it into the corners with the back of the spoon rather than piping it makes the flooding easier to control, I found. Let the flooded icing dry on the cookies overnight in single layer in a cool, dry place.
Pipe your decoration on the cookies, first practicing your design on waxed paper. Let the piped design dry before handling the cookies.