Buttery sugar cookies with royal icing are the perfect canvas for holiday designs. Throw a cookie painting party for the kids (or yourself) by baking and icing the cookies the day before and supplying everyone with cookies, paint brushes and food colouring.
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1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup (205 g) sugar
2 tsp vanilla
2¼ cup (345 g) all-purpose flour
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
1/8 tsp salt
4 cups (445 g) icing sugar
3 tbsp meringue powder (available at stores that sell decorating supplies)
½ tsp lemon juice
½ cup warm water plus extra for flooding
In mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Scrape down sides of the bowl and beat in the egg and vanilla until completely combined.
In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Turn mixer on low and slowly add the flour. Continue to stir on low until a soft, sticky dough forms. Divide dough in half, flatten each half into a disc, wrap in plastic wrap and chill in the fridge 40 minutes.
Line cookie sheets with parchment paper and preheat oven to 350F.
Once dough is firm enough to roll out, dust countertop with flour and use a rolling pin to flatten to 1/4-inch thickness (keep the other disc cool in the fridge). Cut shapes out with cookie cutters and transfer to cookie sheets with a spatula. Repeat with remaining dough.
Place tray of unbaked cookies in the freezer to firm up 5-10 minutes to help them hold their shape while baking. Bake 6-10 minutes, depending on the size and thickness of the cookie, until light golden on the bottom and along the bottom edge. Cool on a wire rack.
In mixer bowl, stir icing sugar and meringue power until combined. Add lemon juice and warm water. Using the whisk attachment, mix on low to dissolve the sugar. Turn the mixer on high and whip until thick and glossy. Continue to whip on high until icing holds stiff peaks when you lift the whisk up. This should take about 5-7 minutes.
Transfer some royal icing to a piping bag fitted with a small round tip, or fill a disposable piping bag and cut a small hole at the tip. Cover the remaining icing with a damp paper towel to prevent a crust from forming.
Carefully outline each cookie with the icing. Keep the piping tip a few centimetres higher than the cookie to prevent squished or smudged borders. Allow to dry 15-20 minutes.
Stir water into the remaining icing 1 tsp at a time until it’s thin enough to smoothly flood the cookies. To test the icing’s consistency, lift up your spoon and let the icing fall back into the bowl. It should fall in a ribbon that sits on top of the icing for 8-10 seconds before melting into it. It usually takes 5-6 tsp of water. If the icing becomes too thin, whisk in icing sugar 1 tsp at a time until it thickens.
Pipe the thinned icing onto the outlined cookies and use a toothpick to move the icing to any missed spots. The icing will settle and smooth out as it sits. Allow cookies to dry until completely hard before painting (at least 2 hours up to overnight).
To paint the cookies:
Gel food colours (available at stores that sell decorating supplies)
Vodka or a clear flavoured extract such as almond extract
Small bowls or plates
Use your paint brush to spread a smear of gel colour onto a small plate or bowl. Add a drop or two of vodka or extract to dilute the colour (these are used instead of water because they evaporate quickly and won’t make the icing dissolve). Try polka dots and stripes, or get creative and paint faces, names and trees with tiny decorations.
Allow to dry for an hour before serving.