Decorating holiday cookies with candy and imagination

Newsday food columnist Lauren Chattman shares five easy ways to make your cookies look festive for the holiday season. Videojournalist: Randee Daddona (Nov. 19, 2013)

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This is the time of year when accomplished home bakers get to show off their skills by turning out bakery-quality cookies to give as gifts and serve at holiday parties. And for the once-a-year cookie-makers, it's time to use whatever tricks and shortcuts can be gleaned.

Use the following easy tips and recipes to produce surprisingly impressive holiday cookies, even if you've never held a pastry bag and don't know the difference between royal icing and rolled fondant.

Melt some chocolate Dip a fork in some melted chocolate and wave it back and forth over your dulce de leche thumbprint cookies for an instant decoration. The melted chocolate also serves as glue for some elegant (and edible) gold star sprinkles.

Don't forget the candy Candy is a lifesaver for those with poor piping technique. Deployed strategically, crushed candy canes, Hershey's Kisses and gumdrops can add visual appeal to otherwise plain cookies. Use seasonal green, white and red M&M's to give chocolate biscotti some graphic punch.

Shop the craft store Places such as Michael's and A.C. Moore are well-stocked with sprinkles and nonpareils in holiday shapes and colors. Wilton Candy Melts, which are like large chocolate chips and come in a variety of flavors and colors, are an easy way to coat cookies. You can also find stencils, lollipop sticks, and packaging materials to decorate your cookies with ease.

Skip the baking altogether

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Don't know how to bake? That shouldn't stop you from making gift-worthy holiday cookies. No-bake coconut Christmas mice, with licorice whip tails, are preschool-level easy and extra cute.

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NO-BAKE COCONUT CHRISTMAS MICE

1 (14.3-ounce) package golden Oreos or other vanilla sandwich cookies

4 ounces cream cheese, softened

1/2 teaspoon coconut extract

1 cup shredded coconut

1 cup white chocolate chips or white Wilton Candy Melts

About 40 sliced almonds

Green and red sugar pearls

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1 long, skinny red licorice whip, cut into 3-inch lengths

1. Place the cookies in the workbowl of a food processor and process until ground into coarse crumbs. Add the cream cheese and coconut extract and process until a rough dough forms. Refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour.

2. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Use a small cookie scoop to form into about 20 balls. With moistened palms, gently roll balls between your palms to make pointed ovals. Place on prepared cookie sheet.

3. Wash and dry the workbowl and process the coconut until it is finely chopped. Transfer to a shallow bowl.

4. Place the white chocolate chips in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave until 75 percent melted. Stir until smooth. Use a small offset spatula to coat 1 of the cookie balls with the white chocolate. Sprinkle with coconut. Insert 2 sliced almonds into top of cookie for ears, press 2 green sugar pearls into cookie for eyes, and press 1 red sugar pearl into pointy end of cookie for nose. Push one end of a licorice piece into tail end of cookie. Repeat with remaining cookies.

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5. Cover the cookie sheet with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 3 days until ready to serve. Makes about 20 cookies.

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STENCILED GINGERBREAD

1/2 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter

1/2 cup sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 cup dark (not light or blackstrap) molasses

1 large egg

1 tablespoon white vinegar

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus a little more for rolling

1/2 cup white chocolate chips or green Wilton Candy Melts

Cookie stencils from craft store

Nonpareils for sprinkling

1. In a large mixing bowl, combine the softened butter and sugar with an electric mixer on medium-high.

2. Add the baking powder, ginger, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and cloves, and beat until incorporated.

3. Add the molasses, egg and white vinegar and beat until smooth, scraping down the sides of the bowl once or twice, as necessary.

4. Add the flour, 1 cup at a time, and mix until incorporated. Scrape the dough onto a sheet of plastic wrap and press into a rough square. Wrap tightly and refrigerate for at least three hours and up to 3 days.

5. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Cut away 1/4 of the dough and rewrap the rest in plastic. With a lightly floured rolling pin, roll out the smaller piece of dough on a lightly floured surface to 1/4-inch thickness. Cut the dough into 3-inch circles. Place the cookies on the prepared baking sheet. If you are making these as ornaments, cut a hole at the top of each cookie with a drinking straw.

6. Bake the cookies until they are firm, 8 to 10 minutes. Slide the entire parchment sheet with the cookies onto a wire rack and let the cookies cool completely. Repeat with the remaining dough and then with the chilled scraps, using fresh parchment paper.

7. Place the chocolate chips in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave until 75 percent melted. Whisk until smooth. Place a cookie stencil over a cookie. Use a clean paint brush or pastry brush to brush some melted chocolate on the cookie. Sprinkle the chocolate-covered area with nonpareils. Carefully lift stencil from cookie. Repeat with remaining cookies. Let stand until set, 30 minutes to 1 hour. Makes about 45 cookies.

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DULCE DE LECHE THUMBPRINTS

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

2/3 cup firmly packed light-brown sugar

1 large egg

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 cup pecans, toasted and finely ground (using a food processor)

1/2 cup dulce de leche

1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Edible gold stars or coarse gold sanding sugar from a craft store

1. Whisk together the flour and salt in a medium bowl. Cream together the butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla, and beat to incorporate. Add the flour mixture, 1/2 cup at a time. Stir in the pecans. Cover and chill dough until firm, about 1 hour.

2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper.

3. With floured hands, roll the dough into 1 1/4-inch round balls. Place on baking sheets at least 1 inch apart. Use your finger or a rounded measuring spoon to make an indent in the center of each ball.

4. Bake until bottoms are brown and set, 11 to 13 minutes. Let cool on baking sheets for 10 minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

5. Place the dulce de leche in a small microwave-safe bowl and microwave until just loose and warm, 10 to 20 seconds. Stir until smooth. Spoon 1/2 teaspoon of dulce de leche into indent of each cookie. Let stand until caramel is set, 15 to 30 minutes.

6. Place chocolate chips in microwave-safe bowl and microwave until 75 percent melted. Whisk until smooth. Dip a fork into melted chocolate, then wave back and forth over cookies to decorate. Sprinkle the edible gold stars over the chocolate. Let stand until chocolate is firm, about 30 minutes. Makes about 32 cookies.

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CHOCOLATE-PEPPERMINT M&M'S BISCOTTI

1 2/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup sugar

2 large eggs

2 large egg yolks

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 cups semisweet chocolate chips, divided

White chocolate-peppermint M&M's for decorating

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large mixing bowl. Stir in the sugar. Add eggs, yolks and vanilla, and mix with an electric mixer on low speed until just combined. Mix in 1 cup chocolate chips on low speed.

3. Turn dough onto a lightly floured work surface and divide in half. Shape each half into a flat log about 12 inches long and 21/2 inches wide. Place the logs several inches apart on the prepared baking sheet.

4. Bake the logs until they are firm to the touch, about 35 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow them to cool completely.

5. Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees. Transfer the logs to a cutting board and cut them diagonally into about 24 slices about 1 inch thick. Lay the slices, cut-side down, on the baking sheet and return cookies to the oven. Bake until they are crisp, about 10 minutes. Transfer the cookies to wire racks and let cool completely.

6. Place the remaining chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave until 75 percent melted. Whisk until smooth. Line a baking sheet with a fresh sheet of parchment paper. Dip the rounded sides of the biscotti in the chocolate, letting excess drip back into the bowl. Arrange M&M's on top of chocolate and let stand until set, about 1 hour. Makes about 24 cookies.

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SNOWMAN COOKIE POPS

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

1 large egg

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/2 cup sour cream

24 large lollipop sticks from a craft store

1 1/3 cups confectioners' sugar

1/4 cup heavy cream, plus more if needed

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

M&M's

Red licorice whip

Mini chocolate chips

Orange gumdrops

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl.

2. Combine butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl and beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until well combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl once or twice, as necessary.

3. Add egg and vanilla, and beat at medium speed until combined. Add half the flour on low speed until just combined. Mix in sour cream, then add the rest of the flour.

4. Use a small ice-cream scoop to drop about 24 mounds of dough 3 inches apart on prepared baking sheet. Stagger rows to leave room on the sheet for lollipop sticks. With moistened palms, flatten mounds into 11/2-inch disks. Slowly insert end of cookie sticks into bottom of cookie, using a turning motion to minimize damage. Bake until centers are firm and edges are light golden, 11 to 14 minutes. Cool for 5 minutes on the baking sheet, then transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.

5. Whisk together the confectioners' sugar, cream and lemon juice in a small bowl until smooth. With a small metal spatula, spread white icing on each cookie. Place 2 M&M's on either side of cookie, connecting them with a length of licorice, to form earmuffs. Arrange mini chocolate chips as eyes and mouth. Cut a small wedge from an orange gumdrop and place in the center as a nose. Let stand 30 minutes to set.

6. Tie a ribbon around the base of each cookie, to resemble the snowman's scarf. Makes about 24 cookie pops.

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