There comes a time in life when it seems like almost everyone you know is having babies. At first, it kind of floors you every time you hear the news, and you struggle to come up with a gift commensurate to the occasion. In years past, I crafted ornate homemade cards, cooked obscene amounts of food, and stitched patchwork quilts and a stuffed pink satin armadillo. But as more and more friends began to have babies, I realized that keeping up with that sort of gifting protocol could quickly become a second job. I started turning to the gift registry, pairing a cotton onesie with a heartfelt card and calling it a day. For the most part, this seems appropriate. But every now and then, I hear about the pregnancy of a friend who is so dear that the registry just doesn't cut it. I start looking around for a more personal way to share the love. And recently, I hit upon these baby shower cookies.
Having never made gingerbread houses as a kid, I was pretty new to the world of royal icing. This sweet-yet-structural topping combines powdered sugar with egg whites or meringue powder, and is versatile enough to pipe intricate designs yet sturdy enough to be shipped across the country in a pre-baby care package. And it's fun. Arts and crafts such as these are sadly in short supply in adulthood. Although my own journey with these cookies took three attempts (due to some boneheaded mistakes on my part that are too embarrassing to detail, namely refusal to read ingredient listings and refusal to use a timer), they're really not that hard. I piped my royal icing with a pastry cone I taped out of scratch paper, and although the resulting designs are somewhat "rustic," nobody complained. The hardest part of the whole process is the waiting, from chilling the cookies to letting the icing set. It's one of the sweetest ways I've come up with to welcome the good news.
Baby Shower Cookies
Cookies adapted from Martha Stewart's Classic Sugar Cookies, icing and technique from Not So Humble Pie blog, tasteless decoration idea all my own.
yields ~2 dozen cookies, depending on the size
Meringue powder generally requires a trip to a cake or craft shop, but carries less salmonella danger than egg whites, so it's worth seeking out for the pregnant set. It also costs much more than you think powdered egg whites rightfully should, but generally comes in packages that are large enough for several batches. And once you learn how to make these cookies, you might find it hard to stop.
2 cups flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 stick butter, softened to room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 lb powdered sugar
2 1/2 Tbsp meringue powder
2 Tbsp + 2 tsp water
splash vanilla, if desired
To make the cookies:
Sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.
In a mixer with a paddle attachment, beat together the butter and sugar until fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla, mixing until well combined. Add the flour mixture, and stir until the dough comes together. Shape the dough into a chubby disk, cover in plastic or waxed paper, and let chill in the refrigerator until firm (at least an hour, though you can easily let it sit overnight).
When the dough is chilled, remove it from the refrigerator and let sit at room temperature for a few minutes, until soft enough to roll. Roll out on a floured surface to 1/4" thickness, and cut out your desired shapes (I used a 2.5" round cutter (or, more accurately, glass jar), which yielded cookies that fit perfectly inside a wide-mouth canning pint jar for shipping). Mush together scraps, re-roll and cut again, and repeat until all the dough is used.
Now to freeze the cookies, so that they bake evenly and provide you a smooth, non-domed icing surface: take an 8" brownie pan, line it with plastic, and place a layer of cookies in it. Repeat with more plastic and more cookies, until they're all in. Make sure they're laying flat. Place in the freezer until very firm, least 20 minutes.
While the cookies are chilling, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Place the frozen cookies on prepared cookie sheets, and bake until the edges are golden, 15-18 minutes. Let cool on racks.
To ice the cookies:
In a mixer with a paddle attachment (a whisk incorporates too much air), beat together the powdered sugar, meringue powder, water and vanilla for 5 minutes. Divide the icing into bowls, and tint with food coloring until it reaches your desired shade. Add additional water until it reaches the desired consistency: if you lift up the icing and let it drizzle back from a spoon, it should be firm enough that it holds the shape of the drizzle for at least 5 seconds, but liquid enough that it's totally disappeared by 10 seconds.
To ice cookies, you probably want to look at some good tutorials, such as this or this, and pipe a few practice designs on a plate before you attack the cookies. But basically, you want to put your icing into a pastry bag/makeshift paper cone, and pipe out the outline on your cookie. Let this dry for 10 minutes, and then add a bit more water to thin your icing so that you can "flood" the cookie inside the outline with some spooned-in thinned icing. Neat! You might need to poke the icing with a toothpick or skewer to guide it to the very edge of your outline. Let this base layer dry another 10 minutes.
Using another pastry bag/paper cone, pipe on decorations as you choose. If you're using multiple colors next to each other, allow another 10 minute drying session in between colors, so that they don't bleed. Allow the finished cookies to dry for several hours, preferably overnight, then pack them in a tin and send them on their way.