Decorating Large Martha by Mail Cookies- with Icing Recipe

Welcome to the Fun Part!

Now that you’ve baked your cookies its time to make them gorgeous! Cookies are just another canvas so if you have art skills use them, if not- practice! Copy designs! You will get better and better. Plus mistakes never tasted this good! One thing that always served to help me was a blueprint of what the cookie was going to look like. Before decorating, I go looking in my old issues of Martha by Mail catalogs or in my trusty sketchbooks. I have some very large watercolor Moleskines that I do big entries in and in these I trace my cookie cutters and draw/paint how I want the icing to turn out. I get to design my cookies! This has become an important ritual for every new cookie cutter. I try to have several designs for each to keep things fun. One way I get new ideas is by trying colors that aren’t normally associated with a holiday. This year I did my Thanksgiving cookies in shades of sage green. They were gorgeous! (Unfortunately they were eaten instead of photographed!)

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Martha by Mail Holiday 1998 showing inventive ways to not only use non-holiday cutters for holiday cookies, but also icing colors not typical of the holiday. Here are Christmas cookies including a Christmas squirrel, a poinsettia made with the sun/sunflower cutter, a snowy butterfly and a poinsettia cake. Lovely page spreads like these are why many people collect these catalogs.

Royal Icing

The pressure is on with food safety here! Royal icing uses raw egg whites. But they can contain salmonella, so I buy pasteurized egg whites and use those. You can use meringue powder, but honestly it makes terrible royal icing! It’s very expensive as well. The icing made with it falls off your cookie and will have a pock-marked top texture instead of smooth like you want. I’ve tried to make the meringue icing work many times and it’s just  a terrible result for the amount of work you put into it! So finally, I found the pasteurized egg whites and it’s wonderful; just like royal icing should be.

Heirloom Royal Icing

2 large egg whites, or their equivalent in pasteurized egg whites
4 Cups confectioners sugar (powdered sugar)
1 teaspoon almond extract
3-4 teaspoons water or more depending on consistency desired

 

 

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Consistency

Consistency is so important with Royal icing. The best for your base layer is called flooding consistency. When you mix it up stop the mixer and watch how fast the swirls disappear into themselves and become smooth. This will tell you how your icing will settle on your cookie. You are looking for about 5-8 seconds for this to happen. Quicker- and your icing will be too runny. If it is slower it will have ripples. For thinner icing, add water. I usually end up doubling what the water (or liquid-some recipes call for lemon juice) is in a recipe before I can get a good starting consistency. (If it is a humid day you might need less water, if it is winter and your heat is running you might need more.)

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This is the flooding consistency I personally look for. This is my mixer 5 seconds after I stopped it. The major bumps and swirls have smoothed out but there is still some definition. You don’t want it completely smooth or it will run off of your cookie. It is still quite thick.

When you are putting details on your cookie with icing you need something that will hold its shape and not smooth out. For a stiffer consistency icing, start with what the recipe is and add a little water and test. You don’t want it to have a lot of swirls, but it shouldn’t smooth itself completely. You want to be able to get it out of the decorating bag through a tiny #2 tip, but it shouldn’t flatten out on top of the cookie and loose the details. If your icing is too runny simply add powdered sugar back into it to get it where you want it.

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Here is my mixer after the regular icing consistency- still some definition and these ripples slowly flattened out. Its a fine line! The main thing to watch for is how fast things smooth out.

Another way I work is I do the consistency after I portion the icing out into 4 cereal bowls and tint it. Then I know what each color is for and what consistency it should be. I just mix it with a spoon then and add drops of water to thin it.

 

Color

This is a big learning curve. As much as possible try to get the color straight from the jar/bottle. Wilson has good colors. Country Kitchen (CK products) have excellent colors and are what Martha used. CK products are available on Amazon. I use a mix. Some, harder to mix colors I buy from CK such as their teal- which is the same color base for a lot of Martha’s iconic arcauna colors that she decorates even her cookies with. For everyday colors I just use Wilton. If you find yourself in trouble mixing, Wilton has a guide.

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Here is a page from the New Year 1999 Martha by Mail Catalog showing what can be done with understated icing colors. Wilton has a cornflower blue that is a very close match to the blue here. A lot of times softer pastels in blue and green are Martha’s favorites- like the eggs from her araucana hens.  The clear sparkle on the squirrel is done by brushing egg whites onto the cookie and flocking with sugar.

I generally spoon the icing into 4 cereal bowls and do my color mixing there. That way if you mess up you can always throw it out, but not have lost everything. The icing recipe makes enough to ice one batch of the heirloom gingerbread cookies. Reserve your largest portion for your base coat.

Remember too that the colors you get from the can are mixes of other colors and sometimes these colors don’t play well with the color you are putting in. Don’t feel bad if you have troubles! It might not be your fault at all! Also because of the way the colors are made in the factory you will need to follow the mixing guides made by that brand to get certain colors. Some of the color recipes will surprise you!

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Martha by Mail Holiday 2001 showing a deeper jewel-tone of icing colors not typically associated with Christmas but looking very sheek. Martha’s ctalog offered everything for cooky artists including colored sanding sugars.

Application

How much time do you have? This is the most time-consuming part. I always reserve a separate day(s) for decorating because of this. Plan ahead! If you have more than one coat you will have to leave time for the coats to dry before adding to them. Drying time depends on humidity and warmth of the air, but I typically wait an hour then put on the second layer.

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I put the base coat on with a spatula. It saves time, but as you can see does not leave perfect edges like piping an outline and filling it would. However, if you are making large batches (here I was making almost 40 cookies) and want to save time it is a good shortcut to take. Most people enjoying your cookies will love them no matter what!

My favorite time and hand saver is putting on the base coat with a small angled spatula. If you make little swishing movements the icing will settle down nicely. It might have a few small waves but it looks fine most of the time. The other way is to outline the shape you are doing (which is much better if you have more than one color in your base coat) then fill it in, or flood it until it is covered with the color.

Details can be added many ways. Wet icing can be drug into other wet icing for swirls. A toothpick can be drug through a wet dot in the wet base coat. This forms a heart. Overlapping colored lines can be drawn to look like plaid. Sugar can be sprinkled over wet icing, left to dry and then the loose crystals brushed away. (This is shown in the pictures below.) This gives a lovely sparkly look. For more sparkle add nonpareils, or dragees (dragees cannot be eaten). Some sugars are sanding sugars and are colored or even look like glitter. (These can be eaten.)

When you are done let your cookie set. I keep the dining room closed during cookie making so my cat and dog don’t disturb them drying in their trays on the table. (Although last Thanksgiving someone left a door open and the dog ate a whole tray of cookies while we were away!) I typically leave them over night to dry completely before bagging them up.

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Gifting

Youv’e spent so much time on your lovely cookies- now it’s time to dress them up! Big goody bags and your favorite colored ribbon can make your cookie gift extra special. Don’t forget to enjoy one yourself. They happen to be excellent with a cup of earl grey tea!

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Preparing to deliver gifts! I wrapped tea towels carefully around to support and protect the cookies.
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You can find excellent bags to put cookies in not in the baking isle (they aren’t big enough and are very expensive!) but in the party isle where they have treat bags. They are large enough for MBM cutter cookies and only 97 cents for 20 with pretty twist ties!
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A well-deserved break!

Next up… cleaning and caring for copper cutters.

With love, milk and cookies to you from Kansas Street,

-Jaime

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