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Cookie decorating parties not just for kids

I have a secret to confess.

For the past 10 years, I’ve hosted a holiday cookie party. Not for me and my friends, but for my 12-year-old and her friends.

I’ve watched them pile cookies with everything from Red Hots to M&Ms in lime green icing, throw spiced gumdrops and butterscotch morsels into butter cookie batter, and cover bell-shaped gingerbread cookies with enough sugar and sprinkles to light the Chattahoochee on fire.

Let’s just say subtlety isn’t a strong point with the pre-teen set.

Every year, I fight the strong urge to take all the cookies and decorate them myself. Oh, how I dream of delicately dipping each little mitten-shaped morsel into beautiful white flow icing, drizzling it ever-so-precisely with red icing and “pulling” the icing back and forth with a toothpick to make a woven design.

Or piping a delicate design of dots on the smooth, white background of that star-shaped butter cookie. How adorable my gingerbread man would be, with his red buttons and white cap.

Where’s my party?

It’s right here! This year, cookie parties are for grown-ups. And here are the season’s best tips on how to throw one, from a one-dough-does-it-all cookie dough to the cheese ball and wine to accompany. Get your friends together and decorate to your heart’s delight, the grown-up way.

Limit the number of guests at your party to how much space you have in your kitchen. Usually a space at the kitchen table, plus a chair, is all one person needs for decorating. I like to set up work — make that play — stations for each guest, with a festive, wipeable placemat for each person to work on. Give guests a set of four to five paper cone-shaped piping bags, plus a spoon and knife (with no serrated edge) for spreading icing. Provide a cookie tin or decorative bag for each guest to put their finished cookies in, then print the recipe for your cookie dough and you’ve just given each friend a great gift for the season.

In the center of the table, place the needed ingredients and tools. I always fill festive bowls with things that make great cookie toppers: edible glitter, colorful sprinkles, nonpareils, jimmies and colored sugars all make for beautiful, grown-up-looking cookies. It’s also great to have two or three of the following:

● Bags of colored icing prepared with star, leaf and round tips for piping that everyone can share.

● Large and small decorating spatulas.

● Small bowls of extra icing for spreading and refilling piping bags.

Have a separate “station” set up in your kitchen for rolling out cookies. Most people like to roll out and cut cookies, too. Make sure it’s neat and easily accessible with extra flour, a rolling pin and lots of cookie cutters. A bench scraper and off-set (angled) spatula will help with keeping the surface area free of sticky dough and for loosening dough after it’s been rolled out.

It’s also fun to have bowls of ingredients such as chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, nuts, coconut and candy pieces available to add to ready-made doughs. I make extra cookie dough, but you can buy your dough and mix goodies in, too. Make sure the dough is soft enough for hand-mixing, so that you won’t need a mixer unless you just happen to want to have one out.

Guests can drop these cookies on to prepared cookie sheets or roll logs of cookies into sprinkles or sugar and bake away. If you don’t have lots of cookie sheets, borrow, buy, or use disposable aluminum baking sheets (just remember to recycle them!).

To make sure drop cookies are uniform in size, use a mini ice cream scoop for scooping them onto cookie sheets. I use Silpat silicone mats to line my cookie sheets for baking, but parchment paper works, too. A timer helps to remind guests of when to take cookies out of the oven. To remove cookies from baking sheets, have an angled spatula at the ready — and don’t forget to have a place near the oven for placing baked cookies to cool.

Have white and red wines for guests to sip (or cocktails), and a few savory nibbles on hand elsewhere in the kitchen. Unlike preteens, adults aren’t going to want to nosh all afternoon on a bowl of gumdrops. I’ve included a recipe for an easy-to-make cheese ball — throw on some crackers and dig in.

Before the party, make extra dough and freeze it, then thaw the morning of the party. Clear out lots of space in your fridge and freezer for extra dough. Roll, cut and bake at least two dozen cookies, so guests can start decorating as soon as they arrive. Have a few batches of royal icing, in holiday colors, ready for use. During the party, keep guests rotating from decorating, to rolling out, to dropping and baking — that way you’ll have an even flow of activity and everyone will leave with a variety of cookies.

For decorating tips, see the recipes, below. Looking for the cookie baking supplies mentioned above? Try the Baker’s Catalogue from King Arthur Flour ( ), head to an area Michael’s craft store or check out Cake Art PartyStore at 3744 Lawrenceville Highway in Tucker (770-493-1305, ).


One-Dough-Does-It-All Cookie Dough

Hands-on: 15 minutes Total time: varies with each cookie Serves: about 4 dozen cookies, depending on size

This buttery dough has a magical way of not spreading when used for rolled-and-cut cookies, and is perfect as a backdrop for drop cookies — add chips, nuts or other goodies to vary the kind of cookie you want. It’s taken from a Better Homes & Garden Christmas Cookie magazine I found on the shelf of my supermarket back in 2003, and I’ve been using it ever since.

½ cup unsalted butter

½ cup shortening

1 cup granulated sugar

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 and ¼ cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt


In a large bowl of an electric mixer beat butter and shortening until blended. Add sugar and cream until light and fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla and blend well. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Add the dry mixture in three steps, until combined. Do not over mix.

For drop cookies: Add ½ to 1 cup chocolate chips, nuts, etc. Scoop with a mini ice cream scoop onto Silpat-lined cookie sheets. Bake 8 to 12 minutes.

For roll-and-cut cookies: Chill the dough for at least three hours, or overnight. Heavily flour a smooth surface. Pat the dough into a 6-by-9-inch rectangle. Roll out, using a heavily floured rolling pin, to ¼-inch thickness. Use a large icing spatula to shimmy under the dough to loosen from the surface. Using floured cookie cutters, cut into shapes. Place immediately on cool cookie sheets. Note; if dough begins to spread during baking, chill the cut cookies for ten minutes prior to baking. Bake shaped cookies for ten minutes.


Royal Icing

Hands-on: 10 minutes Total time: depends on the cookie Serves: Will ice approximately 4 dozen cookies

This icing is considered indispensable in the professional bake shop, used on everything from cookies to wedding cakes. Meringue powder (available at baking supply shops and some groceries) makes it stable and food safe. Keep the icing covered with a damp paper towel on its surface when not in use or a sugar crust will form on the surface.

1 one-pound box (approximately 4 cups) 10X confectioner’s sugar

3 level tablespoons meringue powder (I use Wilton)

6 tablespoons lukewarm water

In a large bowl of an electric mixer, whip together the sugar, meringue powder and water until blended. Continue whipping on low speed for seven to ten minutes, until the icing is light and fluffy. Note: Add more water, a teaspoon at a time, if the icing seems too stiff for piping or spreading. Color the icing with gel paste food colors (available at bakers’ supply stores) if desired. Keep the icing covered with a damp paper towel – touching the surface — to prevent a crust from forming.

For flow icing: This kind of icing is perfect for dipping cookie shapes, or spreading the icing with a paint brush. Add ½ cup warm water to the above recipe (omit the 6 tablespoons of water), until the icing barely drips from the end of the whip. Decorating tips: 1. Dip the top side of cookie and let sit for the icing to spread, then pipe a border of royal icing around the edge of your cookie. Or, you can pipe the border first, then fill in with a small paint brush. 2. Before the icing sets, pipe a colored icing of similar consistency in lines across the surface of the cookie, then “pull” the lines with a toothpick to create a woven look. 3. Let the icing dry completely and pipe designs with royal icing for a textured look. Just before the icing dries, dip the edges of the cookie into sugar, sprinkles or jimmies.


That’s-So-70s-Cheese Ball

Hands-on: 15 minutes Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes Serves: 12

Cheese balls are back! This easy recipe is perfect for a keeping your cookie party guests happy – just add your favorite cracker.

8 ounces Belle Chevre brand (or other flavored goat cheese) pimento-flavored goat cheese

8 ounces cream cheese

8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded

2 cloves garlic, finely minced

1/2 cup minced herbs, such as rosemary, thyme, sage and oregano

1 cup dried cranberries

In a medium mixing bowl, mix together the goat cheese, cream cheese, shredded cheese, garlic and minced herbs. Form into a ball. Roll the ball in the dried cranberries. Cover and refrigerate one hour before serving.

Christmas breakfast with the family

Thanksgiving may have a pre-set menu, but the meals Christmas Day — not to mention the options for Christmas Eve and Boxing Day — offer a lot more room to be creative. And though many of us skimp on breakfast much of the time, Christmas morning is tailor-made for serving something luxurious.

If you want to prepare a special breakfast but don’t want to be stuck in the kitchen away from family and friends, we’ve got recipes: A strata and freshly baked sticky buns can be prepared a day or two ahead, requiring only a preheated oven and a little baking time to get them table-ready.

If you’d like to spend your time after the presents have been opened with everyone gathered in the kitchen helping, then you could make pancakes or waffles, or go a little more international with our Parisian Street Vendor Crepes.

To see what we could learn about working ahead, we talked to Susan Reid, editor of King Arthur Flour’s subscription newsletter the Baking Sheet — a bimonthly magazine filled with seasonal recipes and answers to readers’ questions.

Reid grew up in New Jersey, one of six kids. “On Christmas morning, my mother serves a strata, prepping the whole thing the night before, and using the time/bake feature on her stove. When we get home from church, the strata is 15 minutes away from being done.” The Reid family strata features cheese, mushrooms and sausage. With 27 people in the immediate family, the strata has to stretch pretty far, augmented with orange juice, coffee and an avalanche of baked goods.

What about those baked goods, and especially the ones made with yeast? Reid had lots of tips to offer based on her readers’ questions and those called in to King Arthur’s bakers hotline (802-649-3717).

Rapid rise yeast is what Reid calls a “sprinter,” good for a dough that has only one rise. Use instant or active dry yeast for doughs that rise once, then are shaped and rise a second time before baking. They’re exchangeable in most recipes.

Using water to “test” the yeast to see if it’s still alive is a holdover from the past, when active dry yeast was the only type most people used. It’s still a good idea with active dry yeast, but unless your instant yeast is very old, you can just incorporate it into your dough with the rest of the ingredients.

Don’t worry about how much flour to use when the recipe calls for a range, like 4 1/2 to 5 1/2 cups. “The answer is that you need to put your hands in the dough,” Reid said. If it’s wet and sticky, add more flour. The idea is to start with the low number and add more if it’s needed.

Sweet doughs need to be soft and a little sticky to make tender products. Flour your hands instead of the dough to make working with it easier.

You’ll never have to be intimidated by the temperature of the water or other liquid you’re adding to your dough if you’ll remember that yeast is a living creature, and it wants to grow in an environment that’s just a little warmer than your body temperature. “If it’s comfortable for your hand, it’s comfortable for the yeast,” Reid said. Err on the side of cooler if you have any question, because yeast will grow even in your refrigerator. But if the liquid is too hot, you’ll kill it.

You can slow down any yeast dough at any stage by refrigerating it. Mix the dough in the morning, put it in an oiled bag, take it out in the evening, shape it and it’s ready to go. That’s what bakeries do. The long, slow rise in the refrigerator makes for more flavor.


Whether you want a delicious hot breakfast that can bake while the family is opening gifts or you’re looking for something that will give everyone a reason to gather in the kitchen, we’ve got three great ideas for you.

Parisian Street Vendor Crepes

Hands on: 20 minutes Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes, includes standing time for batter Makes: 20 (6-inch) crepes

Crepes are just a skinnier version of pancakes, served with a delicious filling. Crepe batter takes just a minute to make but needs a few minutes to rest before cooking. While the batter is resting, you can prepare your filling. We’ve offered two filling suggestions, but the possibilities are endless. A classically trained chef would tell you that a well-prepared crepe should be perfectly smooth and have no color, or maybe just a few freckles.

For the crepes:

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

11/2 cups (12 ounces) milk

4 large eggs

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened

1/2 teaspoon salt

For the Nutella and banana filling, per crepe:

1 tablespoon Nutella

1/2 banana, sliced

Confectioners’ sugar for garnish, optional

For ham and cheese filling, per crepe:

1 tablespoon chopped deli ham

1 tablespoon grated Swiss cheese

In a blender, combine flour, milk, eggs, butter and salt. Blend until smooth. Cover and allow batter to sit for at least 1 hour.

Heat a 6-inch skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Spray the pan lightly with nonstick cooking spray. Pour a scant 1/3 cup batter into the bottom of the pan, pick it up and tip it in a circle so the batter covers the bottom of the pan. Cook until the top no longer looks shiny and edges start to lift from the pan, about 30 seconds. Use an offset spatula or butter knife to lift edge of crepe and flip it over in the pan. Cook for 15 seconds more and move to a warm plate. Repeat with remaining batter.

Fill crepes while still warm. For Nutella and banana filling, spread crepe with Nutella, add banana, then fold into quarters. Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar, if desired. For ham and cheese crepes, toss ham and cheese together and fill crepe. Fold into quarters.

Adapted from “The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion” (Countryman Press, $35)

Per crepe (plain): 92 calories (percent of calories from fat, 38), 3 grams protein, 11 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 4 grams fat (2 grams saturated), 51 milligrams cholesterol, 76 milligrams sodium.

Per crepe, with Nutella and banana: 224 calories (percent of calories from fat, 33), 5 grams protein, 34 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 9 grams fat (3 grams saturated), 51 milligrams cholesterol, 91 milligrams sodium.

Per crepe, with ham and cheese: 132 calories (percent of calories from fat, 46), 7 grams protein, 11 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 7 grams fat (4 grams saturated), 62 milligrams cholesterol, 205 milligrams sodium.


Make-ahead Sticky Buns

Hands on: 30 minutes Total time: 1 hour, plus chilling time 
Makes: 16 rolls

For cooks who are new to yeast, the baking powder in this dough provides extra insurance for a light roll. The dough does all its rising in the refrigerator, so you can start these rolls a day or two ahead of time, then just take them out of the refrigerator as you preheat the oven.

Turn these buns into cinnamon rolls by eliminating the glaze and topping the baked rolls with an icing of confectioners’ sugar mixed with just enough milk to make a spreadable consistency. Or make honey buns by substituting honey for the corn syrup called for in the glaze.

For the dough:

1 cup warm water

1 package (1/4 ounce, 21/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus additional if needed

1/2 cup instant potato flakes

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup nonfat dry milk

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 egg

11/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup vegetable oil

For the filling:

1/4 cup granulated sugar

2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) unsalted butter, softened

2 teaspoons cinnamon

For the glaze:

1 cup light brown sugar

1/2 cup light corn syrup

2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) unsalted butter, softened

1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts

In a measuring cup, combine water and yeast and set aside. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine 3 cups flour, potato flakes, sugar, dry milk, butter, vanilla, egg, baking powder and salt. Turn on mixer to low speed to combine. Slowly pour in yeast mixture and continue mixing on slow speed until a soft dough is formed, about 5 minutes. If dough is too soft, add up to 1/2 cup additional flour. The goal is a soft sticky dough but one that holds its shape on the dough hook.

In a medium mixing bowl or food-safe plastic bag, add vegetable oil and swirl to coat all sides. Put dough into bowl or bag. Cover or seal and refrigerate for up to 2 days.

When ready to shape rolls, remove dough from refrigerator. While still cold, roll out on oiled work surface into a 12-by-16-inch rectangle. In a small bowl, make filling by blending sugar, butter and cinnamon together with your fingers. Spread across dough. Starting with a long edge, roll the dough into a log. Using a serrated knife, slice dough into 16 pieces.

Lightly grease two 9-inch round pans. Make the glaze by combining brown sugar, corn syrup and butter in microwave-safe measuring cup and heating 1 minute, or until butter is melted. Stir to combine, and then pour half into each prepared pan. Sprinkle 1/2 cup chopped pecans over glaze in each pan. Place one sliced bun in the center of each pan, and surround with 7 more pieces. Cover pans and refrigerate for up to 1 day.

When ready to serve, remove buns from refrigerator and allow to come to room temperature, about 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until tops are lightly golden brown and buns feel firm when pressed. Remove buns from oven and invert them onto a serving dish. Scrape off any sticky topping that has remained in the pan onto the buns.

Adapted from a recipe at

Per roll: 324 calories (percent of calories from fat, 40), 4 grams protein, 45 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 15 grams fat (5 grams saturated), 29 milligrams cholesterol, 213 milligrams sodium.


Merry Christmas Strata

Hands on: 30 minutes Total time: 1 hour, plus chilling time Serves: 6

A strata is a savory bread pudding, an easy make-ahead dish that’s completely adaptable. The red and green bell peppers strike just the right holiday note but you can substitute roasted red peppers and fresh or canned green chiles if you prefer. Replace the ham with sausage, or simply eliminate the meat; swap out cheddar or Swiss for the Asiago; use mustard instead of pesto or adapt the flavors to suit your guests.

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, divided

1/2 cup (about 1/2 small) finely chopped onions

1/2 cup (about 1/2 small) diced red bell pepper

1/2 cup (about 1/2 small) diced green bell pepper

12 cups stale bread, 
cut in 1-inch cubes

1 cup (about 1/2 pound) diced ham

2 cups (about 6 ounces) grated Asiago, divided

5 eggs

21/2 cups milk

11/2 tablespoons pesto, optional

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon Tabasco

1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper

In small skillet, melt 2 tablespoons butter and sauté onions, red and green bell peppers over low heat until softened, but not browned, about 5 minutes. Set aside.

Spray a 2-quart baking dish with nonstick spray. In a large mixing bowl, toss bread cubes, sautéed onions and peppers, ham and 11/2 cups Asiago. Put bread cube mixture in baking dish.

Melt remaining 4 tablespoons butter and, in a medium mixing bowl, whisk together with eggs, milk, pesto, salt, Tabasco and pepper. Slowly pour over bread cube mixture. Push top of the bread down into the milk and egg mixture to be sure all pieces are covered. Sprinkle remaining Asiago over the top. Cover dish with wax paper and then foil, and refrigerate for at least 6 hours.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Remove wax paper and foil and place baking dish in upper third of oven. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until puffy and brown. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.

Adapted from “Morning Food: From Cafe Beaujolais” by Margaret S. Fox and John Bear (1994, paperback)

Per serving: 617 calories (percent of calories from fat, 56), 30 grams protein, 38 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 38 grams fat (20 grams saturated), 278 milligrams cholesterol, 1,354 milligrams sodium.


Christmas morning indulgences

● Prepare buttered hot cider by adding a little sugar and orange juice to apple juice or cider, and then heating with spices such as whole cloves and cinnamon sticks. Stir in 1/2 tablespoon of butter before serving

● Serve spiced tea by steeping your regular brew with whole spices such as cinnamon and cardamom pods. Strain the spices, serve with milk and sweeten to taste.

● Put a spoonful of whipped cream on top of fresh hot coffee. You’re drinking kaffee mit schlag, a Viennese favorite.

● Ambrosia is the classic Christmas fruit salad. Serve a creamy version by stirring in a mixture of 1 part sour cream, 1 part yogurt and 1 part whipped cream. Sweeten to taste.

● Try a hot fruit dish by combining fresh or canned fruit with a few tablespoons of butter and brown sugar. The classic combination is peaches with a little amaretto.

● Or sauté bananas with butter, some brown sugar or honey and the liqueur or extract of your choice.

● Whip up a quiche using a homemade or store-bought pie crust with the same filling (minus the bread cubes) as that in our Merry Christmas Strata.

● Make decadent French toast using a soaking mixture created by melting your favorite flavor of ice cream and mixing it with three eggs.

● Mix honey, maple syrup and rum or rum flavoring to make a special syrup for pancakes or French toast.

● Offer grits but instead of serving them with eggs and bacon, make a cream sauce, spiced with a little jalapeño or bell pepper, and add steamed shrimp.

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