Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Susan Sto Helit gingerbread cookies, or: Death by Royal Icing!

Learn to walk before you run.
Wise words indeed. Yet I'm afraid I am a bit like Alice - who "generally gave herself very good advice, though she very seldom followed it."

Case in point: for my very first attempt at Royal Icing EVAH, I couldn't pick a regular cookie cutter shape, to be decorated easily with, I dunno, polka dots or something.
It had to be a complex shape - a character cookie, no less! - requiring icing in 6 different colours and/or consistencies. Six.
There are times when I wonder if I am a closet masochist.

Then again, these cookies are supposed to be the favors for my sweetie's Discworld-themed party, so I really wanted them to be nice!

Now there are many baking blogs out there specializing in cut-out cookies, and all of them are choke-filled with useful tips for the budding decorator. I browsed a dozen or so while trying to work up the courage to try dabbling in Royal Icing myself, and from each and every one I learned something useful - but in all honesty, I couldn't have done it witout Bridget and her wonderful blog, Bake at 350
I've been reading her feeds through Google Reader for ages and even tried a few recipes in the past, but as far as cookie art goes, I had always admired her mad skillz from a safe distance.
Well, I told myself, No more. Time to take the plunge!

Since we're planning to watch Hogfather, my subject of choice had to be either Death or Susan. Now, much as I love the Discworld's Reaper, giving around Death cookies for our guests to take home seemed a tad dodgy... so I decided I'd go for his luvverly niece instead!
Luckily I own a full set of Paul Kidby's cutesy coasters, so I simply had to do an enlarged copy of the Susan design to use as my template!

Mixing up the dough was the easy part. I made gingerbread instead of regular sugar cookies, because I love winter spices so much! (I make no excuses here...)
I took care to chill the dough as recommended, but even so I had trouble getting more than a couple shapes from each batch I rolled. 
I obediently kneaded the scraps back into my dough reserve, every single time - then chilled, rolled out to the correct thickness, carefully traced my template with an X-Acto knife... and by that time the dough had gone soft already, so back into the freezer it went. 
It took forever, but in the end I can say I'm super happy with my cookies - such a jummy, crunchy, spicey blank canvas they are!

Onwards to the decorating part!

Bridget has a favourite Royal Icing recipe involving meringue powder, but since this ingredient is a bit hard to come by where I live, I resorted for advice to my other decorating guru: Joshua John Russell. He teaches a Modern Piping course on Craftsy, a platform I'm hopelessly addicted to - you need to pay for it unfortunately, but they often do discounts, and if you're the type of person who learns best by watching (like I am), it's well worth splurging a few bucks on it. 
In short: JJ does Royal Icing the old-fashioned way, with real egg whites (I used pasteurized ones to be on the safe side). I whipped up a batch and was ready to go!

Much as I had learned from my wonderful online teachers, I was not going to splash Royal Icing on my cookies directly, period
So I grabbed my trusty baking paper and set out making transfers. 

As you can see, they didn't turn out too shabby, considering my lack of experience. 
This is where Bridget's blog proved immensely precious - not so much technique-wise (although I got invaluable information on that regard as well, and I still have tons of stuff to learn from her), but in demystifying the process as a whole, so that I could build enough confidence to try it for real. 

I won't lie here: making and tinting Royal Icing is tedious, time-consuming and, above all, messy business, but you can get it right, or right enough anyway, at your first go. If you're like me in that the mere idea of wasting perfectly fine ingredients makes you cringe, you don't need to worry - IT... COULD... WORK!

My transfers are far from perfect - there are bubbles in the royal icing, and I didn't have a damp brush at hand to flatten out those unsightly peaks I got while piping the outlines - but I'm happy with them. 
They were surprisingly sturdy, too, so that I managed to get them off the baking paper and onto the actual cookies without breaking a single one. Hooray! 

I "painted" a little corn syrup on the cookies, then simply placed my Susans on them. Turns out that, despite all the chilling and such, the cookies did spread a little while baking - drat!
The thickness, too, was not as even as I was hoping; this actually gave me some trouble, because the Royal Icing shatters just by blinking at it wherever it isn't resting squarely on the cookie (in the pic below you can see the cracks in the scythe's blade and in her cloak)... but hey, it wasn't a particularly forgiving shape to begin with, with all the sharp edges and protruding bits. I suppose I should have expected cracks to happen. Which is not to say they don't irk me like you wouldn't imagine. 

The final touches included painting on the edible metallic dust, and attaching a tiny silver dragee in the middle of the splotches that were supposed to be her necklace... 

...and finally, here's how my party favors look like, all packaged and ready to go! 

They are biding their time in my freezer now - my sweetie's birthday was on January 19th, dammit! - waiting for a day when the stars will be right and neither the two of us nor our guests will be otherwise busy. 

Of course you can count on me to tell you how his unbirthday party turns out in the end! 
...Gee, what's up with all the Alice in Wonderland references anyway? 

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