FOOD WISE: Decorating cookies for Santa is a family tradition


Christmas cookies

When my daughters were little girls, we baked and decorated Christmas cookies every year. Since we didn’t have much money, we baked cookies as gifts for friends and family. I was an events planner in those days, so I made cookies for my clients, beautifully packaged in “vintage” tins I found at yard sales and flea markets. They really seemed to appreciate a home-baked gift and never knew that I did it out of necessity.

We baked cookies for school parties, the girls ice skating group, play and church groups, and of upmost importance…for Santa Claus.

I baked so many cookies I even dreamed about cookies at night. Visions of peanut butter sandwich cookies, oatmeal raisin cookies, fudge and divinity (which aren’t really cookies but were always included in this baking frenzy), linzer cookies, spritz cookies, chocolate chip cookies, and sugar cookies cut into holiday inspired shapes and decorated with icing and all kinds of sprinkles and candies danced in my head.

Kids being kids, my girls complained and grumbled and called it “forced family fun.” I had many of these traditions that they complained about, like forcing them to listen to me read the Christmas story from the big family Bible before I would allow them to open gifts. I wanted them to learn that Christmas wasn’t just all about them and what gifts they could get. Boy, were they mad at me! And being girls, they were experts at rolling their eyes with disgusted looks on their faces.

The funny thing is, now that they are grown women with their own families they look back on those times with fondness and have implemented their own forced family fun traditions. A whole new generation of messy pumpkin carving, Bible stories, zoo trips, miserably cold camping trips, handprints in cement, an assortment of arts and crafts and the all-important Christmas cookies. Their kiddos complain about some of them every bit as loudly as they did. This really makes my heart glad!

Happily, I usually get to make the cookies for Santa with my grand-boys. They seem to enjoy it more than their mothers did, probably because I am more relaxed now. Who cares if they spill something or accidentally turn the mixer on high so the flour shoots out all over the place like a gigantic nuclear mushroom cloud.

Also, this cookie making for Santa has become quite ceremonious. We have a special Christmas plate and even a Christmas goblet for the milk. We carefully write Santa a note on pretty paper to leave with the cookies and milk. From year to year, we make note of Santa’s favorites, based on the crumbs and notes he leaves us back. I guess this is what is meant by “brownie points.”

One year, Santa was so excited by our cookie selection that apparently, he made a big commotion and had to leave in a hurry, leaving a bit of a mess. Tables and stools were overturned, things strewn about all over the living room and he even left behind one of his boots. I guess he thought we would hear him and come out to investigate. That was a pretty exciting year!

You know, practice makes perfect and although my cookies are far from perfect, I’ve been practicing now for about 30 years. It seems like folks get especially nervous about the whole decorated cookie process. Over the years, I’ve learned a few techniques to make cookie decorating easier, especially for beginners and small hands. I’ve shared my favorite sugar cookie recipe and a few of those decorating techniques here.

I hope you enjoy your own forced family fun traditions and I’d love to see a picture of the finished product. Email me at

Chef Reneé’s Favorite Sugar Cookies

(These can be made ahead and frozen for up to three months between sheets of wax paper  or parchment)

1 1/4 cups shortening

2 cups sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 teaspoon lemon extract

4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted

1 cup buttermilk


1. Beat shortening in a large bowl with an electric mixer for about 30 seconds. Add sugar, baking powder and soda, nutmeg, and salt. Beat until combined. Beat in eggs, vanilla and lemon extract until combined. Alternately add flour and buttermilk to shortening mixture, beating until combined. Divide the dough in half. Cover and chill at least 3 hours or until completely chilled.

2. Preheat oven to 375 degrees with the rack in the middle position. For round cookies, roll dough one section at a time, on a floured surface to 1/2 inch thickness. Cut into rounds with a 2 1/2 inch cookie cutter. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet. Sprinkle with sugar and bake about 10 minutes or until set and edges begin to brown.

For shaped cut out cookies, roll the dough one section at a time to 1/4 inch thickness and cut out with shaped cookie cutters. Place on a greased cookie sheet and bake 6 to 8 minutes or until set. Transfer to wire racks to cool.

Cookie Glaze – Good for covering the whole cookie surface 

Combine 4 cups sifted powdered sugar and 1/4 cup milk in a medium mixing bowl. Stir in additional milk, one tablespoon at a time, until drizzling consistency is reached. Tint as desired with food color. Store covered until ready to use.

To glaze, place cookies on a rack set over a pan to catch drips. With a spoon, generously drizzle the glaze all over the cookie completely covering the surface. Let dry completely and use a small spatula to remove cookies and trim off spills from the rack.

Decorative Icing – This is thicker than the glaze and is good for dots and outlines

Combine 4 cups sifted powdered sugar and 3 tablespoons of milk in a medium mixing bowl. Stir in additional milk, one tablespoon at a time, until piping consistency. Tint as desired with food color. Put into piping bags with tips or a plastic zip-type bag with a tiny corner snipped to pipe from.

Tips for great decorated cookies

* Decorating with confectioners and colored sanding sugar – Use store-bought stencils, strips of paper, small cookie cut outs or even jar lids to create designs. For stencils, add tape tabs as handles to each side so you can lift the stencil without marring the design. Lay the stencil down, dust with sugar or cocoa in a fine mesh strainer, lift the stencil straight up and off the cookie. You can do the same with strips of paper laid at regular intervals across the cookie. Then lay the strips the opposite direction and dust with another element for a cute design. For the jar lids, lay down jar lids on the cookies, dust with one element. then move the jar lid to another overlapping area from the last area. Dust with another element for contrast. To use the smaller cookie cut outs, ice the cookies first. Then set the cut out on top of the cookie. Apply colored sugar or sprinkles with a small spoon to the cut out area. Then lift the cut out straight up revealing the decoration. Decorate with sugars while the cookies are hot or the sugar won’t stick.

*  To write on a cookie with icing,  practice on a piece of paper or cardboard first. Make sure to gently squeeze the air bubbles out of the piping bag so you don’t have explosions as you pipe the letters. Brace the piping hand on top of your other hand to steady your hand as you write and keep a gentle continuous pressure on the piping bag to keep the letters consistent. Print a handwriting guide from the internet like they use in elementary school to teach children to write in cursive to help you make your letters pretty. You can use a plastic baggie and snip the corner to pipe from if you don’t have a piping bag and tips. Just make sure to keep the hole small. You can always make it bigger if you need to.

* For perfectly frosted cookies,   outline your design with the piping bag around the edge of the cookie. Then fill in the design with frosting and decorate as desired. You can use a toothpick to push frosting into place and fill in the cookie without overflowing icing down the side of the cookie.

* For perfect chocolate curls,  warm a block of chilled chocolate slightly by passing a hairdryer over it. Be careful not to melt the chocolate. You just want to soften it enough to allow it to curl instead of breaking up. Try not to touch the chocolate too much with your hands as it will melt from the warmth of your hands. Holding a paring knife at a 45 degree angle against the chocolate, scrape toward you. Pick up the curls with a toothpick and place them on the frosted cookie.

* For great cookie cutouts,  roll and cut cookies of only half the dough at a time. Keep the other half in the fridge. When rolling out dough, use only as much flour as you need to keep the dough from sticking. Excess dough makes the cookies tough and cracked. Flour the cutter before cutting a cookie. Clean off the cutter with a paper towel after every couple of cuts to keep the cuts crisp. Allow 1 inch between cookies during baking to keep cookies from running together as they cook.

* Make sure to accurately measure all of your ingredients. For example, if the recipe calls for a cup of flour, make sure to level it with the back of a knife. If it is heaped up, even slightly, it may throw the recipe off. Also, no substitution of ingredients. Baking soda and powder or butter and margarine are not necessarily interchangeable.

* Make sure your spices are fresh. Any spice over 6 months old should be replaced. Put a date label on spices when you buy them so you know when it’s time to discard them and buy in the smallest quantities possible.

* Begin with the end in mind – Get all your ingredients measured and equipment and supplies lined up before you start. I promise, this will make it a much more pleasant experience. Make all the icings and frostings and have them colored and line up all decorations in open containers so you can get to them easily. Nothing is worse than having gone to all that work to home make decorated cookies and have them ruined because you weren’t ready with your decorations since some decorations are best applied to hot cookies and some better to cooled cookies.