You don't have to take a pastry course, or spend all your waking hours with flour on your hands, to make cookies that are pretty to look at.
Gina Vandermeer, owner of The Sassy Little Bakeshop (www.sassylittlebakeshop.com), offers these tips for getting your frosted cut-out cookies looking picture perfect.
1. Practice. Vandermeer stresses that it took her countless hours to perfect her technique with pastry bags, brushes and knives. Keep in mind that your first efforts will look amateurish, and build from there. "If you enjoy it, go to the classes" offered at supermarkets and craft stores and through community education, she said. "It took me a while to really get my technique down."
2. Equipment and supplies. You don't need much in the way of expensive kitchen appliances, but consider investing in some good-sized vials of food coloring, decent pastry tips and tubs of sanding sugar at a craft store or a bakery supply outlet, Vandermeer recommended. That way you won't always be buying small sizes at the grocery. She also recommended meringue powder instead of using real eggs in your royal icing; such powder can be found at craft stores and bakery outlets.
3. Make neat edges. A big way to separate your cut-out cookies from the work of most home bakers is to frost them in a two-step process, Vandermeer said. The first day, ice your cookies around the edges with a piped-on border of the color you will be using to fill them in. Then, after a day or so, fill in the center of the cookie area using a knife, not a tube or bag, she said. "That way the icing doesn't run over the sides," Vandermeer said. Final touches like sugar crystals, glitter or pearls go on as a final step, when the second-coat icing is still wet, she said.
4. Good bags on the cheap. You'll save time, money and hassle if you make your own pastry "bags" by twisting waxed paper or parchment into a tube, Vandermeer advised. "That way you can just throw them out when you are done," she said. "You don't have to wash out the bags."