Gail Carriger is one of my new favorite authors, and for those of you who haven’t read Soulless (of The Parasol Protectorate series) or Etiquette and Espionage (of The Finishing School books), I suggest you go out right now and get them. They’re the perfect blend of light, frothy humor, pseudo-historical commentary, and plain old fun. Plus, Gail has a fashion blog that I thoroughly enjoy perusing, as it features many fun vintage and vintage-inspired looks. I even sent her one of my hats once, since her characters so clearly appreciate fine millinery.
So when I heard she was going to be in town for the launch of her latest book (Manners and Mutiny), I knew two things: First, that I was going to attend and meet her in person, and second, that I would bring cookies.
What kind of cookies, you ask? Pretty ones. Definitely pretty ones. Vaguely Victorian-ish, since that’s the era her stories are set in, and probably featuring items and/or characters from the books. When I was making the Spooky Mummy Cookies I deliberately set aside some of the dough to cut out some fancy plaque shapes, and froze the baked cookies in preparation for this project. When I was ready to get started, all I had to do was defrost and they were ready for decoration!
Not to imply that this wasn’t a complicated project– heaven forbid! It involved two different kinds of icings and several decorating techniques spread over two days, so let’s get started!
First I made a small batch of royal icing– I don’t do this often, since it dries hard as a rock and that’s not usually something I’m looking for in a baked good, but in this case it was necessary. Here’s the recipe:
Royal Icing (makes about 3 cups)
4 cups powdered sugar
3 tablespoons meringue powder
5-6 tablespoons water
1/4 teaspoon butter flavoring
1/8 teaspoon almond flavoring
1. Mix dry ingredients together in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.
2. In a small bowl, mix flavorings with 4 tablespoons of the water.
3. Add the 4 tablespoons of water to the dry ingredients and mix on low speed. Add more water (about 2 additional tablespoons) until the mixture reaches a honey-like consistency. Then increase the speed to medium-low (it was speed 2 on my stand mixer) and beat for 2-3 more minutes, until the icing holds a soft peak.
4. This is your base icing, which is good for piping a basic outline, but not for roses. To make stiff icing, add more powdered sugar and mix vigorously with a spoon until it holds stiff peaks. You may have to experiment a bit until you get the right consistency.
I started off by taking about half of the icing and adding sugar to make stiff icing for toothpick roses. What are toothpick roses, you say? They’re tiny roses that you make with a petal tip on the end of a toothpick. Easy, adorable, and perfect for cookies. Here’s a link to one of my favorite cookie blogs, Bake at 350, where it’s all explained. They’ve got better photos than I can take (I only have two hands, after all!), so just go take a look and come back when you’re done.
Anyway, I tinted my stiff icing pale pink, and started making tiny roses with my small petal tip on toothpicks and 1″ squares of parchment paper. I learned that for me at least, it was far easier to pipe my petals down a relatively large vertical section of the toothpick– it kept the edge of the piping tip from smudging the previously-piped petals, and once I pushed the parchment square up to remove the rose, the petals all collapsed anyway into the perfect rose shape.
Once I finished those (and boy, did that batch make a lot! About 140 roses) I turned to the rest of my icing. I took out another blob’s worth and carefully adding water, thinned it down to 20-second consistency– in other words, if you touch the back of a spoon to the icing and let it fall back into the bowl, it should take 20 seconds for the icing to smooth out completely again– and piped out some medium-sized ovals onto parchment paper.
Then I left everything sit overnight until completely hard and dry. I covered the remaining royal icing with a damp paper towel and plastic wrap to save it for later. You can also put it in an airtight container and just store it on the counter– the meringue powder is pasteurized so it’s safe to do so.
The next morning I broke out my tiny paintbrushes, my food coloring gels, and my food coloring markers, and started painting tiny pictures on the now-hardened ovals, using this technique.
Once the oval centerpieces were done, I mixed up a batch of glaze icing (10 second consistency) and colored it dusty rose and blue. I outlined and flooded each cookie in the icing (again, check out this post for the glaze recipe and application instructions) and then, before it could set completely, I placed a painted oval in the center of each cookie.
More waiting for everything to dry…
Once the glaze had set (it only took a few hours, aided by a fan blowing over the cookies), I got out the remaining royal icing, separated out a small amount, and added some powdered sugar to stiffen it up again before coloring it green, putting it into a piping bag with a leaf tip. Then I started attaching roses to the cookies with royal icing leaves, just placing them wherever I liked.
Since the cookies still looked a little bare I used some of the remaining royal icing to pipe in some lacy details and frames for the portraits. I think I should’ve used slightly stiffer icing for this (I used the base royal icing without adding sugar), since I didn’t have as much control as I’d have liked and the icing didn’t hold its shape completely. I should also probably improve my piping skills– as it was, these were kind of sloppy looking for my taste.
But I still think they turned out beautifully! And look, Gail enjoyed them too!
- I absolutely stole the technique (if not the exact recipe) for making royal icing from Sweet Sugarbelle, who makes gorgeous cookies and whose tutorials are fabulous. Not wanting to overtax my mixer with extra-stiff icing, I found that her idea of making medium-consistency icing and then adding sugar or water by hand to small batches to get the right consistency was a lifesaver. Plus, I didn’t have to make multiple batches for different uses.
- I know most people think royal icing tastes awful, especially if made with meringue powder, but I’ve found that a little butter flavoring goes a long way to mask the natural (not-so-great) flavor of the icing. Give it a shot and see what you think. But either way, glaze tastes better.
- To set up for roses I got out about 30 toothpicks and pre-pierced my squares of parchment so I could work quickly once I got started. Once I’d gone through all of them I just re-used the toothpicks over and over– you don’t need to wash them or anything, it’s just more icing.
- I made far more roses than I needed for this small batch of cookies, simply because as long as I’m going to the trouble of making royal icing and setting up toothpicks and parchment squares, I may as well make a lot of them. They keep almost indefinitely if kept in a cool, dry place, and I acquired some bubble wrap to store the extras safely for later.
- Next time I decide to pipe ovals I’ll get a template and trace it on the wrong side of the paper, just to have a guide for symmetrical ovals. These turned out a bit “off,” which was less evident once I piped borders, but still niggled at me.
- While my set of gel colors didn’t come with black (so annoying), I did have a black food coloring marker. To get the black sections on my little paintings I would color them roughly with the marker, then use a brush dipped in vodka to smudge the color and make it a smooth finish. To get darker color values on my gel colors, I would just scribble a little black coloring next to the blob of gel, and use the vodka-dipped brush to mix the colors together.
- Speaking of colors, next time I will remember that glaze icing spread over a dark brown cookie will look slightly darker than when spread over a light-colored cookie. My icing bases turned out less bright than expected, though still pretty.