Photo Credit: Steve Adams
© Julia M. Usher's Ultimate Cookies (2011, Gibbs Smith)
I was recently given the opportunity to review a wonderful new book titled Ultimate Cookies. It was written by an amazing author and baker, Julia M. Usher, with photography by the amazing photographer, Steve Adams. If you love to decorate cookies that are almost too beautiful to eat, Julia should definitely be your go-to source for recipes, tips, and project ideas. You may already be familiar with Julia. She has a wonderful website, and her first book, Cookie Swap was a best seller. She is the winner of three Cordon d'Or cookbook awards, she's a James Beard Food journalism awards finalist, and she's the Secretary-Treasurer for the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Ultimate Cookies is a great follow to Cookie Swap, and it is chock full of gorgeous cookie goodness!
As I began reading the book, Julia drew me in like Pooh Bear to a honey pot with this line in her introduction: "If you've got the decorating bug but not any experience, just pick up this book and go for it." After reading that line, my inner baker screamed "Raise your hand, Becca…she's talking to YOU!"
To put it mildly and keep this site with a family friendly rating, I SUCK GUMBALLS when it comes to hand/eye coordination, which means that my dessert decorating is nothing short of disastrous. I can bake a pastry or cupcake that tastes heavenly and will melt in your mouth, but if you need it decorated, you'd have a more beautiful dessert if you asked a kindergartener to do it for you. Seriously. You don't believe me?! I really hope that one day you'll trust me a bit more. *sigh* OK, fine. Here are examples of what beautifully decorated cookies are SUPPOSED to look like:
Julia's decorated cookies (as published in Cookie Swap):
Photo Credit: Steve Adams
Another amazing cookie decorator is Marian. I get giddy with excitement whenever I see that a new post of hers has arrived to my inbox. You really should check out her site AFTER you've finished reading this post and you've purchased copies of Ultimate Cookies for yourself and a couple of your friends. (You won't regret it, and besides, you know you want to...Please and thank you.)
Yes, that was a trust issue test... Take a baby step and just do it.
Anyway, here are some of the cookies that Marian decorated for Halloween this year:
If ever cookies could be simultaneously gorgeous, cute, and spooky, those are examples!
Julia's book has equally fun and spooky Halloween ideas, but I didn't post pics, because I don't want to give away all of the fun packed inside the book! Aside of the great project ideas, I love how Julia explains very delicately and sweetly in Ultimate Recipes that with a steady hand and some practice and patience, it's possible for almost anyone to create cookies as beautiful as hers are. I guess the emphasis should be on PRACTICE, because this is what my very first attempt at decorating with royal icing looked like:
Yes, I know. Say it with me… They look PATHETIC. I had so much fun baking them that I almost didn't care, though! As I learned in Julia's tips, my royal icing was too thin, so I had some issues with the drippage on the letters. However, I used her easy to make sugar cookie recipe, which means that they tasted absolutely DELICIOUS! They have a wonderful crisp exterior and a tender, chewy interior, just the way I like them. I wanted a nice fall spice to my cookies, so I made the cinnamon cookie variation. They were PERFECT for Brian to take to his Halloween office party. By the way, I may or may not have eaten 5 servings of chilled cookie dough while I was baking these up. It had to be done, because what kind of cook would I be if I didn't taste the food I was going to serve, right? You'll have to buy the book to see the endless variations of the traditional cookie recipe (the orange-clove and cinnamon varieties were my favorites), but you'll find the traditional recipe at the end of this post.
Julia's book has tips that you aren't likely to find in other books. She gives you instructions on making your own custom cookie cutters (something I can't wait to try!), tips on how to save money by making your own parchment paper decorating cones, and she covers decorating techniques that are easy for beginners as well as delving into some more advanced design ideas like decorating with wafer paper, beadwork, and stenciling, too.
Something else I love about Ultimate Recipes is how well everything is laid out. The table of contents is thorough and the handy index in the back made it super easy to find the projects I wanted to work on. There are project ideas for virtually every holiday in this book, and you're going to find some wonderful gift-giving ideas, too. Julia gives easy step-by-step directions for making the dough, rolling and cutting out the cookies, and helpful information for preparing the royal icing. I think that her foolproof directions and troubleshooting tips would even make it possible for older children to follow along and try.
Of course, there are beautiful pictures throughout the book too, which made it amazingly easy for me to fall more in love with each turn of a page. With over 40 projects to try, this book is sure to have something that you'll want to try. The book is scheduled for release in November, and I highly recommend that you run off and pick yourself up a copy. With practice and patience, maybe our 2011 holiday projects will look something like these beauties!
JULIA USHER'S SIGNATURE SUGAR COOKIE DOUGH
© Julia M. Usher's Ultimate Cookies (2011, Gibbs Smith)
Makes about 1 pound 6 ounces dough or 3 to 3 1⁄2 dozen (2 1⁄2-inch) round cookies
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 1⁄2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1⁄4 teaspoon salt
- 6 tablespoons (3⁄4 stick) unsalted butter, softened
- 1⁄3 cup (1⁄3 stick) shortening
- 3⁄4 cup granulated sugar
- 1 large egg
- 1 tablespoon whole milk
- 1⁄2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (or to taste)
- Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl. Set aside for use in Step 4.
- Using an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter and shortening on medium speed until creamy.
- Gradually add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy, about 1 minute. Do not overbeat, or your cookies will dome upon baking, making them more difficult to decorate later.
- Whisk together the egg, milk, and vanilla extract in another bowl.
- Slowly blend into the butter mixture on low to medium speed and mix until smooth. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, as needed, to ensure even mixing.
- Turn the mixer to low speed and gradually add the reserved dry ingredients, mixing until just incorporated.
- Flatten the dough into a disk, wrap tightly in plastic, and refrigerate about 3 hours, or until firm enough to roll without sticking.
- Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 375°F. Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper (or silicone baking mats) and set aside.
- On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough to a 1⁄8- to 3⁄16-inch thickness. (Note: It's best to roll these cookies no thicker than 3⁄16 inch in order to keep them their flattest for decorating.)
- Cut out assorted shapes with your favorite cookie cutters or the cutters or templates specified in the project you've chosen. Carefully transfer the cookies to the prepared cookie sheets with an offset spatula, leaving no less than 3⁄4 inch between each cutout.
- Baking time will vary considerably with cookie size and thickness. Bake until the cookies are lightly browned around their edges, about 8 to 10 minutes for 2 1⁄2-inch round cookies or as specified in your project. Let particularly long or delicately shaped cookies cool 1 to 2 minutes on the cookie sheets before transferring to wire racks. Otherwise, immediately transfer to racks and cool completely before frosting and/or assembling with Royal Icing or decorating.
NOTE: For easiest handling, the dough should be chilled about 3 hours before rolling and cutting. The dough can be frozen for 1 month or more with minimal loss of flavor if wrapped tightly in plastic and then foil. For best eating, store baked cookies in airtight containers at room temperature and enjoy within 1 to 1 1⁄2 weeks.