Family Traditions: Painted Sugar Cookies

Do you have a holiday baking tradition? That dish or dessert that you make year after year and have perfected to your own unique version? The one that friends and family request and look forward to every holiday season? 

The longest-running holiday baking tradition in my family is our annual "painted cookies"--- aka scratch-made sugar cookies decorated with homemade icing. For my whole life I remember my mom baking these to give our teachers and friends. I'm not sure what age she let me and my brother start helping with the decorating, but I remember how much fun it was to lick icing off our fingers and how excited we were when a cookie accidentally broke and we got to eat it. 

Many years, friends joined in the decorating fun, and many came to look forward to the annual event knowing they would get to take home a tray of cookies that they decorated. Whisper: this is also because my mom only gave the prettiest cookies as gifts so usually our amateur efforts didn't make the gift-able cut. ;) #nouglycookies 

Also, once I gave some of these cookies to a boy I liked in school. Even he acknowledged how detailed they were, and if a 16-year-old guy will notice, then that's saying something. These cookies are pretty, tasty, and will garner lots of comments. 

Today I'm sharing our recipe for these special cookies which can be such a fun tradition to include in your family's holiday. 

I hope you won't mind if I also share my disclaimer that these cookies are somewhat labor intensive, in my opinion. They are still insanely fun to make and decorate. I just am lacking in patience for the rolling out and baking. You might not find that to be much effort though since it depends on perspective. I confess to being impatient and eager to get to the fun part--still a kid at heart! Now that I'm an adult and have been making these on my own for a few Christmases, I can truly appreciate the effort that goes into these treasured treats and how much work my mom put into the annual event.  

Despite the work that goes into these cookies, it simply doesn't feel like Christmas without them (we've skipped some years and regretted it!), so I cheerfully turn on Bing Crosby, don my snowman apron, and make as many as 100 of these cute cookies each year. 

In addition to sharing my recipe, I'll share some tips and tricks both for baking and decorating that can make the process even easier! 

For starters, you can simplify the process with store-bought dough or ready-made plain sugar cookies if you're short on time. Or you can bake the cookies a little along as you can find time and freeze them until you're ready to decorate them. I usually intend to bake and freeze in late October then forget and end up turning my kitchen into a crazy, colorful, flour-bespeckled cookie factory. 

If you need clarification or have questions about any of the steps, comment below and I'll happily answer! 

Now, assuming you want the Full Cookie Experience, let's start with the recipe for the homemade cookies.

Sara's Sugar Cookies and Homemade Icing 

Yields 3 dozen cookies                                                         Bake at 375
Prep time: I don't watch the clock so not sure :)              Cook time: 7-9 min per tray 
Decorating time: as long as you prefer to take 

  • - 2/3 cup Crisco
  • - 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • - 1 tsp. vanilla 
  • - 2 cups self-rising flour
  • - 1 egg
  • - 4 tsp. milk
The brands that I use are pictured above. ^^ No endorsements, just what I actually use. 

  • - Additional milk for icing. Just have a cup or so on hand since exact amount will vary.
  • - 2 lb bag of powdered sugar (10x listed on the bag)
  • - Extracts to flavor the icing if desired. I use peppermint, vanilla, and almond. 
  • - Food coloring to tint icing. I just use the 4-pack dropper bottles from any grocery store.   You can definitely get fancier with nice Wilton products which will yield very deep  colors. 
  • -Assorted holiday sprinkles. I like to have cinnamon hots on hand for Rudolph noses, snowmen buttons, Santa noses, and holly berries. I also like to have something small that works for eyes for these guys too. Beyond that it's all up to you. 

Gear needed (because I take nothing for granted and no one ever tells you what all would be helpful to have on hand): 
  • - large mixing bowl for dough 
  • - parchment paper 
  • - cookie sheets 2+ are helpful
  • - rolling pin
  • - cookie cutters
  • - cooling rack or tray  
  • - mixer and spatula
  • - measuring cups and spoons  
  • - a bowl, spoon and knife for each icing color you make. I like oversized cereal bowls or Pyrex glass storage bowls with lids in case I have to stop in the middle or have leftover icing to save. 

1. Using a mixer, thoroughly blend sugar, Crisco, and vanilla together.

2. Add egg and milk and mix again.

3. Add flour a little at a time (unless you want it to look like Elsa visited your kitchen, much to the delight of your kiddos) Don't overwork the dough. Add the flour until just incorporated so cookies will be tender and soft.

4. Chill the dough in the freezer for 30 minutes. You can chill it for l hour but at least give it 30 minutes. This makes the dough less sticky to work with. 

Continued below.

5. After the dough has chilled, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Roll the dough out between two sheets of parchment paper. To do this, lay a piece of parchment paper roughly the size of your cookie sheet on your work surface. Place the ball of dough on top of the paper. Cover with another piece of parchment around the same size and use a rolling pin to roll the dough out thin. Around 1/4" is good. Too thin and you'll end up with crispy crackers. Too thick and your shapes will be bloated and hard to distinguish (aka how I feel after Thanksgiving meal) 

TIP: You can roll out the dough before you chill it. Just complete this step prior to chilling. Line a cookie sheet or tray with parchment, roll to desired thickness, top with another sheet of parchment. I opted not to do this and life was dandy (so were the cookies). 

Notes: in years past I have not rolled the dough between parchment. If you opt not to, you'll want to flour your work surface generously and flour the rolling pin. But try to use parchment paper because you'll appreciate this a few steps later.

6. Pick out the cookie cutters that you'd like to use. Here is my usual selection.

You can do all one shape per tray or mix them up like I did below. I mixed mine because I was only making a single batch and wanted to be sure I had a variety of shapes. 

7. Peel away the top layer of parchment paper, revealing nice flat dough. Cut out shapes with your cookie cutters and leave room between each shape just as you would leave room on the cookie sheet for the dough to rise some. (Below I forgot to leave them enough room. Tsk, tsk!)  

8. So now you have dough shapes cut out on top of parchment paper. Peel away the excess dough around the shapes. I try to gently lift an edge with my thumb and literally roll the trimmings away. Don't discard. You'll use this for more cookies. 

9. Using parchment paper makes baking really easy. Now you'll gently lift that parchment sheet with your cut out shapes on it and lay the whole sheet on your cookie sheet. Yep, you'll bake the cookies directly on the parchment paper which is oven-safe. This eliminates the pesky problem of using a spatula to scoop the shapes and transfer them to the cookie sheet. Too many Rudolphs have been decapitated this way. Too many snowflakes have lost points. Too many candy canes have snapped like twigs. You get my point.  

10. Bake cookies 7-9 minutes. Take them out as soon as they have risen and have a little color. Don't wait for them to get golden because they will be crispy instead of soft and delicious. The surface of the dough will look a little cracked in the center.

11. Move baked cookies to a cooling rack using a spatula. Avoid stacking warm cookies. Let them cool completely before making stacks of them.

12. Now it's time to make icing!

Using a hand mixer or simply a spoon, add 1 cup of powdered sugar to one of your big cereal bowls. Add 2-3 tablespoons of milk and stir well. You want a consistency that is pliable but not runny or it will slide off your cookies. If you find it is too runny, add a little bit more powdered sugar. If it is too thick, add a little more milk until you get it right. I usually test it out by holding the spoon up and seeing how fast it falls off the spoon. It should move like a snail.

13. Add a scant amount of one of your extracts to flavor the icing. Then add food coloring to tint the icing. Repeat the process to create each separate icing color in its own bowl.

Here's what I usually do:

-White: add no color. Just add a few drops of vanilla. Not much or your white will be dingy.

-Red: add red drops and stir until desired shade is achieved. It will probably be pink. Wilton dyes will yield truly bright red but I am happy with a pastel reddish coral (I will add a teensy drop of yellow to make it more coral than pink but beware, too much and you'll have an orange shade that is hard to come back from). Add a little vanilla flavoring or cinnamon if you prefer for this color.

-Green: add green drops and stir until desired shade is achieved. Add scant amount of peppermint extract for flavor. Peppermint seems to be the strongest of the extracts so a very tiny amount goes a long way.

-Blue: add blue drops and stir until desired shade is achieved. You could choose to do blue in peppermint but I will often choose anise or almond for the blue. Why? Tradition.

-Yellow: add yellow drops and stir until desired shade is achieved. I'll generally flavor this vanilla, almond, or maple.

If cookies are completely cooled, you're ready to decorate! There are no formal rules about decorating. Have fun and do whatever you like. Be as creative as possible. I am always trying out something different with the cookies and always trying to up my game. I've got big visions for new techniques and details that I hope I'll have time to try out this year. I've made a small batch for Thanksgiving so far and hope to make a lot more in the coming weeks. 

Read on for some helpful tips and tricks. 


-Cover your table with a plastic table cloth. Put on an apron or old shirt. I suggest this for everyone decorating cookies with you too. 

-Give each person a tray to use as their work station. I use plastic square trays from Dollar Tree with a slight lip on them. These help corral sprinkles during the decoration process. 

-Use plastic gloves if you plan to give these away to minimize germs and the temptation to lick your fingers and then touch the cookies. 

-Have a damp cloth on hand to clean up any icing drips as dye will stain. Frosting is easy to clean up when it hardens but if it is a surface that you treasure, you'll want to clean it up right away to avoid dye stains. 

-To add piping trim to Christmas trees, wreaths, etc, spoon some icing into a ziploc baggie and snip a teeny tiny tip off one of the bottom corners. Be sure to squeeze all the air out of the bag. Then you can use it like a bakery bag and pipe snowy trim on trees and such. It's an easy way to add dimension to your cookies which takes them up a notch to Martha or Real Simple level. :) 

-I love to shake clear sprinkles on snowflakes and Santa's beard to look like snow or frost. They add a pretty shimmer and texture to the cookies.

-When placing eyes on a cookie, I keep toothpicks handy to steer the sprinkles into place without messing up the icing. Toothpicks also help if a sprinkle you didn't intend to shake out lands on a cookie. Sometimes with multi-pack sprinkle cans, sprinkles from another section can cross over.  



-Stockings look cute with holly accents. I use a red hot as a berry and add a couple holly leaves from one of my jars of sprinkles. 


-Once cookies have been decorated, I transfer them to trays or racks to finish drying (they may drip in case you want to line the counter with something. 

-Once dry, I store the cookies in the fridge or freezer in plastic containers with sheets of wax paper between each layer to prevent smudges. If you use any gel accents, they will smear or push off when they make contact with something so let those rest on top or avoid using gel. 



Be sure to leave some of these cookies out for Santa and he might be extra good to you this year! I place out a tray any time we have visitors over the holiday season and pepper in some peanut butter blossoms and candy to help the cookies go further. 

Next week or so I'll share some table decor ideas and some of my favorite stocking stuffer items to give and receive. 

Have a Happy Thanksgiving with your loved ones!

Stylishly yours,

No comments :

Post a Comment