Julia M. Usher’s Ultimate Cookie Creations is full of some of the most exquisite cookies that I have ever seen. Julia’s unique cookies are as ornate and appealing as a Faberge egg. They are sweet and tempting confections, and — best of all — she explains how to recreate her cookie magic.
The book contains 40 cookie projects as well as 20 detailed recipes. It also has many detailed full-coloured photos of cookie making and decorating techniques, as well as the finished cookies and projects. Julia explained that she felt this was important for her readers. We agree the photos are invaluable teaching aids. If you are a baker, just reading this book will make you want to get out your mixer and rolling pin.
I asked Julia for her favourite go-to cookie. She offered her Brandied-Cherry Chocolate Sin Cookie, a “rich chewy cookie with many flavours from the brandy-soaked cherries and toasted pecans.
“I like intense flavours. I don’t like things just to be sweet,” Julia said, adding that her cookies are easy to make and come together quickly – a plus for busy women.
Julia said the biggest mistake novice bakers is failing to chill cookie dough for rolled cookies. “If the dough is too warm, it starts to stick when you try to roll it,” she said. “Then people add more flour and that toughens the cookies.” Another great tip Julia offered was to roll and cut your dough directly onto the cookie sheet, to avoid having the shapes distort when you try to lift them.
Her final tip was to whip up thick batches of decorative icing and then thin them out. It seems that whipping icing that is too thin incorporates air bubbles that can be hard to eliminate.
Julia M. Usher’s Ultimate Cookie Creations is a must-have cookbook for anyone who wants to create magical cookies for any occasion. Julia has included fanciful cookie displays for all occasions and holidays. She even has a “goof-proof” French macaroon recipe.
Here is a special holiday recipe Julia agreed to share with DolceDolce readers:
Snow Globes with Name Dropper variation
A flurry of snowflake confetti, sanding sugar, and nonpareils adds sparkle to these fun yuletide favors. You can make your own Royal Icing figures for the central vignettes or, to avoid the holiday rush, use readymade decorations as pictured left.
About 1 pound 5 ounces (1⁄2 recipe) Cutout Cookie Gingerbread (p. 236) or (1 recipe) Signature Sugar Cookie Dough (p. 234)
12-piece fluted round cookie cutter set (Ateco #5407, p. 14)
12-piece plain round cookie cutter set (Ateco #5457, p. 14)
About 3 cups (2⁄3 recipe) Royal Icing (p. 242), divided; quantity will vary
Soft-gel food colorings (p. 14) of your choice
Small craft paintbrush (handle about 1⁄4-inch diameter)
Parchment pastry cones (p. 13)
A few tablespoons sanding sugar, nonpareils, and/or edible glitter (p. 26)
Assorted small (1⁄2- to 1 1⁄4-inch) readymade royal icing embellishments (p. 26), such as santas, snowmen, penguins, and Christmas trees, for central vignettes
Snowflake sugar confetti (p. 26)
Assorted (2 to 3 mm) dragées or sugar beads (p. 26)
Pastry bag fitted with tip of your choice, for borders
Cutout Cookie Gingerbread (p. 236) or Signature Sugar Cookie Dough (p. 234
Either dough, above, works well for this small-scale 3-D construction project. Just be sure to mix and
chill the dough as instructed. If packaged in airtight containers at room temperature, this project will
stay its best about 1 week.
1. Cut and bake the snow globe pieces. Each snow globe will be comprised of 4 cookies: 1 (3 1⁄2-inch) plain round cookie for the central vignette, 2 (4 1⁄8-inch) fluted rounds (the first cut into a ring to frame the central vignette; the other left solid to reinforce the back of the vignette), and 1 (2 1⁄2-inch) fluted round for the base.
On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough to a 1⁄8- to 3⁄16-inch thickness. Start by cutting out the 4 1⁄8-inch fluted rounds and rings. It’s best to cut the latter directly on prepared cookie sheets to minimize the misshaping that can occur in transferring from work surface to cookie sheet. Cut out 12 rounds with the 4 1⁄8-inch fluted cutter; then cut out a window in the center of half of the rounds using a 2 7⁄8-inch plain round cutter. Reroll the remaining dough to the same thickness and cut out 6 (3 1⁄2-inch) plain rounds and 6 (2 1⁄2-inch) fluted rounds. Group likesize cookies on the same cookie sheet.
Bake as directed until lightly browned around the edges, or about 9 to 11 minutes for the 4 1⁄8-inch rings (or frames) and 2 1⁄2-inch rounds, and 11 to 13 minutes for the 3 1⁄2-inch and 4 1⁄8-inch rounds. Cool completely before decorating.
2. Prepare the Royal Icing as instructed on page 242. Reserve about 1⁄2 cup for beadwork, 1⁄2 cup for “glue,” 1⁄4 cup for flocking (aka sanding), and 1⁄2 cup for inner borders on the rings. Note: The quantity of icing will vary with the number of colors and consistencies mixed. It’s best to allow no less than 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 cup icing per color or consistency for easiest mixing and handling.
3. Top-coat the bases, central vignettes, and rings. Divide the remaining 1 1⁄4 cups icing into as many portions as you want top-coating colors. For this quantity of icing, I limit the colors to three: pale blue for sky and white for snow on the central vignettes (3 1⁄2-inch rounds), and another color, such as red or green, for the bases and the 4 1⁄8-inch rings. (Note: It isn’t necessary to top-coat the solid 4 1⁄8-inch rounds; they will be used as props to keep the vignettes from leaning and will not be seen in the final construction.) Thin each portion to top-coating consistency (p. 245).
Using the handle-end of a craft paintbrush, apply a smooth coat of icing to each cookie top. For top-coating technique details, see page 28. As noted earlier, I usually ice the bottom halves of the 3 1⁄2-inch rounds in white and the top halves in blue, for snow and sky. For greater control over the placement of these icings, outline each area first and then flood inside, as pictured in “Short and Sweet.” Let the icing dry until very firm.
4. Add dots to the outer rings and bases. Tint the 1⁄2 cup icing reserved for beadwork to a color that complements the top-coating colors; then thin to the proper consistency (p. 245). Transfer the icing to a parchment pastry cone and cut a small (1⁄16-inch or more) hole in the tip. Pipe small dots around the outside edge of each 2 1⁄2-inch base and each 4 1⁄8-inch ring following the instructions for beadwork on page 34. (Alternatively, choose a different border from among those listed in “7 Essential Piping
Techniques,” p. 46.) Let the icing dry to the touch.
5. Frame and create central vignettes. Use the 1⁄2 cup icing reserved for “glue” to tack a ring onto each 3 1⁄2-inch round, taking care to center the rings on top.
Create a holiday-themed vignette inside each ring by flocking (aka sanding) areas with sanding sugar, nonpareils, and/or edible glitter and then gluing readymade royal icing embellishments, snowflake confetti, and/or dragées or sugar beads on top. Note: I usually flock the bottom half of each round with white nonpareils and edible glitter to mimic snow. To flock, thin the 1⁄4 c up i cing reserved for this purpose to top-coating consistency and spread a thin layer on the area to be flocked. Sprinkle nonpareils or sanding sugar over the wet icing and shake off the excess into a bowl. For more flocking technique details, see page 42. Lastly, glue a solid 4 1⁄8-inch round to the back of each 3 1⁄2-inch round so that the 4 1⁄8-inch ring and the 4 1⁄8-inch round line up.
Short and Sweet. (a) Top-coat (or outline and flood) the cookies for the central vignettes, bases, and rings. Add Royal Icing dots or other borders to the edges of the bases and rings. (b) Glue a ring around each central vignette cookie with thick Royal Icing. Use an assortment of readymade royal icing embellishments, sugar confetti, and other decorations to create a wintry picture within each ring. Reinforce the back of each vignette with another round cookie. (c) Pipe a border on the inner edge of each ring. Use thick Royal Icing to stand up each vignette on a cookie base. Prop until dry.
6. Add borders to the inner rings. Tint the 1⁄2 cup icing reserved for inner ring borders to a color of your choice and choose a border style from among those listed on page 46. Adjust the icing to the appropriate consistency for your border and transfer to a parchment pastry cone or pastry bag fitted with the right tip. Proceed to pipe a border around the inner edge of each ring. Note: I piped a Trailing Star Border (p. 47) with thick icing and a pastry bag fitted with a 1⁄4-inch star tip (Ateco #18 or #27).
7. Assemble the snow globes. Work on one snow globe at a time. Glue a framed cookie vignette upright to the center of a cookie base using as little icing “glue” as possible to keep it from showing. Prop the vignette, as needed, until the “glue” is dry. Repeat to assemble 6 snow globes in total. Do not move until completely dry.
Here is a variation of the Snowg lobe calles name dropper
Snow globes can go from frivolous favor to polished place card simply by swapping the readymade royal icing figures for mini roses and names printed on wafer paper. Here, I’ve used an elegant script font called Eutemia I, flowers from fancyflours.com, and Royal Icing leaves piped with a 1⁄4-inch leaf tip (Ateco #352).
Royal icing aka “Glue ” with Consistency and adjustments
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Royal Icing is—by far—my favorite cookie decorating medium! Even if I intend to use a relatively loose Royal Icing, I always start by mixing the icing to a very thick consistency using the egg white to powdered sugar ratio below. When mixed thick, the icing ends up with fewer air bubbles and holds coloring better with less mottling. Also, the thicker the icing, the faster it dries, which makes this thick formulation ideal for securing decorations to cookie tops and sticking together compound cookies (p. 45) or larger 3-D structures. In short, it acts like “glue,” and that’s how I refer to it throughout the book. Most other decorating techniques require looser icing, which is easily achieved by thinning thick icing with water. See “Consistency Adjustments” (p. 244) for details.
2 pounds powdered sugar
1⁄2 teaspoon cream of tartar
5 large egg whites, cold (about 11 to 12 tablespoons pasteurized whites, or see “Substitutions,” p. 243)
Flavoring(s) of your choice, to taste (Note: Don’t skimp on the flavoring, or the icing can taste chalky.)
Soft-gel food coloring (p. 14) of your choice (optional) royal icing
Makes about 2 pounds 4 ounces or 4 1⁄2 to 5-plus cups; yield will vary with egg size, egg temperature, and beating time.
If tinted, the icing is best used the day it’s mixed. Otherwise, the icing can be made 1 to 2 days ahead and stored in the fridge. When ready to use, bring the icing to room temperature, stir vigorously to restore its original consistency (especially if any separation has occurred), and tint as desired. Once applied to cookies, the icing should remain at room temperature so it sets into a crunchy candy-like coating. Important: Unless you’re using the icing, always cover the surface flush with plastic wrap to prevent a crust from quickly forming.
1. Combine the powdered sugar and cream of tartar in the bowl of an electric mixer. Mix in the egg whites by hand to moisten the sugar.
2. Fit the electric mixer with a whip attachment. To avoid a flurry of powdered sugar, beat the mixture on low speed just until the egg whites are evenly incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl; then turn the mixer to its highest speed and continue to beat about 2 to 3 minutes. (The icing will lighten and thicken as you beat it. However, avoid beating too long; you’ll introduce excess air bubbles, which are tough to remove and interfere with smooth top-coating.) When done, the icing should be bright white, glossy, and very thick—and at what I call “glue” consistency. At this consistency, the icing will cling to a spoon (held upside down) indefinitely without falling off.
3. Beat in flavoring(s) and/or coloring, as desired. Mix well before using or store, covered flush with plastic wrap, as instructed in “Prep Talk.”
the icing on the cookie
There’s no better way to bedazzle a plain iced cookie than to top it with other edibles! When I first started decorating cookies with my mom way back when, we had little other than jimmies and standard (3 mm) silver sugar beads, aka dragees, for this purpose. But times have changed (thankfully) and now you can find a veritable gold mine of embellishments at specialty cooking stores, online, and even at your local five-and-dime. Pictured to the right are my favorite decorating elements, along with the name of my preferred online supplier, if I happen to have one. You can venture to make some of these items on your own, such as the sugar gems and royal icing embellishments, but I don’t think anyone will object to these lovely shortcuts.
1. Sugar gems. A plethora of isomalt jewels can be found at fancyflours.com and elsewhere online. When exposed to humidity, gems can turn cloudy, so it’s best to store the in their original packaging, tightly sealed, along with tiny desiccator packs. The shimmer on cloudy gems can be temporarily restored by coating them lightly with vegetable oil.
2. Isomalt. Isomalt is a form of sugar that withstands humidity with less clouding and wilting than normal sugar. It comes in granular form, as shown right, and needs to be hydrated, dissolved, and boiled before use. You can use it to make sugar gems (by pouring it, liquefied, into gem molds), but I most often use it to make clear sugar panels or windows in my cookies, as pictured in Jack o’ Lanterns (p. 191) and Along Came a Spider (p. 185). Crushed hard candies can also be used for windows, but in addition to its humidity advantage, isomalt yields shinier, less bubbly glass. And, because it’s clear when dissolved, you can tint it any color you like. Isomalt is widely available, especially online.
3. Crystallized edible flowers. Expensive, but exquisite, these sugar-coated (real) flowers are completely edible if pesticide-free. I love the selection and service at both crystallizedflowerco.com and sweetfields.com. In addition to the roses used on my May Day Baskets (pictured on pages 25 and 168), you can get organic pansies, violets, snapdragons, strawberry blossoms, and more!
4. Readymade royal icing and rolled fondant embellishments.
Up until discovering the royal icing and rolled fondant do-dads on fancyflours.com, I’d have made my own. But the detail, quality, and breadth of their product line is beyond compare—and so now I take a shortcut or two every once in a while! Pictured on page 25 is just a small smattering of what fancyflours.com and others offer.
5. Dragees and sugar beads (aka edible pearls). An online search for these items is bound to leave you scratching your head in confusion. That’s because “dragees,” “sugar beads,” and “edible pearls” are often used inconsistently to describe various types of small round decorative elements.
To help clarify matters, I’ve made a distinction between dragees and sugar beads (which I also refer to as edible pearls) in this book. By my definition, dragees are sugar beads onto which trace amounts of metal (primarily, silver) have been deposited to make them glimmer. They usually come in silver and gold finishes, but you can also find them in other metallic colors. Because of this coating, dragees are not FDA-approved. However, they are nontoxic and safe for use on food, and considered edible in countries outside the US. Regardless of your nation’s stance on edibility, the bigger ones can be hard, so I often brush them off before eating. By contrast, sugar beads (edible pearls) are made without any metal in their coatings and look a lot like dragees, albeit less shiny. They come in the same wide range of sizes (2 mm to 8 mm) and a rainbow of colors, making them a great—and FDA-approved—substitute.
6. Sugar confetti (aka quins). Classically, sugar confetti comes in the form of small (about 1⁄4-inch) flat sugar disks, but you can also find it in a variety of seasonal shapes, such as snowflakes, Christmas trees, leaves, bats . . . you name it. Once again, fancyflours.com is my go-to source due to their broad selection.
7. Printed wafer paper. Nothing more than thin ( 8 x 11-inch) sheets of dehydrated potato starch, water, and oil, wafer paper is a relatively new decorating medium, which is cut and pasted onto dried Royal Icing or modeling media with corn syrup. Wafer paper is virtually tasteless and quickly dissolves on the tongue, much like a communion wafer if you’ve ever experienced one! Printed paper is harder to find than most other items on this list; the most extensive selection of patterns I’ve found—and it’s lovely to boot—is at fancyflours.com.
8. Plain wafer paper. I f you can’t find a printed wafer paper pattern to suit your needs, no worries. You can print your own patterns onto plain wafer paper using a dedicated printer (p. 24) with edible inks or draw or trace on the paper with food-safe marking pens (below). Unlike printed wafer paper, plain paper is readily available online. I like to source mine from kopykake.com, since I can get
it there in larger increments and at lower cost than from most other suppliers.
9. Edible inks and marking pens. Edible inks are available in cartridges to fit ink jet printers as discussed on page 24; you can also find a range of marking pens filled with food-safe ink. Before you buy ink cartridges, make sure that they’re designed to work with your specific printer model. Kopykake.com has some excellent online reference tools to help you match ink to printer. As for markers, my preferred brand is AmeriColor, as their markers seem to consistently outlast the other major brands I’ve tried.
10. Sanding sugar, jimmies, nonpareils, and edible glitter.
I’ve grouped these tiny sugar decorations together here, as I generally use them the same way on cookies—that is, I apply them with the flocking technique (p. 42). These items vary in shape and shimmer, but all come in an abundance of colors and are easily found online and off. (Sanding sugar also comes fine- or coarse-grained.)
11. Modeling media. I love to make tiny 3-D elements for cookies, and one can only get so far with Royal Icing. Far more lifelike and delicate elements can often be made with modeling media, such as rolled fondant, Chocolate Dough, and marzipan (pictured left to right on page 25). Each of these media has its pros and cons, as described on page 53.
12. Luster, pearl, petal, and other decorating dusts (or powders).
As with d ragees and sugar beads, the wealth of decorating dusts, and the differences among them, can boggle the mind. Generally speaking, all dusts can be applied dry to cookies or cookie decorations to add an iridescent glow and/or color highlights. They can also be extended with oil-based colorings, extract, or alcohol, and painted onto edibles to create a stronger, more opaque finish. The various dusts range in shimmer and color intensity.
Petal dusts come in a wide range of colors but have a matte finish. Pearl and luster dusts are very similar to one another in that they’re shinier than petal dusts and sometimes, but not always, more subtly colored. Other dusts, such as metallic highlighter dusts, are super shiny and create the most opaque paint, and still others, such as disco, sparkle, twinkle, and pixie dusts, are slightly more granular and, as their names suggest, sparkle like glitter. Most types of dusts are nontoxic, but not FDA-approved. However, some brands, namely Wilton (pearl dust) and Crystal Colors (petal dust), are FDA-approved, so be sure to look carefully at product labels. Regardless of official edibility, I generally use dusts in small quantities on cookies, for “show” cookies, or on elements that can be removed, because they do leave a somewhat powdery residue on the tongue.
13. Dime store candies. Don’t ever dis’ dime stores. It might take a little more ingenuity to find the right decorating element in their candy aisles, but dreaming up uses for their eye-catching confections is part of the fun. Pictured on page 25 are the candies I use most frequently in the book: licorice lace, Haribo licorice wheels, gumballs, and M&Ms, especially the mini ones. If you can’t find what you need locally, candywarehouse.com has an extensive online selection.
Cutout cookie gingerbread
High on spice yet relatively delicate in texture, this dough is perfect for 2-D cookies and small-scale 3-D construction projects. It also spreads less than Signature Sugar Cookie Dough, making it more suitable for tight-fitting angular constructions, insofar as it requires less trimming. For projects with very large weight-bearing pieces, such as Full Plate (p. 101) or Open Your Heart Box (p. 165), the safer bet is sturdier Construction Gingerbread.
Makes about 3 pounds dough or 6 1⁄2 to 7 dozen (2 1⁄2-inch) round cookies
5 cups all-purpose flour
2 1⁄2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 1⁄4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1⁄2 teaspoons baking soda
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (1 stick) shortening
1 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 cup mild molasses
2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
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.
1. Combine the flour, spices, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. Set aside for use in Step 4.
2. Using an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the shortening and sugar until well combined. Add the egg and beat on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 1 minute. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, as needed, to ensure even mixing.
3. Turn the mixer to medium speed and add the molasses and vinegar. Mix well. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, as needed.
4. Turn the mixer to low speed and gradually add the reserved dry ingredients. Mix until just incorporated; however, make sure there are no dry spots.
5. Flatten the dough into a disk (or 2 disks for easier handling). Wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate about 3 hours, or until firm enough to roll without sticking.
6. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 375°F. Line 2 or more cookie sheets with parchment paper (or silicone baking mats) and set aside.
7. 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.
8. Baking time will vary considerably with cookie size and thickness. Bake until the cookies are firm to the touch and lightly browned around the edges, about 8 to 10 minutes for 2 1⁄2-inch round cookies or as instructed 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 the cookies. Cool completely before frosting and/or assembling with Royal Icing (p. 242) or storing.