Friday, April 22, 2011

Experiment: Royal Icing

Damn you, cookies. Damn your delicious siren song. Curse your versatility, an appropriate snack for all ages and all venues, from after-school munch to high tea presentables. Most of all, your glorious presentation under coats of delicate icing; your transformation from flat crunchy biscuit to a perfectly appointed treat for the eyes as well as the tongue, sweet and tempting...

Damn it all, I gotta try this.

Between my sweet tooth and the books at the library, the call of the decorated cookie has been too much for me to ignore this spring. I usually make cookies from the "drop" family; that is, drop spoonfuls of dough on the cookies sheet, bake, cool, eat. Chocolate chip cookies are the most famous member of this family; so are snickerdoodles, most cookies involving peanut butter, or any chunky cookies full of nuts, candy, dried berries, oats, etc.

But I digress.

To make the sugar-shelled glory of finely decorated cookies, you need to start with a flat, clean canvas of rolled-and-cut cookies, and develop your decorations around the medium of royal icing; that mysterious sugary paste that requires unfamiliar powdered egg ingredients. Beyond the gingerbread cookie recipe I inherited from my mother, I have very little experience with rolled cookies. I have exactly ZERO experience with royal icing. However THIS:

O.O !!!

"now with more sparkles!"

Dood. Ornithology and sugar? I'm in. inspiration far more powerful than I can resist. So I got me a book and a canister of meringue powder and READY SET GO.

This book (above right), which was available at the library, is actually the Xmas special edition of the other book (above left), which was not, but will be shortly, because I requested it through interlibrary loan and the Empress of Librarians was all "hey, that's a cool book" and she ordered some copies for Pima county yaaay. :D

I'm not going to detail the recipe and making of the cookies in the book, because it's not my recipe and pretty much a moot point. You can make any cookie as a base for decorating so long as it possesses two particular qualities: flat and stiff. Crunchy butter cookies or hard gingerbread; that sort of thing. The book has recipes for butter sugar cookies, butter chocolate cookies, and gingerbread. I made the butter sugar cookies.


Royal Icing

The unique chemical nature of this stuff made me apprehensive about it's creation, but if you measure carefully and follow directions, it seems to come out more or less as it should be on the first try. One thing I have learned regarding the use of royal icing on cookies is that it needs to be made in two formats; piping and flood.

Piping is the stiffer stuff that keeps more of its shape and dries harder. It can be used in several ways, but for this elementary experiment, it's basically what you use to draw outlines of different areas you want to color. It is the "pen" of cookie illustration.

Flood icing has the same components as piping icing, but a higher ratio of water. Ergo, it flows a little more freely. Once you've drawn all the outlines you want with piping icing, you fill in the spaces with flood icing. It hits the piped borders and stops, giving an effect like cloisonne work. You can also add flood icing of different colors on top of a flooded background; it will sink in to the same blob, you can swirl the colors together for cool effects (called "feathering", I think).

ancient enameling technique compared to modern cookie (yep)

The other thing I have learned about royal icing is that its key ingredient is egg albumen, and that this can be supplied in one of at least three ways: liquid pasteurized egg whites, powdered egg whites, and meringue powder. A fourth way (zeroith way?) is just using egg whites that you separate from regular ol' whole eggs you get from a chicken or the store, but this carries a risk of salmonella, so don't do it and then blame me when you get sick.

I couldn't find powdered egg whites anywhere in town, and I didn't want to measure out liquid egg whites, so for convenience, I chose to use meringue powder. Maybe a bad choice on my part, since it makes things taste tinny and kinda bitter.

(I will not use this again.)

Now I am going to put down the recipe for royal icing -- using meringue power -- as provided in the book, specifically because THERE IS AN ERROR IN IT. A quick look around the Internet establishes that several bakers have identified a typo whereby "teaspoons" was accidentally replaced by "tablespoons" in the measurement of meringue powder. The publisher has acknowledged the mistake and will supposedly correct it in future reprints. In the meantime:

Here is the correct recipe for royal icing, adapted from the book Cookie Craft Christmas:

For Piping
2 cups confectioners' sugar (1/2 pound)
4 teaspoons meringue powder
3 tablespoons of warm water*
1 tablespoon lemon juice OR 1/2 to 1 teaspoon flavored extract

For Flooding
2 cups confectioners' sugar (1/2 pound)
4 teaspoons meringue powder
6 tablespoons of warm water*
1 tablespoon lemon juice OR 1/2 to 1 teaspoon flavored extract

*Notice that the amount of water is the only difference between piping and flooding icing.
"Combine all ingredients in a mixing bowl and beat on high speed with an electric mixer, 5 to 10 minutes or until icing reaches desired consistency. Store in airtight containers when not in use."

I put the piping icing, which I left white, in a quart Ziploc bag (thick freezer type) and cut a tiny hole in one tip to make a ghetto decorating bag. The flood icing went into three sammich bags along with some 5 to 15 drops of standard cheapo grocery store food coloring in each, which I then squished around in the sealed bags to color the stuff three ways: yellow, pink, and light green. I later added a darker green to the originally light green icing bag, making a darker green fourth color.



I cannot pipe royal icing worth a crap. In hindsight, this is because I made the rookie mistake of putting the tip of the icing bag against the cookie when squeezing out the icing. The correct way, apparently, is to "drape" the icing, holding the tip of the bag an inch or two above the cookie and allowing the string of icing to hang down, directing where it falls to make your shapes. So... yeah. Learning process. -_-; (You are supposed to put the tip of the bag against the cookie when adding flood icing, however.)

Meringue powder tastes bad. After the icing dried on the cookies, they actually tasted rather decent and lemony. The frosting alone, however, is bleh. Even though they contained the same ratio of sugar and meringue powder to flavoring, the piping icing was considerably less offensive than the flood icing. I can only assume the addition of more water in the flood icing causes a different reaction with the meringue powder. If I ever try royal icing again, I will use pasteurized egg whites.

Liquid food coloring is for pastel colors only. If you want strong colors, get paste colors in the little jars. It simply takes too much liquid coloring to get any considerable color at all, and you'll end up changing the consistency of the frosting with all those little drops.

Ziploc baggies are not equivalent to decorator bags. The quart bag worked admirably, but my control over the flow of the icing was poor compared to the control I could have gotten with a coupler and a few decorating tips. One of the sammich bags had a blow-out, taking out a few cookies with a sudden flood of squishy icing. Decorating bags are not expensive, but the cheapskate in me wants to try this technique before I spring for a pack of plastic cones. It's apparently a tried-and-true pro technique to fold baking parchment to make one's own disposable paper cones for frosting, and heaven knows I'm a nerd for folding paper. :D

Extra piping icing (and to a lesser extent, flood icing) can be used to make fancy tea sugars. Run out of cookies, but still have icing? It can last a while in the fridge in sealed containers, but it'll start to separate after a few days. You can use leftover icing to practice your decorating technique on wax paper or bakers' parchment, leave the sugary scribbles to dry overnight, and then use them like large, misshapen sugar cubes in your tea or coffee. As a bonus, the meringue flavor pretty much vanishes when dissolved in coffee or stronger tea.

Tea sugars! Fancy ones!

And that's the end of that experiment... but not of my lust for cookies. I can imagine I'll be back on this track someday. In the meantime, anybody want a tin of meringue powder? <:P

Monday, April 18, 2011


The tsunami in Miyagi prefecture, as viewed from Shidzukawa high school. Public schools are commonly built atop hills in Japan, especially in the Tohoku region, specifically to become safe zones in the case of tsunami. The public is instructed from childhood to gather at schools in case of any disaster or emergency.

In 5 minutes and 29 seconds, the entire town of Minamisanriku is destroyed.

This is the last post I'll make for a while regarding the tragedies in Japan, but please don't forget that the suffering continues every day, in millions of ways great and small. Your generosity can make all the difference. If you haven't already, please consider making a donation of your time or resources to help Japan. 

Besides the American Red Cross, the International Rescue Committee and CARE are two highly-rated charities currently working to provide relief and aid in Japan. There are many others. Check with your favorite charity.

Thank you very much; a million hearts rely upon your kindness.