LEXINGTON, MASS. — Karen Costa is more relaxed when decorating cookies than cakes. Working on the smaller "canvas" is less intimidating and more fun, says the woman who has passionately pursued a career in confectionery art for 33 years. If you mess up, you can simply move on to another cookie. And you can even eat your mistakes.
That's why cookie decorating is an ideal activity for children. "With kids, cookies don't have to be perfect," says Ms. Costa, whose handiwork draws longing looks to display cases at Daniel's Bakery in the Brighton section of Boston.
But it's adults who flock to Costa's classroom at Minuteman Regional High School in Lexington, Mass.
The Monitor recently dropped in on one of the cookie-decorating workshops she teaches there.
Students who previously took her cake-decorating class are relieved to discover that cookie decorating lends itself to playfulness. They can either try something new each time or refine techniques for a particular design.
Hand-decorated cookies are always a big hit with family and friends. They are a popular snack at scout meetings, school events, and children's parties. And they typically cost less than their commercial counterparts. One national franchise, for example, sells decorated cookies for at least $6 each.
Yet one of Costa's students notes that heavily frosted cookies, while they look great, are too sugar-laden for some adult palates.
Their candylike sweetness might be more appealing to kids, admits Costa but, she adds, not all decorated cookies have to be consumed. They make attractive table decorations or name cards at wedding and baby showers, dinner parties, or holiday gatherings.
Costa realizes that baking the cookies and then decorating them can be time-consuming. As a shortcut, she suggests buying cookies instead of baking them.
For the class, she provides graham crackers and plain chocolate cookie rounds. The rounds are turned over and frosted on the bottom, which is usually flat and therefore easier to decorate.
While many cookie bakers decorate with what's commonly known as royal icing, Costa prefers what she calls regular white icing. (See recipe.)
Her recipe produces frosting that, unlike royal icing, doesn't harden. In fact, she says, when the cookies are left at room temperature, the icing stays fresh for a week. Frosted cookies should not be stored in the refrigerator, Costa adds, because they will become soft.
Iit's important to place the cookies on metal baking sheets that have a deep lip. This keeps plastic wrap from draping across the cookies, sticking to them, and ruining the decoration.
For the class, she divides the frosting into bowls and creates a rainbow of pastels by mixing in commercial coloring pastes, available from cake-decorating supply stores or online. (See suggested web sites.) The tubes of liquid dye sold in supermarkets, she says, won't produce color that is as vibrant.
Using a small knife, start by smearing each cookie with a thin coat of icing. Keep a damp rag handy to wipe off the knife blade between colors. Deepen the frosting color, if you wish, by adding more dye.
Now for the artistry. To create pictures, designs, or lettering, Costa uses decorating bags. Pros and serious amateurs might opt for washable, plastic bags and tips, but Costa says there's no sense in spending $30 or $40 for equipment when parchment paper will suffice.
Triangular sheets can be purchased from cake-decorating suppliers for a penny or two apiece.
To fashion the parchment paper into decorating bags, place the paper triangle flat on the counter or table with the base at the top. Curl the upper right-hand corner down to the point in the middle. Bring the left-hand corner from the other side and form a cone. Fold down, in, and crease any paper that extends beyond the rim. Then snip off the cone bottom to create a decorating tip. Experiment to find an opening size that works for you.
The bag is now ready to be filled. A dollop of icing will do. Too much and it squirts out the top. To create pressure, fold over the top of the bag. Place the bag in the palm of your writing hand, tip end down, and squeeze gently. Use the index finger of your free hand as a guide. The frosting will come out in a steady stream.
For the class, Costa distributes paper copies of simple designs. Having a "blueprint" like this can help in getting shapes, sizes, and proportions right. Those who want to be precise draw designs on paper before executing them on a cookie.
Among the many decorations that Costa demonstrates are a spiderweb, a clown face, wedding bells, a stork with bundled baby, and balloons. Other options include butterflies, tulips, smiley faces, and sailboats. Simple geometric designs and patterns often come out well, too.
One caveat: Keep that damp rag handy. Once you get going, things get messy fast.
But don't worry if you don't finish. Costa says unused frosting can be kept a week to 10 days at room temperature or indefinitely when frozen in plastic bags. To thaw frosting gradually, simply move it into the fridge.
After a little practice, you just might be ready to graduate to the larger canvas of cakes.
2 cups vegetable shortening, such as Crisco
2 cups confectioners' sugar
1/2 cup milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
In a large bowl, combine ingredients. To color the frosting, divide it into batches in separate bowls and add a different color to each, using either liquid food coloring from the supermarket or coloring paste found in cake-decorating stores or online. (See suggested websites below.)
Makes 2 pounds of frosting, enough for about 20 (4-inch) cookies.
Frosting will keep 7 to 10 days at room temperature or indefinitely when frozen in plastic bags.