Last Friday my beautiful sister, Becka Bailey (not my actual sister, despite the surname), threw a Christmas party in my university town of Leeds. So of course I had to go and surprise her – and take something baked. I needed something that would travel well and last a few days, so I opted for gingerbread biscuits decorated with royal icing. They went down a treat, the party was great, and I got to spend a weekend with some very special people. All in all, a cracking weekend.
Biscuits, made with one quantity of my gingerbread recipe
4 egg whites
1kg icing sugar
Assorted food colouring pastes – I used red and green
Assorted Christmas cookie cutters – I used a snowflake, Christmas tree, holly leaf, heart and two bauble ones
Disposable piping bags
3 of the same thin piping nozzles (or more if using more than three colours), like a Wilton 1 or 2
Makes: about 70 biscuits, depending on cutter size
Follow the gingerbread recipe using your chosen Christmas cutters and bake. I recommend chilling each baking sheet for 15 minutes in the fridge before baking to help prevent spreading. Usually I wouldn’t bother, but when you’re doing something a bit more special it’s definitely worth it. Allow them to cool and get started with the icing straight away, or store them in an airtight container for up to two weeks.
Add the egg whites to the bowl of a standalone mixer (or a mixing bowl with an electric beater) and whisk until they hold soft peaks. Then, continuing to whisk on a low speed, sift in the icing sugar a bit at a time, until it is all incorporated. Turn up the speed to medium and beat for another five minutes, until the icing is stiff and glossy.
Separate into bowls for colouring; I used red, white and green in fairly equal quantities, so I divided evenly between three bowls. Add your pastes or powders: you won’t be able to get a strong enough pigment with supermarket-bought liquid colours without making your icing too runny; proper cook shop colours are a must.
Divide each bowl in two, so you have two bowls of each colour. Cover one of each with cling film (I find laying it directly over the surface of the icing helps prevent it from drying out) and set aside. The bowls remaining are going to be your piping icings, which must be stiff enough to hold their shape. You may need to add a little water to bring them to pipeable consistency, but do it very slowly, a teaspoon at a time. You may only need one teaspoon, it should be very stiff; about the texture of toothpaste.
Set up the matching nozzles with piping bags and transfer your piping icing into them, twisting and securing the tops with elastic bands. Carefully pipe outlines around your cookies in the colour that you want them to be, as shown in the picture below, and allow them to dry until hard, about 15 minutes.
Next, you need to fill the outlines with icing; this is known as ‘flooding’. To make the flooding icing, take the bowls that you set aside earlier and add water to them, a teaspoon at a time. You can test whether the icing is the correct consistency by drizzling a spoon of it over the surface of the icing; if it returns to being flat within 5-10 seconds then it’s ready. You can pipe your flooding icing on or use a squeezy bottle, but I find it easiest to just use a teaspoon and spread with the flat of a cocktail stick. It’s not the most technically correct way to do it, but I find it works best for me.
Flood all the biscuits with the corresponding colours and leave to dry at room temperature for 24 hours. Dispose of any remaining flooding icing, but keep your stiff piping icing. Cover the surface in cling film and keep it in air tight containers in the fridge. If you leave them in the piping bags overnight, the nozzles will dry out, so make sure to dismantle your bags and store the icing separately, annoying as it may seem.
Bring your piping icing bag to room temperature and give them a good stir to loosen them up. You may need to add a drop or two of water, but no more. Once again, fit your piping bags with matching nozzles and fill, securing the tops. You are then free to pipe any designs you like on to your biscuits; take inspiration from mine or have a Google. I made a Pinterest board to collect inspiration before making mine. I decorated with silver balls, but you could also use edible glitter, gems etc.
If you’re not making these for a party, they make a pretty Christmas gift, presented in cellophane bags tied with ribbon or in presentation boxes. Alternatively, because gingerbread keeps very well once iced, you can also use them to decorate your Christmas tree. Before baking, use a straw (or something similar-sized, round and hollow) to remove circles from your dough shapes. Don’t put them too close to the edge or they will be too delicate. Ice around the holes, then thread through with ribbon when dry. This works particularly well with bauble-shaped cutters (duh); I got mine from Cakes Cookies & Crafts.
Once you’ve mastered these basics, you can do the same for any royal icing cookies: birthday balloons, ballet shoes, new baby biscuits or dinosaurs; if there’s a cookie cutter for it, you’re golden.