WARNING: As this is an experiments post it is very text heavy. But bear with me, there’s some really useful info in there!
Hello, hello, hello! Happy FF!
I have been a busy little bee this weekend in preparing for some Christmas baking. I decided after I had so much success with making a test batch of Gluten-Free on a Shoestring’s Candy Cane Sugar Cookies, that I would see about making batches of them to give out to friends at Christmas time. But around the same time as I was making plans for that, I discovered that Nicole had an original soft frosted cookie recipe which was reported to hold cut out shapes very well, and would also take much less prep time. I am still undecided about which cookie I want to make, as I am waiting for Nicole to get back to me and let me know about storage requirements for the cookies. Whichever will store and last the best in this increasingly hot summer weather will be my go to recipe. I have also then decided to use whichever cookie recipe wins as a base and decorate the cookies themselves with royal icing.
Long-time readers of my blog will know that I have never, and I mean never posted a recipe for royal icing. Regular icing, yes. Buttercream, for sure! Ganache – oh yeah! But royal icing, no. This is because I don’t like to make anything with raw egg because of the associated salmonella risks. Now – I know said risk is exceedingly low for egg whites, to the point that I have never known anyone to get sick from eating raw egg whites. But that doesn’t mean I’m comfortable with the idea of giving food to someone knowing there’s a chance I could be exposing them to salmonella. I would fret about it too much and that would ruin the pleasure of giving the cookies as gifts.
But what to do! Royal icing is normally made with egg whites! With pasteurised egg whites being hard to find, and the only packet mixes I could find which eliminated the raw egg problem being contaminated with gluten, my hopes of doing royal icing were falling. I did lots of research on other options, and although I wasn’t keen on the sugar and water only versions that seemed like my best bet. Until I discovered there was an option to use something called – meringue powder. It appears to be a mix of dried, powdered egg whites, and ingredients like sugars, starches and gums. Well, I couldn’t find it here in Canberra for neither love nor money, and no sources online could tell me if it was gluten-free and so worth buying over the internet. And the standard Australian option people recommended, Pavlova Magic, was contaminated with gluten so that was a no go either. Although it apparently works wonders for the non-gluten-free people, as you can use it one for one in place of meringue powder. But that got me thinking, were dried powdered egg whites by themselves an actual available product? Could I get those instead?
It turns out, I could. Latorta has been described to me as the Mecca of Canberra bakers. This is a pretty apt description. Their prices are quite reasonable for the kind of store they are, they have heaps of speciality ingredients and decorating tools, they do baking and decorating classes and more! And the staff have always been very knowledgeable and patient every time I’ve been there. They were the one speciality store that had dried powdered egg whites and they had them in stock. Better still they also had Americolor food gels a-plenty, and the staff member who came to help me was very knowledgeable about how the different colours worked in icing, and what would suit my needs best. Fun fact, Americolor food gels don’t contain gluten! And I have had several coeliac bakers tell me they use Americolor gels too. So I picked out a few colours, picked up some icing bottles with a bit less than a cup capacity, some powdered egg whites, and trundled on home.
Needless to say, the first few recipes I tried for royal icing were a bit of a disaster. It really didn’t work to substitute solid egg whites for the powdered kind, nor did it work to substitute the dried egg whites for meringue powder. I was also struggling with consistency despite watching endless videos, and trying many techniques. Not to mention there was a lot of converting to do, as most of the recipe were in American or UK measurements. But as I was despairing, I came across Lila Loa‘s recipe for royal icing using dried egg whites, and needless to say it was an absolute success. I made the large batch, because I wanted plenty to play with to get consistency right, but now I know I really only need the smaller batch’s worth of royal icing. I also followed her video guide for consistency, and it made my life so much easier.
A little icing really does go a long, long way. And I found using the squeeze bottles much easier than using a piping bag. It also allowed me to cheat, as my bottles have little caps you can put on the ends, sealing in the icing and making it easier to store. Speaking of which, Lila Loa was incredibly helpful when I messaged her asking for tips about how to store the cookies and the icing itself. She was very friendly! She let me know she normally keeps the icing about 3-4 weeks (presumably in the fridge), and well covered. And if it’s sat for more than a week she tends to re-whip it for about 30 seconds before using it again, although that’s not strictly necessary. She also recommended, in comments on the royal icing post, letting it come up to room temperature before use.
When not using the royal icing, cover it straight away with glad wrap. You may think this is being too fussy, but trust me. The moment you let the icing sit, it will form a really unpleasant crust and dry out. What I did was have the bowl covered with glad wrap, and then when I had to put the rest into the fridge I left the gladwrap on, and clipped the lid right down over the gladwrap to keep it extra air-tight. For the cookies, Lila was also very helpful. She said to make sure the iced cookies were completely dry before attempting to store them. She said you could keep them on the counter at room temperature in an air-tight container. But pointed out that if the humidity is high, you could place a paper tower or serviette on the bottom of the container to absorb excess moisture while storing.
It’s so nice to be able to contact the people who created each recipe and to get such helpful feedback.
So – what have I learned from my introduction to royal icing?
Firstly – it’s no wonder so many people get frustrated with it in the early stages. There are so many ways this icing can go wrong, and so many things to consider – like keeping it covered, etc. I also discovered the first attempt at making it is the messiest. If you have pets, children or sedentary housemates or relatives they will get icing on them, somehow. My entire kitchen was a beautiful shade of blue, along with every possible stirring implement. But with practice it really does get much, much easier to make. And contrary to popular belief, I had no problems using bowls and scrapers that have been used to make other things before. A lot of internet recipes mentioned that the icing wouldn’t work in bowls that have had grease in them. But I always wash mine very thoroughly, and if I’m ever concerned I give them a bi-carb wash, or wipe them down with vinegar and then wash them again.
Secondly – there are a good deal of different ways of adding water to change the consistency of the icing, so a batch of thick icing used to make those safety outlines could then be thinned to “flood” the inside of the outlines. Lila Loa used the flat side of the stirring knife in her video to add water, and I did the same thing. It allowed a lot of control and to add only small portions of water a time. Other people recommend using spray bottles. But I did notice it was better to add a few knife-fulls of water and then stir to check consistency, rather than stirring after each addition, because it kept the icing from getting too aerated and bubbly. I also found it much easier to change the consistency of the icing after I had added the colour to it, but you don’t have to do that.
Thirdly – different consistencies of icing are used for different things. You want your outlining icing to be thicker and sturdier, but you want your filling or flooding icing to be smooth and runnier and easier to push around into gaps. I used a skewer to push mine around, and other people recommend toothpicks. They’re very easy to use, just gently moving in a circular motion to fill in any gaps, and for popping any air bubbles. I found the outlines a bit tricky, but I expect that’s inexperience at work. The flooding was much easier. I traced around the inside of the outline, and then squeezed some extra lines into the middle and gently moved them out. I also found it worked better if the outlines had at least partially dried before I came along with the flooding icing. I then waited for the flooding icing to set and did the designs on the top with more outline consistency icing.
Fourth and finally – making designs is heaps of fun. I looked at dozens upon dozens of different designs for various cookies before I decided to give a pretty classic one a go. It was very easy, even for an absolute beginner like me. You drew lines from point to point, then drew little arrows over the lines, and then had the option of putting more lines in, or more dots, or whatever you happened to feel like!
Adapted from Nicole Hunn’s and Lila Loa’s
Soft Frosted Sugar Cookies
Royal Icing with Dried Egg Whites
Makes: 24 cookies, Prep: 4+ hours, including decorating, Cook: 6-8 mins per batch
- 2 cups/280g gluten-free plain flour
- 1 tsp xanthan gum (omit if your blend already contains it)
- 3/4 tsp baking powder
- 1/4 tsp salt (I used salt flakes)
- 1/2 cup/100g granulated sugar
- 3 tbsp/22g icing sugar (gluten-free)
- 8 tbsp/112g unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 egg, at room temp, beaten
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
NOTE: I normally don’t like to use xantham gum, but the cookies really don’t hold as well without it.
Royal Icing Ingredients
- 4 tsp dried powdered egg whites
- 1/4 cup water, at room temperature
- 1 tsp lemon juice /1/4 tsp cream of tartar (Optional, but I used cream of tartar)
- 3 cups icing sugar, sifted, gluten-free
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- Extra water, for consistency
- Gel colour, of your choice. I recommend Americolor as it’s gluten-free.
- Extra icing sugar, in-case you make the icing too runny.
- Pre-heat the oven to 175C and line two baking trays with baking paper.
- Combine the dry cookie ingredients in a bowl. Then add in the butter, egg and vanilla extract and combine.
- You’ll find it’ll take a few minutes for the dough to pass that crumbly dry/wet sand stage and start coming together but keep going. Once the dough looks like it’s starting to come together, you can knead it with your hands to combine it properly.
- Place the dough between two sheets of parchment paper and roll out until it’s a few millimeters thick. You’ll find this easier if someone holds the bottom sheet of parchment or you tape it down.
- Cut out your desired shapes and lay them on the trays, re-rolling the scraps of dough until it’s all used up.
- Bake for 6-8 minutes, or until the very tips of the cookies are starting to look ever so slightly brown. These aren’t the sort of cookies you want very browned, as it makes them a bit dry.
- Let the cookies cool on the tray for a minute or two and then slide onto a baking tray to cool completely.
- While the cookies are cooling, prepare the icing.
- Combine the dried egg whites and the water in a large bowl and let rest for 3-5 mins.
- Add in the cream of tartar or lemon juice, if using, and then whisk the mixture on high speed until stiff, frothy peaks form. This should happen very, very quickly.
- Reduce the speed to medium, and add the sugar one cup at a time, scraping down the sides occasionally and mixing until combined and the mixture has stiff, smooth peaks.
- Add in the vanilla extract and mix until combined.
- Now, the next steps will change depending on what icing you want to do. But here’s what I did.
- I put about a quarter of the icing into another bowl, and left that white for decorating. I covered that with gladwrap and a lid and left it in the fridge.
- I then took the remaining icing, added a few drops of sky blue americolor gel color, and stirred that through until it was a colour I liked. I then added about 4-6 splashes of water to it, using the flat of the bread knife I was stirring with, and stirred the water through to try and get a good consistency for making the outline on the cookie.
- It had a consistency similar to thickened cream, or very thick mayonnaise. When I banged it on the counter about eight times it didn’t completely fold back in on itself.
- I then popped almost a cup into my squeeze bottle, covering the remaining icing in the bowl with glad wrap, and traced around the top outside edge of the cookie.
- The remaining icing I tipped back into the bowl and covered again with gladwrap.
- I then let the cookies set for about half an hour in an airtight container while I was doing some cleaning up. This isn’t strictly necessary, but I felt more comfortable when the outlines were a little more stable.
- I added then added about 6 more knife-fulls of water and stirred it through. It smoothed out completely after I banged it on the counter about three times, and wouldn’t hold peaks.
- Like with the outline icing, I popped the flood icing into a squeeze bottle. I traced along the inside of the outline and then added extra icing to the middle of the cookie. Then I came along with my trusty skewer, and moving in gentle, circular motions, nudged the flood icing into the gaps and popped any air bubbles.
- I then left the cookies to set for a couple of hours in airtight containers with paper towel at the bottom.
- When the flood icing had set, I came along with the icing that I hadn’t coloured, and repeated the process of making it a good outlining consistency. But first I let it come up to room temperature, and gave it a quick stir. I then set to work making the designs.
- I drew lines between each point, allowing them to cross over in the middle. I then drew two arrow shapes, pointing in towards the centre of the cookies, at the end of each line. I also liked putting small dots of icing between each line, but you could do anything you like.
- I then popped the cookies into airtight containers, with some paper towel at the bottom, to set altogether at room temperature before moving them to the fridge.