All it takes is a handful of techniques -- from the deceptively simple spritz to the slightly more involved cut-out -- to produce a wide variety of tasty style statements.
In a bowl, mix 1 cup confectioners' sugar and 2 tablespoons water. Add more water as necessary to achieve an easy-to-pour consistency. Tint with food coloring as desired.
Slice-and-bake cookies are rolled into a log and then, yep, sliced and baked. Divide dough in half. Place each half on a piece of waxed or parchment paper; use the paper to help roll and shape the dough into 2-inch diameter logs. Unwrap logs and roll in sugar or nuts, if desired. Chill, wrapped in paper, until firm, at least 2 hours (and up to 2 days). Unwrap and slice logs into 1/4-inch-thick disks.
Spritz cookies are made with a tubular cookie press (also known as a spritz) that is used to squeeze the dough into a variety of shapes. Fill spritz with dough (no need to chill it first). Form cookies directly on parchment-lined baking sheets.
Cut-out cookies are rolled out flat and made into shapes with cookie cutters or a knife. Divide dough in half. Place each half on a piece of plastic wrap; form into a 1/2-inch-thick disk. Wrap and chill until firm, at least 2 hours (and up to 2 days). Unwrap dough, sandwich between lightly floured sheets of waxed or parchment paper, and roll to a uniform 1/8- to 1/4-inch thickness. Chill again (still sandwiched in paper) until firm, 15 to 20 minutes. Loosen dough from paper (to ensure easy removal); cut out shapes with flour-dusted cutters. If dough becomes soft, chill once more before baking, 15 minutes, to achieve crisp-looking outlines.
No. 1: Slice-and-Bake
Making cookies from dough that has been formed into a log is a serious time-saver: Just roll the log in some crushed nuts (we used pecans) or sanding sugar before chilling, then slice it into disks and throw them in the oven. For some added flair, place half a pecan on top of each cookie before baking or sandwich some chocolate between two cookies after they're done. (Simply melt dark chips in the microwave or in a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water.) A straw (or a tiny cookie cutter called an aspic cutter) will make a nice little window into the chocolatey heart of the cookie.
No. 2: Spritz
It's truly child's play: Using a cookie press is just like squeezing Play-Doh through a stencil. Fill the gun with dough, and you can pop out dozens of fancy shapes in a matter of minutes. The spritz has a variety of extrusion disks to choose from. Once the cookies are baked and cooled, do them up with a coating of confectioners'-sugar glaze and some coarse sparkling sugar, finer sanding sugar, or pearl dragees. Or turn up the sweet by dipping them in some melted white chocolate before piling on the sugary tidbits.
A good cookie press doesn't have to cost a lot of dough. Look for one that dispenses smoothly without sticking, like the Wilton Cookie Max Christmas-cookie press, $18, amazon.com
A cut-out cookie's charm is often in its bespoke beauty. The result looks more handmade, but requires a bit more hands-on work. The dough must be chilled repeatedly, and you need to monitor some decorations closely while baking.
No. 1: Stained Glass
These gift tag-inspired cookies make great gifts themselves. After punching out the letter and hole for the tie (use a straw to create the hole), prebake them for 6 to 8 minutes, until they look a little dry on top. Then sprinkle crushed hard candy generously in the window of the letter. (We tried a bunch of different kinds, and jolly ranchers won out with bright, smooth colors that distributed evenly.) Return cookies to the oven and watch like a hawk: The candy should melt and pool in the window, but not burn, usually in about 3 minutes.
No. 2: Peppermint Swirl
Here, the candy does the heavy lifting in the style and taste departments. Cut a hole in your cookie that's slightly larger than your candy piece (any hard candy will work); prebake (as above). Drop in your minty mouthful and bake for a few more minutes, until it melts to fill the space.
No. 3: Red Letter
Double up on color by tinting your dough with gel food dye (sold at grocery stores). Then sprinkle sanding sugar, dragees, or nonpareils on top before baking. To help the bits stick better, brush on an egg wash. (To make, beat an egg white with a teaspoon of water.)
No. 4: Holiday Wreath
Some assembly definitely required: This fresh-cut idea is composed of 8 rose-leaf shapes. Make them with a cookie cutter, then overlap as shown. (If you wish, draw a circle under the parchment paper to help guide you.) Baking fuses the pieces into one cookie.
No. 5: Two-Tiered
Pile on the appeal by thinking vertically: Stack shapes made with simple cookie cutters. Add some sanding sugar or other goodies, if desired. Bake, making sure your top layer is not more than about 1/8 inch thick, so the entire stack cooks evenly. (Otherwise, you'll end up with a mushy middle or burned edges.)