Learn How to Make Perfect Sugar Cookies Decorated with Royal Icing with a Little Help from Martha
A holiday celebration isn't complete for Martha Stewart without something sweet—and that's exactly why you can often find Martha making a batch of her favorite sugar cookies for her guests. While her go-to sugar cookies are buttery classics that are delicious anytime on their own, our founder also loves to decorate batches of these festive cookies for Easter, Christmas, and Valentine's Day with plenty of fresh royal icing. During one of the "Cooking School" segments featured on the first season of Martha in 2006, our founder and her guest worked their way through our founder's foolproof (and easy!) sugar cookie recipe.
If you've never made your own sugar cookies from scratch before, Martha says this recipe can help you perfect all the details: "It's a dough that needs to have the right consistency—and there's a rolling technique for the dough," she tells her Martha studio audience. "But if you make sugar cookies, you'll be a hero!" Our recipe also includes instructions on how to make royal icing, which is exactly what you need to create custom decorations; with a little practice, you can turn a batch of cookies into a magnificent gift for anyone during the holiday season. While Martha's recipe is absolutely delicious on its own, it's also customizable with additions like lemon zest, a splash of brandy, or a pinch of cinnamon. Find Martha's recipe for classic sugar cookies here, watch the Martha segment below, and follow along as we share best practices for making sugar cookies at home.
The Easiest Way to Roll Out Sugar Cookie Dough
Rolling out your sugar cookie dough can be difficult if the dough is too warm and soft, or too fresh from the refrigerator cold. Martha's recipe calls for chilling the dough in order to help retain the shape of the cookies; soft, warm dough is not only hard to roll tends to lose its shape when cut and moved. Be sure to roll out the dough in small batches, making sure it's chilled, and use a light dusting of flour or sugar to keep it from sticking to the work surface. Don't overmix the dough once you have added the dry ingredients, as overmixing the dough in a mixer will make the cookies tough.
When it comes time to cut out your desired cookie shape, be sure to dip the cookie cutter in flour to prevent sticking. Place your unbaked cookies on a sheet of parchment paper, and sprinkle sanding sugar (a large-grain decorating sugar) on top; then, tip the cookie upside down to remove excess sugar. Rotate your cookie sheets halfway through baking to ensure that the cookies bake evenly, as you'll need a perfectly crisp exterior in order to decorate with royal icing.
How to Use Royal Icing Like a Pro
After the cookies are baked, make royal icing while the cookies cool—keep a variety of different colors on hand. Keep filled pastry bags upright in a glass lined with a damp paper towel or use squeeze bottles. Use a number-one Ateco pastry ($20, surlatable.com) tip fitted in a pastry bag, and carefully pipe a border of royal icing on each cookie. Then"flood" or fill in from the piped outline using a thinned-out blend of royal icing to coat the cookies. You can use a toothpick or wooden skewer to help push icing into place to cover any gaps.
Dragging is the process of adding a second color through flooded icing. Use a toothpick to pull the icing as Martha does in the video; pull in alternate directions for a classic "marbleized" look. To create raised designs, pipe icing on top of dried flooded areas; sprinkle this area with sanding sugar for a sparkling effect called "sugaring." Tip the cookie to remove excess sugar.
Let your imagination run wild with the colors and patterns you create with royal icing. "You can really play around with these techniques," Martha shares with her audience. "Just decorate with little dots—or, you can put your guests' names on the cookies and just personalize them that way if you want." Once you've mastered Martha's signature sugar cookies decorated with royal icing, you can move onto some of Martha's favorite tips for creating beautiful cookie gifts for your friends and family.