Serves: Makes 25 to 30 fun shapes
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
- ¾ cup sugar
- 1 large egg, at room temperature
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- 2 ¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 3 cups powdered sugar
- ¼ cup meringue powder
- ¼ cup water
- Food coloring, in various colors to decorate
- Sprinkles, sugar pearls, large crystal sugar, dragées, and/or candies
Position 1 oven rack in the top third of the oven and 1 oven rack in the bottom third of the oven, and preheat the oven to 350°F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
Make the cookies. Put the butter and sugar in a large bowl. Using a mixer, beat on low speed for 1 minute. Turn up the speed to medium and beat for another minute. The mixture should be blended and smooth. Turn off the mixer. Using a silicone spatula, scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the egg and vanilla and beat on medium-low speed until well blended. Turn off the mixer. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Put the flour and salt into a medium bowl and whisk until blended. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture and beat on low speed just until the ingredients are blended and no patches of flour are visible. The mixture will have the texture of gravel and pebbles. Scrape down the bowl one last time, and make sure no clumps of flour are hiding in the bottom.
Dump the clumps of dough onto your work surface, and squeeze them together until they form a cohesive dough. Flatten the dough into a 9-inch circle, wrap in plastic or parchment, and chill for 30 minutes before continuing.
Place a large sheet of parchment paper on your work surface, about the size of a baking sheet. Have a second parchment sheet the same size ready. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and place it in the center of the first parchment sheet. Top with the second parchment sheet, and flatten the dough slightly. Using a rolling pin, and starting from the edge closest to you, roll gently but firmly to the edge opposite you and then back again twice. Be careful not to roll the pin off the edge of the dough, or the dough will stick to the paper. Turn the dough, between the parchment paper, a quarter turn and roll up and back again twice. Repeat rolling up and back and turning until the dough is ¼ inch thick.
If the paper creases into the dough, gently peel back the paper, straighten it out, and smooth it back on top of the dough. You’ll need to do this several times during the rolling process. If the dough gets too soft and squishy while you are rolling, transfer it to a baking sheet (still between the parchment paper) and refrigerate for 10 to 15 minutes, until cool but flexible.
Peel off the top sheet of parchment. If the dough is soft and sticky, refrigerate for 15 minutes. Using the cookie cutters, press down firmly to cut out the shapes. Cut them as close together as possible. Using a small offset spatula, lift the shapes off the parchment paper and transfer to the prepared pans, spacing them about 1 inch apart. Press all the dough scraps together, roll the dough out, and cut out more shapes.
Place 1 baking sheet on each oven rack. Bake for 8 minutes, then, using oven mitts, switch the pans between the oven racks. Bake for another 5 to 9 minutes, until the cookies are golden brown around the edges and lightly golden in the center. Using oven mitts, transfer the pans to the cooling racks and let the cookies cool completely before decorating. You may need to reuse the pans to finish baking all the cookies. Let the pans cool before you put more dough on them for baking.
Make the icing. Sift the powdered sugar into another medium bowl. Put the meringue powder and water in a large bowl. Make sure the bowl and your mixer beaters are very clean so the icing will whip up nicely. Beat the meringue on medium speed for about 1 minute, then turn the mixer to high and continue to whip until the mixture looks like whipped cream and has formed soft peaks.
With the mixer on medium speed, add the sifted sugar, about ¼ cup at a time, shaking it gently over the bowl and letting it blend in slowly. Once all the sugar has been added, turn the mixer to high speed and continue to beat for 1 to 2 minutes, until the mixture is very fluffy and shiny and forms firm peaks. Turn off the mixer and check the peaks again. At this point, the slope should be nearly vertical.
Divide the icing among small bowls—the number depends on how many different colors of icing you want. Color each bowl of icing a different color by stirring in a few drops of food coloring. You can even make your own “custom” colors by combining food colorings. Cover each bowl with a damp, wrung-out paper towel and top with a piece of plastic wrap until you are ready to decorate, or a hard skin will form on top.
Using a small offset spatula, spread the icing over the cookies, wiping the spatula clean each time you switch to a different colored icing. You can also pipe icing: Spoon some icing into a small disposable piping bag, cut a tiny hole in the bottom, and squeeze the bag gently to create patterns and shapes on your cookies. Or fill another icing tool, such as a squeeze bottle, and frost the cookies. While the icing is wet, add the sprinkles or other decorations as desired. Let the icing dry for 1 to 2 hours. It will harden. Once it is hard, you can stack the cookies in an airtight container and store them at room temperature for up to 3 weeks.