A cookie-decorating masterclass

COOKIES: This may be the perfect school holiday recipe.
COOKIES: This may be the perfect school holiday recipe.

This may be the perfect school holiday recipe because children love biscuits and dinosaurs.

What's even better about making these decorated cookies is that the process is fun and feels artistic.

I can't paint, draw or sew worth a damn, but since I started icing biscuits my creative soul is satisfied.

COOKIE ARTIST: Joanna Davis.
COOKIE ARTIST: Joanna Davis.

Just one word of warning though: icing FOR children is fun; icing WITH children is a whole other ball game.

For one, you need a few ingredients and a clear bench. For the other, you need ingredients, a clear bench, a lot of patience, lower expectations and elbow grease for the cleanup. It's a different kind of fun.

First you need a recipe for biscuits that won't spread. Both gingerbread biscuit and shortbread recipes will do.

Round cookies.
Round cookies.

But considering we are going to ice them, I find a simple vanilla biscuit recipe works best, and children like the taste.

Americans call these sugar cookies.

Vanilla Biscuits

Round cookies.
Round cookies.

250g butter, at room temperature
1 ½ cup icing sugar
1 egg
2 tsp vanilla essence (or other flavour if you prefer)
3 cups pure plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt

Cream butter and sugar. Add egg and vanilla (or other flavouring) and beat to combine. In a separate bowl, sift flour, baking powder and salt so they are well mixed. Add to butter and sugar mix and mix to combine. Rest 20 minutes (does not need to be refrigerated). Can be frozen at this stage and cooked another day. Roll out between baking paper (bottom) and plastic wrap (top) to about 5 millimetres thick. Cut and bake 10 minutes at 170 degrees. They do not need to be browned.

Now for the fun part: using royal icing to decorate.

The beauty of these dinosaurs is that they require only white and only one thickness of icing (a lot of cookie decorating requires lining icing and fill icing). Prepare your royal icing to a thickness a little bit runnier than toothpaste. If you hold up a spoonful of it, it should drop off slowly but not run off.

Put it into an icing bag with a No 1 or 2 tip, or do what I do and use sandwich bags with a tiny bit of the end snipped off.

Then copy these biscuits to pipe the skeleton. Or - depending whether you have allosaurus, tyrannosaurus or pterodactyl cutters - copy a picture from a child's book or the internet.

It doesn't really matter if it's not photo-realistic. These are not going on display in the Smithsonian and all evidence will soon be eaten.

Dinosaur cutters can be found at all good kitchen supply shops. Or that would be the case if I were queen. Ballantynes certainly has them.

Round cookies

Cookie-decorating converts might begin with enthusiasm for elaborately shaped cutters - which can run the gamut of dinosaurs, pirate ships, circus animals, handbags, the outline of the North and South Islands - but many will eventually discover the freedom of icing a simple round cookie.

Round cookies don't require a cutter - not if you have variously sized glasses in the cupboard.

They can be used to make ladybugs, chicks, pohutukawa, entire small gardens, Angry Birds characters - the list is endless - but simple is often best and so pohutukawa are a great place to start. They also require only three colours and they're timely, a symbol of New Zealand summer.

But first, a Q and A about the icing itself.

What is royal icing?

At its simplest, royal icing is made of icing sugar, egg white and water. For something that lasts longer and is not a danger to pregnant women or others at risk from uncooked eggs, meringue powder can be substituted.

Where can I buy meringue powder? 

Some supermarkets sell meringue powder (used for making pavlova) or else Trents or another food wholesaler may be the best avenue.

Why royal icing? 

It dries to a smooth, hard, matt finish.

How do I colour it? 

Any food colouring will work, but the gel stuff most commonly used for cake decorating gives stronger, brighter colours.

To ice pohutukawa biscuits:

Prepare green piping icing the consistency of toothpaste but just a bit runnier. Pipe leaf outlines using either a proper piping bag with a No 2 tip or a sandwich bag with the end cut off.

Thin your green icing a little, wait five minutes until the piped lines have dried and ''flood'' the area inside to make leaves.

Prepare red icing to the toothpaste-like consistency. Pipe straight lines radiating out from the centre, as per a stylised pohutukawa flower.

Prepare yellow icing and add one dot to the end of each red line. I have looked closely at the real thing and still could not discern what the colour at the tips is - white would work too.

Allow to dry overnight.

The Press