Julia M. Usher, author of Cookie Swap and pastry chef extraordinaire, answers some of our reader’s most common cooking questions. We’re guessing these may be some of your questions, too. Read on to up your game in the kitchen (and turn out a delicious and beautifully decorated cookie or two). Julia’s latest cookbook, Ultimate Cookies, will be out this fall.
Wannchef: When whipping egg whites with cream of tartar what is the ratio of cream of tartar to eggs whites?
Julia: You only need a bit of cream of tartar to help stabilize whites. I use about 1/4 teaspoon to 5 egg whites.
tvasq1: What is the best way to get rid of points when piping with royal icing?
Julia: Make sure your icing is loose enough; if it’s too thick, you will always get peaks.
My book gives recommended additions of water for making beads without peaks. I generally add a few tablespoons for a standard batch of royal icing—5 whites to 2 pounds 10 x confectioners’ sugar.
Wannchef: I have been searching for the perfect oatmeal cookie recipe forever. I really don’t like thin crispy ones. How can I get a thick chewy oatmeal cookie with crispy edges?
Julia: Well, if you don’t want the cookies to spread as much and to be thicker, you probably should try using shortening or margarine. Cookies with 100 percent butter or higher fat content will spread more. Lots of variables to consider: Underbaking will, of course, also yield softer cookies but not the crisp edges you are seeking. Try mounding/scooping the cookies with a disher, using a recipe with a lower fat concentration so cookies don’t spread as much, and baking at a higher temperature to crisp edges.
SDiaz: What’s the best way to get even, consistent cutout cookies without a sheeter?
Julia: For consistent cookie cutouts, be sure the dough is well-chilled—this makes it easier to roll out dough more uniformly and to be able to cut without distorting cookie shapes.
chocolit: How do you get an even, smooth royal icing cover on top of a cookie?
Julia: For smooth topcoats of royal icing, again: It’s all in having the proper icing consistency. Book gives recommended ratios for topcoating; generally a bit thicker than for beadwork, but amount of water added will depend on cookie size. You’ll want to add more to coat a large cookie without leaving tracks.
Sarah: When coloring your royal icing, what type of vegetable dye do you recommend? Powder, gel, or your standard liquid variety?
Julia: I use liqua-gel colorings almost exclusively. They are concentrated so you don’t need to use much, but they are also dispensed with a dropper so easier to replicate colors and not as messy as scooping out of tiny jars. Don’t think they are veggie based, however. Not the brand I use anyway.
suddenlycooking: If I double or triple a cookie recipe, which ingredient do I use less of? I know sometimes if you add too much of certain components, it can ruin the recipe.
Julia: My cookie recipes are pretty forgiving. You can almost scale up one-for-one if scaling up two to three times—even the sugar. You’ll have more trouble scaling up cake recipes one-for-one than cookie recipes, in general
lindakillpack: What kinds of sugars do you keep on hand at all times, and how do you store them to prevent lumps?
Julia: Granulated, confectioners’, light brown and Demerara. I keep them in sealed airtight containers to prevent lumping (only problematic with granulated and powdered), but I live in highly humid Missouri, so some lumping is inevitable. Easy enough to sift before using to break up lumps.
email@example.com: I’ve been afraid to decorate cookies with very dark red, blue, or black. If I flood in a white base, let it dry, and pipe the color on top, will it bleed into the white? If I have a dark base and I pipe white on it, will the white pick up the dark?
Julia: Let one color dry until it forms a skin before you pipe the next on top. This method will prevent bleeding in most cases. Make sure you store cookies in an airtight container.
cakesbysk: What is a good decorating glaze to shaped cookies that will stay soft and not get crunchy like royal icing?
Julia: Confectioners’ icing stays soft longer, but it, too, will eventually harden. I tend to avoid soft icings on cookie tops because they can be hard to transport and pack. Some bakers use buttercream, but, again, it’s perishable, and you have to refrigerate the cookies, which I don’t like to do.
Sarah: Any tips on making buttercream taste less like… well, butter?
Julia: Add flavoring, and generously!
Wannchef: I’ve noticed that some recipes for scones have an egg in them and others are more like biscuits without. What does the egg do?
Julia: Egg yolk enriches and tenderizes generally.
lindakillpack: Any ideas for great wedding cookies using sugared flowers and any tips for sugaring flowers?
Julia: I love sugaring flowers, as too often the store-bought type look nothing like the actual flower. Key thing is to completely coat the flower—although VERY lightly—with egg white and to completely cover with fine-grained sugar. Any areas not covered are subject to humidity and will prevent flower from fully drying. A great source of store-bought flowers, if you haven’t the time to make your own, is fancyflours.com. Lovely products; they also have a great selection of wafer papers.
Kari L.: I tried to sugar flowers and got brown spots. How can I avoid that?
Julia: Same answer as directly above: You must completely cover the flower with sugar and be sure no wet egg white spots reemerge. Otherwise, redust with sugar. Also be sure to check toxicity of flowers before using on edible product. You want to stick with edible varieties.
lizabethton: How would you decorate your cookies with chocolate so that it doesn’t run allover the place?
Julia: You could paint or pipe on tempered and melted chocolate. Or you could dip the cookies in the chocolate and set them to drain over a rack set in a baking sheet. You can recover the drained chocolate for another use.
lizabethton: I would like to do a fancy gilded gold edge on a cookie. However, I don’t have a steady hand to paint this once the royal icing is dry. Do you recommend coloring the icing with gold powder?
Julia: No, if you mix gold powder into the icing, the icing will not be iridescent . You do need to paint it on. I get best results, when I pipe with royal icing the area I want to paint, then let it dry. Then mix powder with extract (so fairly thick and not runny); paint on with a teeny, tiny paint brush. You’ll find the paint clings to the royal icing border pretty well this way.
lizabethton: Thanks! And if I want to flood it, I need to wait until the gold paint dries right?
Julia: You could apply another border after flooding as well—on top. But, yes, border needs to be dry before you paint on it.
lizabethton: Do you prefer to use different types of piping bags based on the icing? For example, you only like to use parchment with royal icing and plastic with buttercream?
Julia: I never use buttercream on cookies for reasons mentioned earlier. I also tend to like to use parchment cones with royal icing, simply to avoid the cleanup of plastic or canvas bags. But, if you want textured effects, such as the feathers on the owl cookie on my book jacket, it’s best to work with standard tips and pastry bag. It all depends on what you want to do.
Wannchef: Can you reroll sugar cookies more than once?
Julia: Yes, definitely! Don’t want to waste that dough! To avoid introducing excess flour to dough, it’s best to chill between rolls, rather than dusting work surface with too much flour—if dough is too soft to handle, that is. I am often making so many cookies that I prefer to chill between rolls rather than to roll between sheets of anything (no down time because while one recipe of dough is chilling, I’m rolling out another). I find that when rolling out between pieces of parchment paper or sheets of plastic, sometimes it gets in the way and makes it harder to get even rolls.
Sarah: Speaking of sugar cookies, do you prefer to roll them in flour or confectioners’ sugar?
Julia: I prefer to roll my recipe in flour. The sugar sometimes interferes with the baking of the cookie , causing them to brown irregularly.
Wannchef: Do you roll out on marble?
Julia: I don’t roll out my cookies on marble, although it’s a great surface to use. I roll out my cookies on a stainless-steel counter top in a very cool environment, which also keeps dough cool longer. Surfaces only retain temperature for so long. Key variable is controlling the dough temperature no matter what surface you work on. Rechill as needed to get the cleanest, most uniform cuts.