While standing in line at the supermarket one day before Christmas, I picked up a cooking magazine that had some gorgeous cookies on the cover.  As I studied the picture, the cashier noticed, laughed a little, and said, "they have nice pictures, but do YOUR cookies ever look like that?"

She was shocked when I answered, "Um, actually, yes."

You don't need to be a professional baker.  You don't even need fancy decorating equipment, though I really appreciate a good pastry bag and frosting tips.  (If you don't have these- you can buy a small set for under $10 at Walmart, ShopKo or hobby stores- a ziptop freezer bag with a corner snipped off will work.)   

The trick to making those beautiful, glossy cookies is to use two consistencies of frosting- one thin, one thick, and to give yourself enough time to let one layer dry a bit before adding the next.  The thin frosting becomes your canvas, the thicker one is used to make the details.  Make it easy on yourself by only mixing two or three colors.  Rather than using the liquid food color drops, try paste or gel food colors.  They are much easier to work with because a little goes a long way and they won't make your frosting runny. 
The thin frosting can be as simple as powdered sugar and water, or if you want the surface to be shiny when dry, make Royal Icing. A regular batch produces a thick icing; to get the thin frosting, mix in water a little at a time to get the right consistency. The recipe below is for the Royal Icing, which also dries very hard, making your cookies a little less likely to get damaged.  This is the same frosting I use on gingerbread houses.

Royal Icing  (thick frosting)
3 egg whites (use clean eggs with absolutely no cracks in them)
1 16-oz bag or box of powdered sugar (about 4 3/4 cups)
1/2 tsp. cream of tartar
1/8 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla, lemon, or almond extract

Put everything in a large, absolutely grease-free mixing bowl.  Beat on high speed using an electric mixer until very stiff, about 7-10 minutes.  Use right away and keep the bowl covered at all times with a damp kitchen towel, to avoid drying it out.  Makes about 3 cups.  To color it, divide into smaller bowls and stir gel or paste food color into it.  For the cookies below, I divided into three bowls; one remained white, one was tinted pink, the last colored red.

Thin frosting
Put the amount of frosting you think you need, already colored, in a bowl.  Add water a little bit at a time, stirring until smooth.  The right consistency is when a little bit of frosting drizzled from a spoon takes from 5-10 seconds to disappear back into the rest.

Spread a thin layer of frosting on each cookie.  If adding sprinkles or edible glitter, add it while the frosting is wet so they'll stick.  Let the cookies sit until a crust starts to form over the frosting, then decorate using the thick frosting in a pastry bag.    

If you're new to frosting, tips, and pastry bags, Wilton has a great getting-started page
Start with white as the base, let dry. Next use pink with a basketweave tip like #47. Finish off with tip #3 grids and squiggle border.
Just like the previous one except simpler: white base, let dry, add tip #3 grids in pink, then a tip #3 red squiggle border.
Or how about that same white background, but using only red and tip #3?
White base, sprinkle with edible glitter, dry. Add tip #3 dots in white, then a red squiggle border also using tip #3.


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