Cookie decorating is a winter holiday tradition for many families, whether the sweets are made for gifting to neighbors and friends or to enjoy at home. It can be tempting to buy pre-made frosting in a tube with cookies from a kit for a no-fuss afternoon spent with kids, but there are a couple of ways to take your tradition to the next level while still keeping it simple and minimizing unexpected outcomes.

Baking tips:

Cookie decorating with kids doesn’t have to be a stressful affair. (Photo by Marilyn Tagliavia)

Avoid detailed cutters. Unless you’re an experienced cookie baker, stay away from cookie cutters with a lot of small parts. Not only are they harder to successfully cut away from the dough itself, but small parts may swell in the oven and become disfigured. They are likely to burn faster than the rest of the cookie, which leaves you with an uneven bake. They’re also harder to clean, and even the dishwasher might struggle to do a thorough job.

Pick larger cookie cutters. It’s more fun and less time consuming to decorate a larger surface area. Kids will usually jump for the large cookies to design, so unless you’re ready to do most of the small ones yourself, steer clear.

Do a test run. If you’re feeling out of practice, you may want to do a trial run of three or four cookies using different cutters so you know what to expect while doing a big batch. This way, you can change their thickness or shape before going all in. It’s helpful to know if your Christmas unicorn cookie looks more like a bloated cat after it’s out of the oven.

Decorating tips:

When it comes to icing, don’t listen to the web. If you do a search for decorating with royal icing (powdered sugar plus egg whites), you’ll get a bunch of results talking about varying icing thickness to make border lines and “flooding” the cookie with a thin consistency. Unless you’re making cookies without kids and are ready for a lot of trial and error, don’t bother. Keep adding powdered sugar to your royal icing until it’s just thick enough to not run when you do a test drop. You can fill a cookie pretty quickly this way; just make sure it still pipes out smoothly and spreads out well without running over (if it does, add more powdered sugar.) If you’re planning to add precise details, that’s when you’ll want to make sure your piping is quite thick.

Use fondant. Instead of taking the time to frost the whole cookie, roll out some fondant (store-bought for convenience!) and cut out shapes using the same cookie cutters you used for the cookies. Adhere the fondant to the cookie with a little bit of icing or just leave as-is. You can pipe decorations right onto the fondant with royal icing, or you can pipe decorations onto a piece of parchment paper to transfer later.

When in doubt, try marbling. If your royal icing is a little too thin, and your details are bleeding together, take a toothpick and draw lines through the colors to make a marbled effect.

When really in doubt, add sprinkles. Lots and lots of sprinkles.

Quick tips:

If your cookie cutters have gone missing since last year, and you’re in a pinch, try using the top of a drinking glass as a cutter — they can be decorated as ornaments, or use a bottle cap to cut out the inside and make it a wreath.

If you’re out of piping bags, use sandwich bags and cut the tip off.

Use a squeeze bottle. They’re easier than piping bags to refill and handle.

Marilyn Tagliavia is the community news editor of the Sun’s parent paper, the St. Albans Messenger.