red flannel pantry

creative pursuits in the kitchen, garden, library and sewing room

Halloween cookie care packages

It’s Halloween care package time for my college kids. They are halfway through the semester and ready for a reminder of home. This year I sent Ziploc bags of seasoned goldfish crackers, some Halloween decorations, and iced sugar cookie cutouts.

Here is the best sugar cookie recipe. It makes enough cookies to send a generous number to my son and daughter and still have enough for us at home (otherwise Daughter #2 feels neglected and gets grumpy). The only point I vary on from the recipe is the baking time: I find that for mid-sized cutouts in my oven, 5 minutes works best. The smaller the cookie, the shorter the baking time. Not all ovens are calibrated the same, so keep an eye on the first few batches and figure out the right baking time for you.

Making cookie-cutter sugar cookies takes organization and a little planning. Here are some tips:

  • I find this endeavor works best as a staged weekend project. I make the dough Friday, bake the cookies Saturday, ice them on Sunday, and ship them on Monday. I am more likely to have family helpers, I am less likely to get impatient, and the cookies arrive at their destinations sooner without being held up over the weekend at the post office or UPS.
  • Make the dough the night before baking and store it in an airtight container in the frig. The dough will then be good and cold when you roll and cut out the cookies the next day.
  • Work with someone else: a child, spouse or friend. Sharing the experience makes it more fun and efficient.
  • If using a large cutting board to roll out the dough, place a damp dish towel beneath it to prevent it from slipping.
  • Keep the counter or board and the rolling pin well floured while rolling the dough to prevent sticking. Some use confectioners’ (powdered) sugar on the board, others flour. I use flour.
  • Scoop out a hunk of dough to roll and keep the rest covered in the frig until ready to roll and cut the next batch.
  • Shape and knead the cold dough into a round disk before rolling–it’ll make rolling easier.
  • Aim for a uniform rolled thickness. About 1/4 inch is good for me, but there’s no need to get obsessive about it. Too thin, and the cookies are fragile and burn easily; too thick, and they take longer to bake and are a bit chewier.
  •  If the dough does stick, no big deal. Gather the dough up, flour the board and rolling pin some more, and roll it out again. If the dough gets too warm and sticky, put it back in the frig to chill.
  • If you know you won’t have time to ice the cookies, sprinkling colored sugar on them before baking is a great option. The sugar adds a little sweetness and decorates the cookies with a lot less fuss.
  • Cut and bake a whole cookie sheet–full of one cutout (say, all pumpkins or all bats). This technique leads to more uniform baking. It is easier to take a cookie sheet out of the oven a little early or leave it in a little longer if every cookie is the same size. Otherwise, you end up juggling–removing some cookies, leaving the rest in for longer all while still trying to roll and cut the next batch.
  • Monitor cooking time carefully. I lost a sheet full of bats this year because I rolled the dough too thin and I let them bake too long–a double whammy. They ended up with singed wings, poor things, so I sacrificed and ate them myself with some chai tea–they tasted better than they looked.
  • After removing the cookie sheet from the oven, wait a minute or two before moving the cookies to a cooling rack. This extra time on the baking sheet lets the cookies cool down and harden a bit, making it easier to move them with a spatula without breakage.
  • I work with three cookie sheets and rotate. One is in the oven, one is cooling, and one is being filled with cutouts ready to be baked.

Here is my favorite icing recipe. I have found that it makes the ideal amount for the sugar cookie recipe above.

Tips for icing and decorating sugar cookies:

  • For Halloween, I divide the icing into six little Pyrex containers and add food coloring to create red, yellow, orange, black, green and white icing. I use about 12 drops of food coloring for red, yellow, green–I get nice strong colors. For orange, 6 drops of red/6 drops of yellow works. And, of course, white is just white! If you want lighter or deeper colors, adjust the number of drops accordingly.
  • Side bit of advice: store your food coloring bottles in a small plastic container. It is easier to keep the little bottles upright, but if they do happen to tip over and leak, they won’t stain the cabinet shelf (advice borne from personal experience!).
  • I cover several clean baking sheets with wax paper to receive the finished iced cookies. Newly iced cookies can’t be stacked on top of one another–they need time to harden first–so lay them out in a single layer.
  • Cut a piece of wax paper for your work surface–if it gets messy, you can just crumple it up and get a new piece.
  • Gather together any other decorating supplies: sprinkles, Red Hots (left over from making applesauce), colored sugar.
  • I use butter knives to spread on the icing–I have one knife dedicated to each color. You can also try using clean brushes (used only for food), dipping the cookies directly into the icing or using those fancy decorator icing squeeze bottles.
  • Toothpicks are great for swirling icing patterns on cookies or drizzling on patterns or features.
  • Do not stress about making these cookies look Martha Stewart perfect! Take a look at mine and you know I gave that up long ago–I don’t have the patience. Instead focus on the fact that this is about having fun making and giving a tasty handmade gift that is a reminder of home. I’ve come to love their wabi-sabi look.
  • After being decorated, the cookies need time for the icing to set and harden. If the weather is cool, I set these trays on my screen porch. Otherwise, just letting them sit on the counter for an hour or so works.

When shipping iced sugar cookies, you need to package them with care. I layer the cookies in a gallon-sized Ziploc bag and then place the bag inside a cardboard shoe box along with some packing material (eg, empty plastic shopping sacks, bubble wrap, air pouches). Most shoe boxes fit perfectly inside the large flat-rate priority shipping boxes provided by the US Post Office (12″ x 12″ x 5 1/2″). You then have some room to add whatever else you think might be fun to send–goldfish crackers perhaps?

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