Decorating sugar cookies is a fun way to celebrate the season, and this centerpiece takes them off the cookie tray and puts them front-and-center on your holiday table! Cookies are attached with toothpicks to a Styrofoam cone from the craft store, so they’re easy for guests to remove and enjoy.
Use graduated cookie cutters in a range of sizes between 1 to 4 inches; larger cookies will fit well at the bottom of the cone, and smaller cookies will fit more perfectly towards the top.
Choose a pretty plate or cake stand to display your cookie tree. I used a footed milk glass goblet that I found at a thrift store. The added height gives the centerpiece even more presence.
One 12-inch Styrofoam cone
Holiday cookie cutters in a range of sizes, from 1″ to 4″
Cookie decorating materials: squeeze bottle or piping bag; nonpareils, crystal sugar or pearlized dragees; gel food coloring.
Step One: Make the Cookies
Simple Sugar Cookies
½ pound (2 sticks) butter, softened
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
Pinch of salt
This sturdy and slightly sweet sugar cookie is my favorite for decorating. The dough contains no chemical leavening agent, so the cookies won’t puff up or lose their shape while baking.
1. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the butter and sugar together until just incorporated. Do not over-mix at this stage, or the cookies may spread while baking.
2. Add the egg and vanilla extract. Mix again on low speed, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.
3. Add the flour and salt. Mix on low speed until a dough is formed and there are no longer any streaks of butter in the mixing bowl. The dough will often clump around the paddle attachment while being mixed. This is normal and a good sign that your dough is the right consistency.
4. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
5. Turn the dough out onto a sheet of plastic wrap and form into a ball. The dough will not be sticky and should be easy to work with your hands. Wrap the dough tightly and refrigerate for 1 hour.
6. Working on a well-floured surface, knead the dough slightly, squeezing it with your hands to flatten the ball into a disc.
7. With a floured rolling pin, roll dough to a ¼-inch thickness.
8. Cut out shapes from the dough with cookie cutters and transfer to the prepared baking sheet. Be careful not to stretch the cutout shapes or they will be distorted after baking.
9. Refrigerate the cutouts for 30 minutes. This will help the cookies maintain a crisp shape during baking.
10. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
11. Bake the cookies 12 minutes for smaller cookies and up to 20 minutes for larger cookies, or until golden brown around the edges.
12. Let cool on the baking sheet for 5 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack. Decorate the cookies when completely cooled.
Step 2: Make the Frosting and Decorate Cookies
4 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
3 tablespoons meringue powder
1/4 cup warm water, plus more for thinning
1/2 teaspoon clear flavoring extract (lemon, orange, almond, clear vanilla)
1 or 2 drops sky blue gel food coloring
Your choice of nonpareils, crystal sugar or pearlized dragees for decorating
1. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, stir the confectioners’ sugar and meringue powder on low speed until combined.
2. Add the water and beat on medium-high speed until very stiff peaks form, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove 1/3 of the icing and cover the remaining icing with a damp tea towel to prevent it from drying out. Use an off-set spatula to cover the top and sides of the Styrofoam cone with a thin layer of the royal icing.
Transfer to your choice of serving display (cake stand, platter). Place a generous dot of royal icing under the cone and press to adhere it to the display surface. Set aside, and allow cone to dry several hours or overnight.
3. In the meantime, add the flavoring to the remaining icing and beat on low until combined; tint using the sky blue gel food coloring.
4. Bring to flood consistency by adding water a drop or two at a time until the icing is thinned and a line pulled through the icing with a spatula disappears at the count of 10.
5. Transfer the icing to a squeeze bottle or to a piping bag fitted with a plain #3 decorator tip.
6. Outline all the cooled cookies with the icing, and then fill in the outlines with the remaining icing.
7. Decorate with nonpareils and crystal sugar.
8. Allow decorated cookies to dry completely, several hours or overnight (preferred).
Step 3: Assemble the Centerpiece
1. Starting at the bottom of the cone, press the dull end of a toothpick through the icing and into the Styrofoam so that about 1 inch of the pointed toothpick end is sticking out of the cone.
2. Very carefully press a large cookie onto the pointed end of the toothpick. Be sure not to press the toothpick through the cookie. You may need to remove and adjust the toothpick so the cookie fits onto it perfectly. If cookies want to wobble, you may apply a little leftover royal icing to the toothpick end to adhere them (mine did fine without).
3. Repeat with remaining cookies, affixing the smaller ones as you move to the top of the cone.
4. Display on your holiday table or buffet.
Note: Royal icing-covered cone should be discarded after cookies have been consumed. It is not edible.
All photographs by Heather Baird.