To make the most of the season, why not throw a party to decorate holiday cookies?
Sure, it sounds like something Martha Stewart would do. But it's festive, fun – and easy. Instead of making fancy cookies from scratch all by yourself, get friends and family to creatively add the icing and sprinkles.
A cookie-decorating party primer:
Decide how many guests can comfortably fit in your kitchen and dining room. The more the merrier – but decorators do need elbow room.
Get decorating supplies. Buy or borrow a few gingerbread men-shaped cookie cutters if you don't already own them. You'll need a few pound bags of confectioner's sugar (the key to good icing) and lots of sprinkles, chocolate chips, and mini-marshmallows. Hit the grocery store for basic colored sugar – and places like Sur le Table for fancy stuff.
Test different gingerbread or sugar cookie recipes.You'll want to bake the cookies before the party (on your own, with Christmas carols playing in the background, or with the help of one of your older kids). That way guests can just decorate. (It's too messy and time consuming to expect dough-making and decorating to happen on the same day.) To make several dozen cookies (the "canvas" for the frosting extravaganza), you need to choose the easiest-to-roll-out dough. Try the cookie-dough instructions on epicurious.com, foodnetwork.com, and smittenkitchen.com and in cookbooks like Baking Illustrated. And don't forget Martha: She also gives a good gingerbread dough recipe and instructions on decorating with kids. Ask family members to weigh in on which recipe is best and on what tweaks the winner may require. (Too much ginger? Not enough?)
Make and refrigerate lots of dough. Then a day before your party, roll out and bake cookies. Follow advice from Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of Rose's Christmas Cookies, and make sure trays are side-less and contain the same size cut-outs. Otherwise, smaller cookies may overcook. (Thicker cookies need to bake at a lower temperature like 325 degrees or the outside will burn before the inside cookies.) To prevent sticking, line trays with parchment paper.
Buy festive cardboard shirt boxes. They are bigger and flatter than paper plates, so they make a simple cookie carrier. Guests can take home their creations without icing dripping or cookies tipping. After you get home from the Container Store or another shirt box vendor, line the boxes with aluminum foil. Then place a single layer of cookies inside so that guests are ready to frost. (Three giant gingerbread men and eight mini ones fit well.)
Set out plastic cups and spoons. Put confectioner's sugar and disposable spoons and knives in the cups with a pitcher of water nearby. When guests arrive, encourage them to mix up their own icing – and start frosting and decorating. If anyone suffers from decorator's block, give some tips. Use mini marshmallows to create a beard for a gingerbread man or use decorator icing to outline socks or mittens.
Take photos. Then email or text them to guests. That way everyone can remember the party long after the cookies are inside stomachs instead of inside shirt boxes.
Plan ahead. Do you want to cut out cookies shaped like the numbers 2013 for a New Year's Eve gathering? Of course you do!
For more about holiday entertaining and your family, read: