Sugar cookies with royal icing are easy to bake, fun to decorate and make any party or holiday a little sweeter. But this Design-it-Yourself challenge serves them up with a visionary twist: It’s up to you to invent a whole batch of cookie decoration designs the world has never seen before!
Suggested Ages: 10+
This is no ordinary DIY project for kids: It's a step toward becoming an innovator
Every Galileo Design-It-Yourself challenge teaches the same techniques that professional designers, engineers, artists and chefs use in their work. With skills like these, we believe you can change the world.
All innovators need these→ keep an eye out!
KNOWLEDGE: Facts, skills or context to inform your project
MINDSET: The right frame of mind to innovate
PROCESS: Steps to guide you along the path to your goal
The Design-It-Yourself Challenge
Whip up a big batch of sugar cookies, then decorate each one with its own uniquely visionary royal icing design.
What You Need
Ingredients (yields approximately 24 2-inch cookies)
- 8 tablespoons (1 stick) room-temperature butter
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1 egg
- 1 1/4 teaspoon vanilla
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 1/2 – 2 1/2 cups flour (see below)
- 1 tablespoon meringue powder*
- 1/4 cup warm water
- 1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
- Scant 1/4 teaspoon light corn syrup
- 1 1/4 cups powdered sugar
- 1 – 3 drops gel food coloring in assorted colors**
* Meringue powder should be easy to find at Amazon, Walmart or Michaels. If you don’t have it (and are up for a challenge), you can make your royal icing using egg whites instead.
** Gel coloring works better than liquid coloring in this challenge, since it won’t affect the consistency of your icing.
- 4 (or more) icing bottles (we like the 4-oz. size) or pastry bags with couplers and #2 decorating tips
How to Make Your Cookie Dough
Cut 1 stick of butter into pieces with a butter knife. Put pieces in a medium-sized mixing bowl and beat with an electric mixer at low speed until creamy and whipped.
Add 1/2 cup brown sugar and 1/4 cup granulated sugar into the mixing bowl with your butter. Crush up or pull out any brown sugar lumps, which can leave dents in your cookies.
Use a mixer to cream butter and sugars. Wipe down sides of the bowl with a spatula as you go. Mix for several minutes, until light and fluffy.
Add 1 egg and 1 teaspoon of vanilla to mixing bowl. Mix until well combined.
Add 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon baking powder into bowl. Mix until well combined.
Add 1 1/2 cups flour into mixing bowl. To prevent making a floury mess, first mix it into the batter with a spatula, then use your electric mixer to combine until no loose flour remains.
Check your dough. You have added enough flour if:
- Dough is no longer sticky (it doesn’t stick to your fingers if you pinch it)
- Dough looks crumbly, separating like pebbles instead of forming a single blob
If your dough is NOT ready, add more flour, 1/4 cup at a time. Use your electric mixer to fully combine each new addition (leaving no loose flour on the bottom of the bowl). Stop and check dough before adding another 1/4 cup. Should not exceed 3 additions.
Split your dough into two parts, then use your hands to form each half into a ball. Press your dough balls into disks about 1-2 inches thick, then wrap them in plastic wrap or seal them in their own Ziploc bags or tupperware containers and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.
How to Roll, Cut and Bake Your Cookies
Preheat your oven to 350°F.
Line a cookie sheet (or a few) with parchment paper and set it aside.
Prepare an area for rolling out your dough. Cover a flat surface with parchment paper and sprinkle a dusting of flour over it.
Start with one of your dough disks. Roll it out with a rolling pin, sprinkling the dough with flour as needed to keep it from sticking to the pin. Aim for an even thickness of approximately 1/4 inch.
Use a cookie cutter or drinking glass to cut out your cookies. Place cut dough on your parchment-lined cookie sheet(s).
Set any dough scraps aside and repeat steps 4 and 5 with your second disk.
Collect all of your leftover dough scraps into a ball, flatten them into a disk and roll and cut again. Repeat until you use up all your dough.
Put your sheet(s) in the oven to bake for 7-10 minutes, until cookies are lightly browned around edges ONLY; most of the cookie should still be light colored.
When the cookies are done, use an oven mitt to remove your cookie sheet(s) from the oven and let them rest for a few minutes.
Use a spatula to transfer your cookies to a cooling rack. Let them cool completely before decorating.
How to Make and Prep Royal Icing
Put 1 tablespoon of meringue powder and 1/4 cup of warm water into a small mixing bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat on medium-high until the mixture has thickened and doubled in size (about 1 minute).
Add 1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar and 1/4 teaspoon vanilla to the mixing bowl. Beat about 1 minute.
Add 3/4 cup of powdered sugar. Mix on low until smooth (about 30 seconds), scraping down sides of the bowl with a spatula. (Hold a towel over the top of the bowl as a shield if you need help containing the sugar.)
Add just slightly less than 1/4 teaspoon of corn syrup into the mixing bowl. Beat to mix completely (about 10 seconds).
Add remaining 1/2 cup powdered sugar. Mix on medium-low for 30 seconds, then scrape down sides of bowl. Mix for 1 more minute.
Check icing consistency using “5-second” test: Use a rubber spatula to draw a deep line the icing, then count the seconds (1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi…) it takes for the line to disappear completely. Your target should be about 5 seconds. Here’s what it looks like in action:
- If it takes longer, add more warm water, 1/2 teaspoon at a time. Retest after each addition.
- If the line disappears too quickly, add more powdered sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time. Retest after each addition.
Decide on a few different colors for your royal icing. We think 4 is a nice number: 3 colorful hues, plus 1 white (without food coloring) for contrast.
Divide your icing evenly into 4 containers, 1 for each color (you can use your mixing bowl as one container).
Squeeze a few drops (start with 1 – 2) of gel food coloring into each container and mix until the color is evenly distributed. Add more to make your colors more vibrant.
Pour each of your colored icings into its own icing bottle or pastry bag with a #2 round decorating tip.
The Design-It-Yourself Challenge: Decorate Using Visionary Designs
Step 1: Wet-on-Wet Icing Techniques
Learn the basics of wet-on-wet icing techniques in this video:
The wet-on-wet royal icing technique is just what it sounds like: applying wet icing (your decorations) to wet icing (your base layer). Decorating while both layers are still wet allows your design to dry flat and smooth. You have to move pretty quickly to make it work, but if you don’t like a design you can simply wipe your cookie with a paper towel and start again.
Step 2: Outlining and Flooding Techniques
Practice outlining and flooding a test cookie with royal icing.
Flooding a cookie with icing is the best way to achieve a smooth, even base layer on a cutout cookie, an important step whether you’re attempting wet-on-wet decorating techniques or not. All you need to do is outline your cookie with frosting, fill it in and even it out with a toothpick. Here’s what the process looks like:
Step 3: Practice Basics
Once you’ve mastered outlining and flooding, try out one (or more!) of the basic wet-on-wet techniques on your still-wet cookie. Get comfortable with the fundamentals of creating a few different designs before moving on to your own visionary ideas.
It’s easy to pick a decoration design you’ve already seen and replicate it across your entire batch of cookies. But the challenge here is to be visionary by experimenting with entirely new designs, imagining things you’ve never seen and seeing if you can make them work. Once you get the hang of basic icing techniques, the possibilities are truly endless—and who knows? You might even create a new design no one’s ever thought of before!
Step 4: Create More Designs Using Wet-on-Wet Techniques
Decorate the rest of your cookies with your own visionary designs. Will you incorporate the cookie’s shape into your design? Combine several different wet-on-wet techniques? Use different designs on different parts of the cookie? If you’re decorating with someone else, stop to look at what they’re doing and see if you can push your designs even further by building off their ideas.
The worst-case scenario is a delicious cookie that doesn’t quite look the way you imagined it. So go ahead—be visionary!
- Play with flavor! Try baking and icing other types of cookies (lemon shortbread, chocolate shortbread, etc.) Or consider tweaking your royal icing by adding any flavor extract (instead of vanilla) and adjusting the amount of water if needed.
- Get in shape! Try cookie cutters in different shapes and sizes. Different shapes may inspire new types of icing design. Or bake a craft or lollipop stick into your cookie to create something new: a flower cookie on a stem, a balloon cookie on a string, etc.
- Wrap it up! Iced cookies make great gifts. Get creative and find fun ways to wrap a few of your baked masterpieces for a friend, family member or teacher. Create and decorate a custom box, use a cellophane bag and ribbon or design a wrap with fabric or paper.
- Make it a game! Each person (in secret) decorates a cookie with a visionary design. Trade cookies and try to replicate the other person’s design. See how close you can get to the original.