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Sugar cookie painting tutorial for The Very Hungry Caterpillar watercolor style

Cookie Painting: Eric Carlisle Style

Cookie painting is a really fun technique for decorating sugar cookies that looks much harder than it is. Though there is definitely a time and place for a more traditional decorated look with colored icings piped into different designs and layers, I really prefer the painting method. It is easier, cleaner, allows more flexibility with mixing and blending colors, plus it is a lot less strain on your hands! The final result will look like a miniature watercolor painting.

You can use paints to play with the shape of your cookie, leaving some white frosting “blank” to enhance the final design. No two cookies will be exactly the same! Each one will be a unique piece of edible art.

To get started painting, you will need your favorite cut sugar cookie recipe covered with a thin base layer of icing, gel or liquid food colors, brushes and some small dishes. Perhaps you have also bought (or borrowed!) a few condiment containers over the years. I have a set of inexpensive brushes I purchased for, and use only in the kitchen. I recommend checking the bristles before you begin – just grab and pull gently to make sure your brushes aren’t shedding. It helps to have a different brush for each color you will be using, since cleaning your brush in water will gradually dilute the colors.

 

Apply several drops of liquid color or a few toothpick’s worth of gel color to each dish, along with several drops of water. For some reason I had this perfectly small squeeze bottle which helped control the amount of water. Mix up with one of the brushes and test each color as you go. You may find you need to add a bit more color to strengthen certain shades.

painting-2For my Eric Carlisle style caterpillars, apples and strawberries I mixed up 6 colors: green, turquoise, ivory, red, black and yellow. The yellow and black were liquid and the remaining colors were gel. After the colors are mixed they will all have the same liquid consistency. Both types of food colors work well for cookie painting and can be easily combined to create colors you don’t have. I used a variety of small sized brushes with the larger, flatter shapes for my main colors (red and green) and the smallest detail brush for black.

 

 I only mixed a small amount of each color because a little goes a long way. With the exception of my main color red, this was enough color to cover 3 dozen cookies.


 

How to paint an Eric Carlisle “very hungry caterpillar” and fruit:

My caterpillar cookie cutter wasn’t the right shape of the iconic hungry caterpillar, but I tried to capture the essence of this children’s favorite as best as I could. If I were to make these again I would try painting the caterpillar onto some plain rectangle or circle cookies. Colors used: red, green, turquoise, yellow and black.

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Painting a red face and base of bright green for the body.

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Adding some turquoise and black detail throughout the body.

 
After adding a little yellow to fill in the gaps, I used the green brush with a small amount of color to blend all the detail colors. After the red face is mostly dry (for me this was after about an hour or less), use the black to add some eyes.

The strawberries were my favorite. Colors used: red, green, yellow, ivory, black.

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Start with a red base, leaving space on top. Add the green leaves.

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Add some black detail on one side and yellow and ivory on the other to create depth. Then blend everything with your red brush.

After the caterpillars and strawberries the apples are pretty simple – just a red base, yellow and black detail plus a black stem. Colors used: red, yellow, ivory, black.

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Once you get the technique down there are so many possibilities for decorating your sugar cookies. Whether you are making Eric Carlisle inspired designs or something more mature, have fun with this! Cherish each piece of your cookie art and enjoy sharing with others.

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Sugar Cookie: Part 2 – The Icing

This is part two of a three part sugar cookie tutorial – the icing recipe. Now that you have your sugar cookies, you can add a layer of white icing which will become the perfect canvas for the final painted cookies. Or use this recipe to make colorful cookies to match the color scheme of any party or event.

Sugar cookie icing made without egg whites which dries hard, smooth and glossy

This icing goes on thin and dries hard, smooth and glossy. The final look is similar to royal icing but I prefer this recipe as it does not use any egg whites. With no color added it will be slightly transparent but I have used this recipe successfully to achieve an opaque white, all shades of pink, blue, green, yellow and even black.

This recipe uses clear vanilla to maintain a light / white color. If you plan to make your cookies a darker color, regular vanilla will be fine. If you don’t have clear vanilla, you will hardly miss it in the final taste. If you are looking for an opaque white, add a few drops of the AmeriColor gel food color in bright white.

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Measure all ingredients into the bowl of a stand mixer, or large bowl if you are using a hand mixer. Mix on ‘Stir’ or the lowest speed of your hand mixer to prevent air bubbles from forming. When you start mixing the icing will seem dry, then crumbly but will quickly become sticky and thick, requiring effort to move the mixer around the bowl. Here I am using the standard paddle attachment.

This recipe is not complicated but it can be tricky getting the consistency just right. We are looking for something thin enough to spread easily and dry smoothly, but thick enough to not slip off the edge of the cookie. The icing will be thick, imagine a bowl full of shampoo – but still come off the mixer in a thin stream when lifted. Test by scraping a straight line through the icing with a toothpick or knife. The line should hold for about 2 seconds before disappearing.

 This frosting is too thick – it sticks and drips off in small blobs rather than a thin stream. If you are going to be coloring your icing, it is better to start too thick since just a couple extra drops of liquid can affect the consistency. If it’s too thick at your final color, add a very small splash of water. Go slowly in ~1/4 tsp increments, mixing and checking consistency after each addition.

 

 

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Above: Icing at the right thickness will form a thin stream when pulled out of the bowl. Following the recipe exactly, I typically need to add in more water, BUT it’s better to start too thick rather than too thin. In the past I have experienced problems with the final look after adding more powdered sugar to thicken. If the sugar is not completely dissolved it may crystallize and form white spots on your cookies.

If you aren’t sure about the icing consistency, frost one cookie as a test. If it is difficult to move around the surface of the cookie with the spatula, it is still too thick. If it goes on easily, let it sit for several minutes. If it is too thin it may seem fine at first but start sliding over the edges as it dries.

Sugar cookie icing technique using an offset spatula to push from center towards cookie edge  frosting-6  frosting-7

The Technique:

Using an offset spatula or butter knife with a flat tip, scrape a dollop onto the end of knife and quickly lift it out of the bowl onto the cookie (it will be dripping). Place the icing towards the middle of your shape and gently push out to the edge, rotating the cookie until fully coated. Your spatula will never touch the outer edge of the icing, just bring it close enough to form the line or curve of your shape. The icing will flatten out as it dries leaving a smooth and even surface.

If the frosting dries out and becomes difficult to work with, add more water in small increments.

Frosted sugar cookies have a contained edge without the use of a piping bag

This method of frosting allows for a clean, contained edge without the need for piping. It also keeps the icing layer quite thin so it doesn’t overwhelm the taste of the cookie.


 

Sugar Cookie Icing Recipe

enough to frost ~3 dozen medium sized cookies

Ingredients:

  • powdered sugar – 2 cups or 8oz
  • clear corn syrup – 2 tablespoons
  • water – 2 1/2 tablespoons (plus more as needed)
  • clear vanilla – 1/4 teaspoon (or additional water)
  • optional: food color (gel or liquid, a few drops)

Instructions:

  1. Measure all ingredients except food color into a large mixing bowl. The corn syrup will be very sticky – just use a small spoon to scrape as much as you can out of the measuring spoon.
  2. Using a stand or hand mixer, mix on ‘Stir’ or low for at least 1 minute, until combined. Mixture will seem dry, then form crumbles before it smoothes out. Stop to scrape bottom and sides of bowl as needed. Remain mixing at lowest speed to prevent air bubbles.
  3. Check for a consistency similar to shampoo that flows off the mixing tongs when lifted out of the bowl and holds a line for 2 seconds. If frosting is too thick, add more water about 1/4 tsp at a time. Mix and check consistency again after each addition – a little goes a long way here. If making a colored icing, add the color first before any additional water since even a few drops of food color can affect the texture. See notes and photos above for more detail. 
  4. If using food color, add one drop at a time and mix thoroughly. You can use either gel or liquid food color.
  5. Load an offset spatula or flat-tipped butter knife with icing. It will start to drip off right away, so move it quickly onto the cookie. Starting from the center, work around the edges of the entire cookie by pushing the icing outward. It should spread easily without sliding off the cookie.

These dry slowly so make sure you leave them for several hours before trying to stack or store. Once dry you should be able to touch the surface and apply light pressure with your finger without denting the icing. After the surface is completely dry, you are ready to turn these cookies into edible art with part 3 – cookie painting!

 

Sugar Cookie: Part 1 – The Cookie

Over the years, classic cut sugar cookies have become one of my favorite cookies to make. They can be made ahead and stored easily in the freezer for up to several months, and left plain or decorated boldly for any event or party. For part one I have included the recipe and detailed instructions to create the perfect base sugar cookie which bakes true to the cut shape with minimal spreading. Part two covers the icing (similar to royal icing but no egg whites!), and part three is a cookie painting tutorial.

In this photo you can see how the baked shapes (top) compare to their raw counterparts (bottom).

Rolled and cut sugar cookies - baked shapes compared to raw shapes

What makes this recipe a bit different is the use of baker’s sugar which has a much finer consistency than regular granulated sugar. It also contains less egg than standard sugar cookie recipes which results in a slightly different texture. These cookies are crumbly rather than chewy, similar to shortbread.

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To begin, assemble your ingredients and tools. You can bake on parchment paper if you don’t have silpat mats, but the parchment paper is very critical for the rolling and chilling of the dough. You will also need either a hand mixer or stand mixer, a large and medium bowl, a scraping spatula, a wooden spoon and a rolling pin. If you don’t have a rolling pin, you are in over your head. Go make some chocolate chip cookies.

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Start out by getting your butter to room temperature. Since I have large bricks of butter, I find it easier to weigh. I drop it by spoonfuls directly into my mixing bowl until I reach 8 ounces. The smaller pieces warm up much faster than a solid chunk. Take your egg out too. The dough will come together better if everything is the same temperature.

  

Left: butter and sugar after mixing about 30 seconds. Right: butter and sugar after mixed about 4 minutes. The color has changed to a pale yellow. The paddle attachment with spatula sides is great for mixing cookie dough, but not essential. Just make sure to scrape the sides occasionally, and before adding each ingredient.

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Mix about half the dry mixture with the mixer, then use a sturdy spoon to combine the remaining flour mixture. At some point the mixture will look very dry as it does on the left. Keep working the flour in with the spoon until everything is moistened.

 

 

 

 

Here is what the dough will look like after all the flour is combined. Not perfectly smooth but ready to be portioned and rolled out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next you will be dividing the dough in half and rolling each section between pieces of parchment while the dough is in this softened state. This method of rolling and chilling has 3 major benefits:

  1. no mess on your counter or rolling pin
  2. no extra flour in the dough to alter the taste / texture
  3. much easier to roll dough while it is soft and warm (compared to most recipes which require chilling prior to rolling)

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Tear 2 large pieces of parchment paper and cut them in half. I was stingy and cut mine the length of the box which was barely large enough after cutting in half. If this is your first time making cut cookies, you are working in a warm kitchen, or you have a young one helping, try dividing the dough into thirds for smaller sections.

sugar cookies one-15 sugar cookies one-15:1 sugar cookies one-17 Roll your sugar cookie dough between parchment while it's warm, then chill

Drop a couple large spoonfuls of your dough onto the first piece of parchment and try to distribute it somewhat evenly. Put the second piece of parchment on top and start flattening the mounds with your hands. This will help the paper stay flat and smooth while you roll the dough level. I like to roll the wide side a bit before finishing off rolling length-wise. 1/4 inch is the perfect thickness for these cookies. They are thin enough to be slightly crispy, but still sturdy enough for decorating, stacking and storing easily without breaking. If you don’t have a rolling pin with levelers you can use wooden dowels placed underneath either side as you roll. If you don’t have any wooden dowels just try to roll as level as possible and watch that the edges don’t get too thin.

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If your dough starts bursting out of the parchment just cut and add the scrap back in a less full area. All fixed!

Stack your rolled out dough sections on a baking sheet and refrigerate for about an hour. If you are in a hurry you may stick these in the freezer for about 15 minutes. Be careful to not freeze the dough too long – dough sheets that are too cold will actually bend and break more easily. Dough that is ready to be cut and shaped will feel very cold but still somewhat flexible beneath the parchment.

sugar cookies one-22  Rolling cookie dough between parchment makes chilling and cutting easy  sugar cookies one-24  sugar cookies one-25

While your dough is chilling, preheat the oven to 350 and prepare two baking sheets with parchment paper or silpat mats. Remove one of your dough sheets and place on a cool work surface. Slowly remove the top piece of parchment paper, then replace it. Flip your dough sheet over and remove what is now the top piece of parchment. This quick extra step before you begin makes it much easier to remove the cut shapes and helps them from sticking to the bottom piece of parchment.

sugar cookies one-26 Start cutting shapes and moving quickly to the lined baking sheet. If the dough is cool enough, the shape should lift up with cookie cutter. Gently press it out into your hand or directly onto the baking sheet.

 

 

 

 

 

If the shapes stop lifting up with the cutter, the dough has become too warm. In a warm kitchen this is bound to happen. Replace the top piece of parchment and return the dough to the fridge or freezer for a few minutes. You can certainly keep going with slightly warmed dough, but if you want to keep your shapes as clean as possible it’s worth the extra time.

 

 

 

 

 

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Left: Raw cookies ready for the oven. Leave about an inch of space between each cookie. Right: Just out of the oven.

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A Quick Experiment:

Some sugar cookie recipes suggest refrigerating each tray of cut shapes before baking as a way to prevent spreading. In the past this hasn’t made a difference for me so I decided to test it again. In the picture above the top row of cookies were refrigerated for 15 minutes prior to baking. The middle row was refrigerated for about 7 minutes and the bottom row of cookies were not refrigerated at all before baking. I stared at these for a long time in real life, and now again at the photo but don’t see a real difference. If anything, the cookies baked directly after being cut seemed to have held their shape and spread just a bit less. So now we know.


 

Sugar Cookie Recipe

yield ~3 dozen medium cookies

Ingredients:

  • all purpose flour – 3 cups (scooped and leveled)
  • butter – 1 cup / 8 ounces / 2 sticks (softened)
  • baker’s sugar – 1 cup
  • egg – 1 large (room temperature)
  • baking powder – 1/2 tablespoon
  • vanilla – 1 teaspoon
  • salt – 1/2 teaspoon

 

Instructions:

  1. Bring your butter and egg to room temperature. Cut your butter into smaller pieces to warm it up faster.
  2. In a mixing bowl, add softened butter and baker’s sugar. Baker’s sugar is superfine and will give your cookies a more delicate texture. Beat on low / stir for 30 seconds to 1 minute to combine. Scrape sides. Increase speed and mix for 3-5 minutes until light and fluffy. You will notice a slight color change. Scrape sides of bowl.
  3. With the mixer on low / stir, add your egg and vanilla. Then increase the speed until well incorporated. Scrape sides of bowl.
  4. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt. Scoop and level each cup of flour to ensure it is not packed too tightly. I find it more manageable to measure in 1/2 cup increments using this method.
  5. With the mixer on low / stir add about a quarter of the flour mixture until combined. Scrape sides of bowl and repeat.
  6. Mix the remaining half of the flour mixture by hand with a sturdy spoon. Work from the bottom to the top of the bowl, repeating the under-over motion until no flour remains. The dough will seem very dry at first but will come together in a rough ball.
  7. Tear or cut 4 or 6 pieces of parchment which will be used to roll the dough between. Lay down a single piece of parchment and place about half of the dough on top. I find it easier to roll out if I place two spoonfuls of dough with some space between. Place another piece of parchment paper on top and flatten gently with your hands. Then, roll out dough evenly into 1/4 inch thickness. Repeat with remaining dough so you have 2 or 3 dough sheets rolled between parchment paper. Refrigerate for 1 hour or freeze for 15 minutes.
  8. While dough chills, preheat the oven to 350 and prepare 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or silpat mats.
  9. Taking one dough sheet from the fridge, remove and replace one side of parchment. Flip over and remove the other side of parchment paper to expose the dough. Start cutting shapes and moving to the baking sheet quickly with about an inch of space between each cookie. Cold dough will lift up with the cutter. Return dough to the fridge or freezer for a few minutes if the shapes start sticking or stretching.
  10. Bake at 350 for 12 minutes. Cookies will still be a uniform light color. If you like crispier cookies or browned edges, bake an additional 2-4 minutes.
  11. Place baking sheet on cooling rack for about 2 minutes, then slide parchment or silpat off sheet and onto rack. After another few minutes move cookies directly onto rack to cool fully.

 

Enjoy as is, double bag and refrigerate (several weeks) or freeze (several months) or check out part 2 for a no-egg icing recipe!