If you want to create beautiful, to-die-for Christmas cookies but have no idea where to start, don’t worry — Bradford West Gwillimbury is home to cookie artist extraordinaire Mary Valentino.
Owner and operator of Emma’s Sweets, Valentino recently won $10,000 on the Food Network’s Christmas Cookie Challenge.
And, just in time for holiday baking season, she gave me a lesson on how to ice and decorate the perfect cookie.
But for people like me who are eager to create beautiful, edible masterpieces that will surely impress friends and family, her main advice may not be what you want to hear.
“It’s just really practice and patience,” she told me, in the kitchen of her BWG home. “Some people are really hard on themselves. It’s taken me five years to get to this level. We all want to get there right away, but you can’t. Slow and steady wins the race.”
The challenge Valentino gave me was to create a Mrs. Claus cookie — with the baking already done. All I had to do was ice and decorate it.
(And, just in case you’re wondering, Valentino keeps her sugar cookie recipe under wraps, but she said there are many free recipes online people can try.)
As an amateur baker who has been whipping up treats since I was a kid, I feel confident in my ability to make a decent sugar cookie.
But my previous attempts at decorating Christmas cookies, though well-intentioned, have never gone smoothly. My icing is usually too liquidy, dripping off the edge, and my colours sometimes run together.
The patience part of the equation was definitely lacking.
But with instruction from Valentino, I gave it my best shot.
While some people worry about having the perfect cookie, Valentino said nailing the right consistency of the royal icing is key.
“It’s not the recipe, it’s the consistency. To me, they all taste the same. They will look the same if you have the right consistency,” she said.
While some consistencies are better for particular kinds of decorating — stiffer for creating flowers with petals, or medium consistency for lettering, for example — Valentino’s icing is typically at a 12- to 14-second consistency.
In the baking world, that means if you drag a knife through some icing, it would take about 12 to 14 seconds for it to become a flat, seamless surface again.
Having made enough icing in her career, though, Valentino judges by eye when her desired consistency is ready.
“I go a little bit thicker because you get a smoother consistency and less air bubbles,” she said.
While Valentino does create custom cookies for her customers, she is focusing more on teaching classes and running her Emma’s Sweets YouTube channel — and the latter has a video that breaks down what different royal icing consistencies look like and how to achieve them.
Luckily for me, Valentino already had premixed bags of icing ready to go for our lesson, so all I had to do with pick them up and give it a try.
Preparing myself for the first squeeze of the tipless piping bags was, to be honest, pretty intimidating.
With images of past Christmas cookies-gone-wrong flashing through my head, I took a breath and focused.
I must have looked nervous because Valentino commented on how serious I looked.
I had come to have some fun and learn from a professional cookie artist — I did not want to screw up!
And, actually, it went pretty well.
I held the piping bag upward away from the cookie, as Valentino directed, to get more control over where the icing fell.
Once the outline of Mrs. Claus’ face was done, I squeezed the icing a little harder out of the bag with firm, even pressure, tracing the outline inward, around and around, until it was completely filled up.
Using a scribe tool, I moved the icing around in areas I missed and popped any air bubbles. Then, I gently shook the cookie from side to side to smooth out the icing.
The end result looked like glass. If the lesson had been over there, I would have still be impressed with myself.
Then Valentino popped the cookie into a dehydrator for five minutes to dry the icing quicker so we could do the next layer of icing.
An alternative to this is leaving cookies to dry in front of a fan blowing cool air for three to four hours, she said.
On Valentino’s Instagram page, she often shares videos demonstrating how to ice a cookie:
While some people prefer to use bags with piping tips, Valentino only uses tipless ones, which she buys from Sherry Potter of Barrie-based How Sweet Is That.
In this video on Valentino’s YouTube channel, she shows how to ice a cookie using tipless bags and ones with tips:
As I continued my lesson with Valentino, I added icing hair and hairband to Mrs. Claus and sprigs of holly using a leaf icing tip.
Valentino showed me how to make earrings by adding a couple dots of icing topped with spherical sprinkles.
She showed me how to mix gold powder with potent vodka to make an edible gold paint that I used to give Mrs. Claus shiny earrings and holly berries in her hairband.
Very gently — and I stress very — I used an edible marker to draw on eyelashes and a smile without puncturing the thinly-dried layer of icing.
I made icing dollops for a nose and eyes, and I dipped a toothpick into white icing and gently dabbed it onto the eyes to give them a sparkle.
Valentino showed me how to move the scribe tool from side to side in the icing nose after I had already put it on the cookie to help it avoid collapsing in on itself.
Finally, I used some shimmery pink edible powder to add rosy cheeks.
Mrs. Claus had never looked so cute.
I can see why Valentino is in such high demand. She is fully booked for the rest of the year, and six of her classes for kids and adults have sold out already.
“The demand is there. People want to learn. It’s everybody — it’s homemakers, it’s professionals,” she said. “There’s a big, big niche for these cookies. It’s endless.”
TIPS FROM THE PRO:
- Find easy, free recipes for royal icing and sugar cookies online
- You can buy pre-made royal icing in different colours at stores like Michaels and Bulk Barn
- Don’t have a scribe tool? Use a toothpick
- Don’t have a piping bag? Use a Ziploc bag
- When piping icing, hold the bag upward away from the cookie to get more control
- Let icing dry for three to four hours in front of a fan blowing cool air before doing another layer
- After icing, use a scribe tool to pop air bubbles and then gently shake cookie to smooth out icing
- Mary Valentino