Put Nancy Baggett's "au naturel" holiday cookies next to more-traditional ones, and the difference is hard to miss.
Her cookies whisper with soft pastels; the others shout. Baggett relishes the comparison.
"Everybody else does the same-old, same-old: the bright Christmas green and Christmas red," she says. "The fact that these are different makes them really eye-catching."
Baggett's newest book, "Simply Sensational Cookies" (Wiley, 2012; on the Food section's list of recommended cookbooks this year), introduces the au naturel method she's so proud of.
Rather than tint icings with "commercial petrochemical food dyes," Baggett uses the natural colors found in frozen fruit juice concentrate from the grocery store: orange, cranberry, Concord grape, raspberry-grape and more. For darker hues, she adds cocoa powder. The palette is muted but malleable.
She uses homemade piping bags to demonstrate one of her favorite new things: homemade decorator sprinkles. Thin lines of icing, piped onto parchment and allowed to dry, are cut into tiny pieces and used as colorful toppings on just-iced cookies. They can be bottled and stored for as long as six months.
A sensitivity to red dye led Baggett to the fruit-based colorings. She says there are probably many other people with food sensitivities who would find her icings a godsend.
"Simply Sensational Cookies" is Baggett's third cookie compendium. It's packed with information about ingredients, equipment, techniques and trends. One useful tip (a little too complicated to reproduce here) tells you how to estimate the cacao percentage of a chocolate if it's not listed on the label; a three-page section fields frequently asked questions and answers.
She'll surprise many bakers with her assertion that the traditional creaming of butter and sugar in cookie recipes is no longer necessary; instead, she sometimes melts or partly melts the butter, then mixes in the other ingredients.
"The old-fashioned method is probably a holdover from the days before baking soda and baking powder came along (in the 1700 and 1800)," she writes. "Often, these leavening ingredients lighten cookies to the point that creaming is unnecessary."
Had we known that earlier, maybe a lot of mixer motors - and elbows - could have been saved.
'Au Naturel' Confectioners' Sugar Icing
•n 1 cup confectioners' sugar, more if needed
•n 1 teaspoon meringue powder or pure dried egg white powder
•n 1/2 teaspoon light corn syrup
•n 2 tablespoons frozen juice concentrate
•n 1/2 to 3 teaspoons unsweetened natural cocoa powder (optional)
Vigorously stir together the confectioners' sugar and meringue powder, in a small, deep bowl. Stir in the corn syrup. Add the juice concentrate and stir until completely smooth. If a brown color or tint is desired, stir in cocoa powder as needed. Adjust the texture as needed by adding confectioners' sugar, juice or cocoa powder, stirring to combine thoroughly. Use a table knife, pastry brush or artist's paintbrush to spread a thin, even layer of base-color icing on the cookie.
To add details, stir in more confectioners' sugar so that the icing has some body. Spoon the icing into a small cone of parchment paper or plastic food storage bag with the tip of one pointed end snipped off. (Don't fill bag more than halfway.) Use the cone to pipe accents onto the cookies. If you want the accents to blend, pipe when the icing base is still wet; if you want them to stand out and hold their shape, wait until the base has dried.
To make homemade sprinkles, omit the meringue powder from the icing. Pipe very fine lines of icing onto a sheet of parchment, spacing them far enough apart so they don't run together. Let the icing dry for 12 to 18 hours. Slide the parchment onto a cutting board and use a large knife or pizza wheel to cut across the piped lines, creating sprinkles that are 1/2 inch long or shorter. Let stand at least 4 hours, then transfer to airtight containers and store in a cool, dark spot for up to 6 months.
Yield: 1/2 cup icing