Note: Julia Usher, a cookbook author and founder of the website Cookie Connection, has created a terrific, intricate needlepoint design for a gingerbread "stocking." The cookie stocking consists of four stacked gingerbread pieces, cut out with a large cookie cutter. A channel is cut in the middle two layers, and that provides a space for inserting the cookie "lollipops" that fill the stocking.
We were so taken with it that we asked her to share tips on ways to achieve it, which you'll find in the accompanying sidebar. As you can tell, it's a project for a steady, experienced hand. So we asked Washington Post staff writer Roxanne Roberts to give it a go; after all, she has competed in the annual national gingerbread house competition at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, N.C.
Roberts did a beautiful job. She found the design so challenging that she created two alternates that, while also fantastic, are easier to accomplish: an argyle pattern and a winter snowman scene. Even if you simply flood and fill, the "edible stocking" construction is simple to assemble with royal icing.
Recipe: Gingerbread Stockings
Makes two 7-inch stockings and at least 9 small cookie lollipops
These edible cookie containers fall into the "too pretty to eat" category. Each one can hold 3 or 4 cookie "lollipops."
You'll need a 7-inch stocking-shaped cookie cutter; 1-to-2-inch round cutters; a handful of cake/cookie pop sticks, which are available at craft stores; luster dust and Chefmaster Liqua-Gel food coloring, both of which are available through online purveyors or baking supply shops.
MAKE AHEAD: The dough needs to be refrigerated overnight or up to 2 days. Undecorated cookies can be stored in an airtight container for up to 1 month or individually wrapped and frozen for up to three months. The decorated cookies can be stored in an airtight container for up to two weeks. Adapted from recipes by Roxanne Roberts' mother and from Julia Usher.
For the cookies
5 cups flour, plus more for rolling and cutting the dough
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground cloves
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 cup butter-flavored vegetable shortening
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup dark molasses
2 large eggs
For the royal icing
1 pound confectioners' sugar (about 4 cups), sifted
1/4 cup meringue powder
1/2 cup warm water
1 teaspoon orange extract
Gel or paste food coloring, for decorating (see headnote)
Luster dust, for decorating (see headnote)
For the cookies: Whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, ginger, cloves and cinnamon in a large bowl.
Combine the shortening and granulated sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer or hand-held electric mixer; beat on low speed until well blended, then add the molasses and eggs, beating until well incorporated. Stop to scrape down the bowl.
Gradually add the flour mixture (on low speed) to form a sticky dough. Divide into quarters; shape each one into a flattened disk, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight or up to 2 days.
Line three baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners.
Lightly dust each disk of dough with flour and place it between sheets of wax paper. Roll to a thickness of 1/4-inch. Lift off and reserve the top layer of wax paper. Dip the stocking cookie cutter in flour and cut out 8 stocking shapes in the dough, peeling away the excess dough. Use a sharp knife to score U-shaped channels in 4 of the stocking shapes; this will help create the space for holding the cookie pops. (Cut off their loops.) Use the smaller round cutters to create round cookies that will be affixed to sticks. Arrange the stockings and other cutouts on the baking sheets. Freeze for about 15 minutes or until the dough is firm but not frozen.
Position racks in the upper and middle sections of the oven; preheat to 350 degrees.
Use a cookie/cake pop stick to make a slight indentation on the backs of half of the round cookies; the cookies can be baked with the sticks in place or not.
Bake the round cookies for 6 to 8 minutes and the stocking cookies for about 12 minutes or until the edges are light brown. Leave them on the baking sheets for 2 minutes before transferring them to wire racks to cool completely. While the scored stocking shapes are warm, use a knife to retrace the U shapes; remove them.
Repeat to use all the dough.
For the icing: Combine the confectioners' sugar, meringue powder, water and orange extract in the bowl of a stand mixer or hand-held electric mixer; beat on low speed to blend, then high speed for about 5 minutes or until stiff peaks form. If you are not using the icing right away, place plastic wrap directly on its surface. To create different colors, transfer icing to small bowls and add gel or paste food coloring.
Tips from Roberts:
— It's important for this design that all of the stocking pieces line up, so I rolled out the dough on Silpat liners (parchment works just fine) on top on the baking sheet. That way, the cutouts don't have to be removed, which will prevent distortion. Cut the pieces far enough apart to allow them to bake without spreading into each other, then carefully peel away the excess dough, which can be rerolled.
— The design calls for two hollowed-out cookie layers that will hold lollipops and small bits of candy, but one layer yields a sleeker look. I scored the interior cutout and baked the cookie whole, then retraced the lines and removed the insert piece just after taking the cookies from the oven. To ensure the layers are the same size, I placed the cutter over the cookie and, if necessary, gently pushed the warm cookie sides to line up with the cutter outline.
— Because you're going to be using small decorating tips that can clog, sift the confectioners' sugar for the royal icing; there are always a few tiny, rock-hard pieces that prevent the frosting from flowing evenly. I keep a needle close by while I pipe the icing, just in case. It usually does the trick.
— Piping straight lines is hard, even for experienced decorators. Practice a few lines on wax paper before you tackle the cookies. I used a zero (0) tip, which leaves a very delicate line, but a No. 1 is easier to find (most craft stores carry them) and will look fine.
— For the top, heel and toe of the stockings, pipe an outline and then, using slightly thinned icing, flood the areas and let them dry completely, about eight hours or overnight. (I used the same technique for the blue background on the snowman stocking.)
— For an argyle design, I scored the top of the baked cookie with a paring knife to mark the design, then piped the lines and pink background colors and let them dry.
— After the base colors are dry, add details as desired. For the argyle, I piped green lines and immediately sprinkled them with green sanding sugar, which added sparkle and texture. (For sugaring larger areas, such as toes, lightly brush with thinned icing and sprinkle with the sugar.) Let dry for a couple hours.
— Glue stocking pieces together with thick icing and let them dry completely.
And her thoughts on Usher's needlepoint design:
— It is a real challenge, but enlarging the design can make it easier. The trick is to pipe the lines as fine and straight as possible. I scored two perpendicular lines on the cookie top to serve as a guide, then piped vertical and horizontal white lines. (Don't worry if they're not perfect; it's just a cookie, and this is supposed to be fun.) After the lines dry, go back and fill in the little squares with colored icing according to the diagram.
— For the cookie lollipops, cut out two cookies for each pop. Gently push a stick on top of one unbaked piece and bake in place, Decorate the cookie tops, and glue the two halves together.