Well things are bad here in the good ol’ bay. Everything is on fire and we’re up against a greedy company that privatized a basic utility people need to survive then didn’t create the proper infrastructure, and went bankrupt.
In case you don’t know the situation here in California, I’ll give you a quick rundown. “Isn’t this a baking blog?” you may ask. Yes it is, and I promise I’ll talk about my experience making royal icing for the first time, but this story requires CONTEXT and the context is that PG&E is a punk ass bitch of a company.
Basically, unlike in most states, California’s electricity/gas isn’t a public utility, but is instead in the hands of private company Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E). They are an all around shitty company that profits off of people’s need to have electricity and not starve to death, and they spent years not keeping the power system up to date and ignoring safety regulations. They are most likely responsible for many of the fires that have been happening around here, and on top of that they are bankrupt. So they’re bad at providing electricity AND they are bad at being a company.
Because we live in a hell world and climate change is upon us, the risk of wildfire has increased in California over the past few years. In a last-dash effort to avoid liability, PG&E decided that rather than trying to fix their shitty system it would be better to just turn off the power in millions of peoples’ homes with very little warning and no concrete timeline of when power would be restored. This happened once earlier this month, and it happened again this weekend. My house was lucky enough to not be affected the first time, but this time around we were right in the affected zone.
Here’s the thing. Halloween is upon us. If you know anything about me you know that I live for any holiday that gives me the opportunity to make a themed baked good. And since starting this blog I have been actively trying to improve my baking skills and trying new techniques and recipes. Yesterday at work we had our annual Halloween event, so I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to make some sugar cookies for my coworkers and try to make royal icing for the first time.
If you didn’t know before, royal icing is widely considered the best icing to use for decorating cookies. At face value it’s very simple to make, requiring only egg whites (or meringue powder if you’re a fancy bitch), powdered sugar, some kind of flavoring such as vanilla extract, and food coloring. However, as is the case anytime whipping egg whites is involved, it can be tricky to get the consistency right, and it is highly, HIGHLY recommended that you use some kind of electric mixer, preferably a stand mixer. I’ve included a link with some info on how to make royal icing below in case anyone’s interested.
This was by no means my first time making sugar cookies. They used to be my go-to for holiday baking in high school, but because of my lack of stand mixer I opted instead to make a “simple” cookie icing made of only powdered sugar and milk, which technically works but doesn’t set as well as royal icing, making it harder to achieve a fancy design.
In my ongoing quest to cut corners without facing consequences, I also used a recipe that required no chill-time for the sugar cookie dough, which in hindsight was a little suspect. Like, the cookies were always good and turned out fine, but I also had a lot of problems with the dough sticking, getting out of shape, and spreading in the oven. I seem to remember this recipe as my go-to, and while I wouldn’t NOT recommend it, I would say that it’s always best to chill your sugar cookie dough to prevent sticking and spreading. Also now that I’m looking back at this recipe it also doesn’t say to use softened butter which is also suspect. Always soften your butter before creaming it with sugar.
Anyway, I’ve come a long way since high school, and I’ve got both a stand mixer and a cookbook from SprinkleBakes that gives very detailed instructions on how to decorate sugar cookies with royal icing, so I decided to use both the sugar cookie and royal icing recipe from the book for my Halloween cookies.
Now here’s the thing. The Halloween event was on Sunday. If you’re decorating with royal icing you have to do it at least a day in advance because it take a long time to dry completely (like overnight), but I had to work all day the day before so I WAS planning on making them Saturday night after work so that they would be all ready to go the next morning. PG&E had other plans. On Friday we found out we would be in the affected zone for the planned power outage, with the possibility of no power until Monday (as I’m writing this around noon on Monday, October 28th we still have no power, shout out to the Walnut Creek library for providing me with wifi and a place to charge my phone)
*HI it is now Tuesday October 29th, we got our power back yesterday around 4:30 and I was scared shitless when all the alarms went off at the same time, but we have electricity!! Things are still shitty though :)*
A smarter, less stubborn person would have said “oh well” and made the cookies another time. But that person is not me. I wanted to make cookies for my coworkers, and I wanted them to be Halloween pumpkins goddamnit. The nice thing about sugar cookies is that since it needs to chill anyway you can make it up to a few days in advance and let it chill in the fridge. So my new plan was to make the cookie dough Friday night, let it chill in the fridge, and then bake and decorate them as quickly as possible on Saturday. To our knowledge the power wouldn’t go off until the evening, which would give me a few hours after work to get everything done. It would be a bit hectic, but it still seemed doable.
Then Saturday afternoon we found out the power might be going off at 5pm. I get off work at 4pm. Wheels turning in my head, I figured that since I already had the dough all ready to go, I could quickly bake them off and then use my standmixer to whip up the icing. I didn’t need electricity to decorate the cookies. I was willing to decorate by flashlight if need be. So after work I drove home lickety split and got down to business.
I immediately turned on the oven and got all my icing ingredients ready to go. The icing itself was very quick and easy to whip up. I used the “streak test” method to make sure my icing was the right consistency and that seemed to work great. I do have to comment on the yield of the SprinkleBakes royal icing recipe. The recipe says it makes 3 cups of icing but that was NOT 3 cups of icing. It was maybe 1 and a half. I don’t know, I eyeballed it and maybe I’m a bad eyeballer. In a panic I made another half-batch of icing, which took even more of my precious time. I also realized that the SprinkleBakes simple sugar cookies take 15-20 minutes to bake. I had 25 minutes left before 5pm and at least 3 sheet pan’s worth of cookies. One was already in the oven with 10 minutes to go when I slid the second batch in on the other oven rack. Not ideal for getting an even bake on cookies, but I was racing against the clock here. I figured even if I only got a half-batch of sugar cookies to take to work that was better than nothing.
The cookies themselves baked beautifully. The SprinkleBakes recipe taught me that if you don’t add leavening to the cookie dough (i.e., baking powder) they won’t spread in the oven and will retain whatever shape you cut them out in. This was definitely the case, my pumpkins remained distinctly pumpkin shaped, even if some of the stems fell off as I was scraping the cookies off the pan (I also overbaked the first batch but whatever). My mistake on the first batch was that I rolled them too thin, which is why they got a little overdone. The second and third batches I made thicker and they baked up way more evenly. 5pm rolled around and the power was still on. “Okay,” I thought. “Maybe I have until 7pm” (the original time they said the power was going to go off.)
All of my cookies were baked and my icing was mixed, so technically I didn’t need to use any more electricity to make my cookies, the basic building blocks were all there. As the cookies cooled I began separating and mixing the different icing colors (orange, brown, and green). I had a BIG boo-boo the fool moment when I accidentally put green food coloring into my already-orange batch of icing, and I desperately spent the next few minutes adding more orange, red, and yellow to try and get it from the weird brown that it had turned after the green was added. As you can see from the photos I think I managed to save it. This was going to work.
However, not only was I in a race to finish cookies, my family and I were also in a race to eat as many leftovers as possible before the power went out and we couldn’t open the fridge. Royal icing may not be hard to make, but it is TEDIOUS business decorating cookies, at least if you want them to look decent and YOU KNOW ME. First you use a thicker-consistency icing to make a “border” around the edge of the cookie and let that dry slightly. Then you add water a few drops at a time until your icing is at “flooding” consistency, which you then use to fill in the empty spaces within the border icing. It’s slow business my friend. Not only that, but I was worried about not having enough icing, so I was piping out the flood icing in a zig-zag pattern and then going in with a toothpick to spread it out evenly. (This was stupid. I had enough icing, towards the end I just piped it out all over the cookie and it was WAY better, and those cookies ended up looking better too I think.) ON TOP OF THAT after icing each cookie you have to tap the cookie on the table to bring any air-bubbles to the surface, then pop those with a toothpick so they don’t set and mess up the final finish of the cookie. So there I was, piping bottle in one hand and fork in the other, insanely icing cookies while also shoveling leftover fajitas into my mouth. 7pm passed and the power was still on, and my cookies were done. They looked good, certainly not professional quality but HEY, it’s my FIRST TIME. I left them on the wire racks to dry overnight. The power went out around 9pm, right as my mom and I sat down to watch TV. Thanks PG&E.
The next morning the cookies looked even better! Another nice thing about royal icing is that when it dries it has a very smooth, matte finish that looks very pretty. I took them to work, all the co-workers loved them, and I thought they were pretty tasty too. I really like both the cookie and icing recipe from SprinkleBakes. The cookies are crisp and buttery, and since the icing is in a thin-layer it adds a sweet-crunchy topping that’s not too overpowering.
My final thoughts are that royal icing is a special-occasion activity. It wasn’t hard to make, but decorating takes a decent chunk of time and also my kitchen was an absolute MESS. Dried royal icing is a royal pain to wash off of things. It probably doesn’t help that I was in a nervous frenzy the whole time, but regardless there was a huge stack of dishes after everything was all done. I am glad I found a sugar cookie recipe that tastes yummy and doesn’t spread. I think that I’m just going to save the hardcore cookie decorating for the big holidays. The moral of the story is, cookies are delicious, fuck PG&E. Happy Halloween.