A friend recently posted a picture on Facebook of some lovely hand painted shortbread cookies she had made. It was the first time I’d ever seen this cookie decorating technique and I immediately queried her about the procedure. She gave me the basics and assured me it was easy. After a bit more research, I decided that St. Patrick’s Day might be the perfect occasion to give it a try.
The first thing I learned is that one needs only a few supplies–gel food coloring, a paintbrush, and a clear food grade alcohol to thin out the food coloring. In light of my novice cookie painter status and my St. Patrick’s Day theme, I didn’t want to attempt anything too complicated. Shamrocks seemed to be an achievable goal.
The first task was making the shortbread cookies. My friend told me that, in her experience, a shortbread dough was sturdier and thus better suited to painting than sugar cookie dough. I used this shortbread recipe and found it made a light buttery cookie that was still dense enough to hold up to a bit of handling. The icing recipe is conveniently in the same link.
After the cookies have cooled thoroughly, apply icing to coat the top side of each cookie entirely. I dipped my cookies into the icing and used my finger to clean up the edges. You’ll want to make sure your icing is completely dry before attempting to paint. I let mine set up overnight.
I headed to the craft store and purchased a new fine tip paintbrush that will be dedicated to food use only. I used rum to thin out the food coloring and make the color easier to spread. I had some leaf green gel food coloring on hand which turned out to be the perfect true green for my shamrocks.
I picked out the “least pretty” cookies and practiced my painting technique on them. I found it took a bit of practice to get the consistency of the food coloring right and to figure out the best way to create my shamrock designs. I eventually learned that the best painting technique was to first dip the brush into the food coloring and then quickly into the alcohol. (I poured a small amount of rum into the bottle’s cap and dipped my brush directly into it.) The more you dip the brush into the alcohol, the more translucent the effect will be. Just be careful not to make it too watery or it will bleed and make your design murky. (Yes, that happened.)
I started off making rather large shamrocks and as I practiced, I gradually made them smaller and smaller. I decided I liked the more delicate designs best and painted most of my cookies in this manner. I also realized that it was actually easier to create tiny shamrocks than large ones.
The smaller shamrocks were created by first making three small dots in a triangular shape and then going back over them with a diluted brush to join the dots together. It takes the paint a little while to dry so you should have plenty of time to work with the color before it dries. I tried to give each cookie slightly different pattern. (And for luck, I did throw in the occasional four-leaf clover!)
I found hand painting was a unique and fun way to decorate cookies. I thought it was easier than icing with piping tips and I’ll definitely do it again. Depending on your skill level, the art form can be elevated and adapted to many beautiful designs. Of course none of my shamrocks are perfect, but I don’t think perfection is required to make this technique work. Once I got the hang of it, I found it to be fairly forgiving.
I highly recommend giving hand painted cookies a try. You’ll likely find it won’t take the luck of the Irish to be successful!