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Adorable Christmas sweater cookies win contest’s decorating category

Good cookie decorating is all about the icing, and if you’ve ever tried to make fancy sugar cookies, you know how tricky that can be to get right.

Most often, it’s royal icing, made with powdered sugar and milk and/or another liquid, such as a flavoring extract or lemon juice. If you put even 1/2 teaspoon too much, the icing can run right off the edge of the cookie.

The finalists of the decoration category of our Austin360 Holiday Cookie Contest submitted some of the most delightful cookies, some Texas- or Austin-themed, while others were more classic like snow globes or ornaments. The judges — Kristina Wolter, owner of GirlGoneGrits Food StylingMindy’s Bakeshop owner Mindy Cohrs, Jennifer and Randy Bartos of Make It Sweet and Tiff’s Treats co-owner Tiffany Taylor Chen — fell hard for Madison Surh’s Daniel Johnston-themed snow globe that featured the local musician’s iconic mural near the University of Texas campus, and they were wowed by the tiny details in the snowman snow globe cookie from Kiki Sanchez, a pastry cook at the Four Seasons.

Alma Garza, who runs a home-based baking business called Bella Sweet (, submitted some really gorgeous winter-themed cookies, some of which were an elegant gray that felt very modern.

She shared a great tip about turning food coloring gel into a consistency that’s more like watercolors: Dilute the gel with a little vodka, which will evaporate more quickly than water and won’t make your cookie soggy, and then paint the colors on top of the royal icing using a paintbrush. (Also, don’t forget royal icing cookie decorating 101: Pipe a thin line of thicker royal frosting on the outline of the cookie and then use a thinner icing to spread out and fill in the middle.)

Christina Van Slambrook was also a contender in the finals with her Texas-themed cookies inspired by a class she took at the Bartoses’ popular baking supply store in North Austin. But it was Dorothy Spira’s exquisitely iced sweater cookies that took the top prize for decoration. Spira also got her start in cookie decorating by taking a class at Make It Sweet about a year ago.

Spira’s best piece of advice came from an experience she had on her own learning curve. “You’re going to watch a video on YouTube and look at yours and be like, ‘Why doesn’t mine look like that?’ But keep practicing. Get the texture of the icing right, and as soon as you get that right, everything is smooth sailing.”

Start out by adding as little moisture as possible to the powdered sugar, and then add liquid in small amounts. Powdered sugar absorbs liquid quickly, so if you make your icing too thin, you’ll have to add more powdered sugar than you might think to thicken it up again. You’ll want fine piping tips, not the wider ones used to decorate cupcakes and cakes with frosting, which, unlike icing, is made with butter or another fat.

“The main key is practice and patience with yourself,” Spira says.

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