Chocolate Lemon Cut-Out Cookies are perfect for some holiday fun. Bake all your favorite shapes and then decorate them as an activity or for beautiful, homemade gifts.
Now that it’s almost Thanksgiving, everyone’s focused on Christmas. Well, Channukah in my world. Forget about the struggles of making a whole roast turkey (don’t worry Mom, I won’t repeat that story again). Instead, conversations focus on who’s baking what kind of cookies we’re making for the office holiday party or local cookie swap.
Don’t get me wrong. Cookies beat turkey any day. Why else would I bake a new batch every day last week? (We’re beginning to run out of space in the kitchen for them all.)
While chewy chocolate chip holds a special place in my heart, cut-out cookies are having a special moment. I baked and decorated about 60 cut-out cookies for my friend’s engagement party a few weeks ago. Because I wanted them to be perfect, I followed the recipe in Joy of Cooking. At first glance, the cookbook doesn’t look like much. The pages of my copy are careworn and tattered, the binding held together by masking tape. It’s what’s on the inside that counts, though, and these cookies were finished before the party ended.
For that night I kept the shapes simple- just circles and hearts. I remember years ago sitting at home, making ninja-bread men with the cookie cutters my younger brother got me for Channukah. Something told me that little men in fighting stances wouldn’t be apropos at this shindig. Maybe another time.
Once you’ve decided on a shape for your cut-out- cookies, decorating them is the best part. Frosting, sprinkles, royal icing, edible glitter! I’ve watched hours of people piping intricate designs onto cookies. Edible art took on a whole new meaning. (No more of those raw macaroni sculptures from kindergarten.)
And so began my nighttime cookie painting endeavors.
Despite using sugar and butter and flour in my kitchen now, I still don’t want to introduce the chemicals in products like food coloring. Nature has its own rainbow, I figured there had to be a way to harness that. First I tried using matcha and turmeric, both of which I had on hand. They gave the icing a subtle flavor that tamed the sweetness extremely well. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get strong enough colors without the accompanying stronger taste.
Then, while clicking around on LinkedIn (which I almost never do), I found someone who works for Exberry, a natural food coloring producer. They’re all made from fruits and vegetables! The connection scored me some colors to play around with, which I did for these Chocolate Lemon Cut-Out Cookies. The ‘Celestial Yellow’ color tastes like lemon to me, making it the perfect complement to the lemon zest in the cookies.
Historically, iced cookies taste too sweet for me. Think about it, we’re putting sugar on top of sugar. I guess that’s the benefit of cocoa, the bitterness really helps cut through it. Paired with the acidity from the lemon and you’ve got a really good canvas to paint on. Because that is what we do with royal icing, right? Right.
A note on royal icing
It takes some practice to get the texture just right. Too thick and you’ll tire yourself out trying to squeeze any icing through the piping bag. Too thin and the icing will drip right off the edges of the cut-out cookies. In order to get it right, I turned to Sally’s recipe for some guidance.
All you need are 3 ingredients- confectioner’s sugar, water, and meringue powder. I use this one, which you can find on Amazon or at Michael’s. It’s a weird ingredient, I know. But trust me, I’ve tried making royal icing without it, and the thing is, it doesn’t work. The meringue powder helps it harden properly (and in only a couple of hours). So if you want beautifully piped cut-out cookies for the holidays or any other day, then go buy some meringue powder. It lasts a long time.
Although the recipe I linked above recommends starting with 6-8 tablespoons of water, I prefer to use less and work my way up slower. Before you begin, it’s time to talk about the various consistencies.
Stiff consistency is what you get when you first finish whipping the ingredients together. It stands in very stiff peaks when you lift the whisk from the bowl. After you’ve reached that point, you can separate the icing into different bowls if you’re planning to color any of them. Add the food coloring and a teaspoon of water at a time, stirring it with a spoon to incorporate fully. Be careful not to add water too quickly or else you’ll thin out the icing too much.
This brings us to outlining consistency, which will be similar to toothpaste. It doesn’t have the same stiff peaks as before, but holds its shape as you pipe an outline onto your cut-outs. Some people skip outlining if they’re in a rush. I suggest doing it if you want to make sure that the rest of your icing stays within a certain border.
After letting the outline harden, add a little bit more water to reach flood consistency. This is the thinnest royal icing that you’ll use. When you pipe it, it spreads out on its own, filling in the space within your outline. I like this because it means that you can get away with less icing, simply pushing it around with a toothpick to cover the cookie. Let it harden uncovered at room temperature for a few hours, preferably overnight. Don’t worry about your cookies getting stale. The icing acts as a protective shield.
A quick note: when you’re not using a bowl of royal icing, cover it tightly with plastic wrap directly on the surface of the icing. This prevents it from drying out. If it does anyway, then simply wet your spoon and mix it vigorously! For more information on royal icing, check out this post on Sweet Sugarbelle.
Now let’s get baking!
If you try this recipe, I’d love your feedback. Leave a comment below, save it on Pinterest, or tag #lensesandlentils on Instagram so that I can see your creations!
- 1½ cups + 2 tbsp all-purpose flour, spooned & levelled
- ⅓ cup cocoa powder
- ½ tsp ground espresso
- ½ tsp baking powder
- ¼ tsp sea salt
- 1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter/vegan butter, cut into 1-inch chunks
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- 2 eggs, room temperature
- zest of 1 small lemon (~1½ tbsp)
- In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, espresso, baking powder, and salt. Make sure to break up any clumps.
- Using a stand mixer or electric hand mixer, cream the butter for 2 minutes, until pale in color. Add the sugar and continue creaming on medium-high until light and fluffy, 8 more minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.*
- Lower the speed of the mixer to medium. Add each egg one at a time, incorporating the first before putting in the second.
- Pour in the dry ingredients, stirring on low speed until just incorporated but there are still floury streaks. Add in the lemon zest, continuing to stir until there are barely any flour streaks left and the dough looks smooth, about 30 seconds more.
- Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and flatten into a disc. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, preferably overnight.
- Preheat the oven to 350ºF and line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats.
- Remove the dough from the fridge and let sit for 10 minutes if it's too stiff to work with.
- On a very lightly floured surface or between 2 pieces of plastic wrap/wax paper, roll out the dough to just under ¼-inch thick. Cut out the cookies with your cookie cutter or a thin-rimmed glass. Keep the shapes as close together as possible, so that there are fewer scraps. Remove the scraps and then carefully place the cookies on the baking sheets, about an inch apart.
- Bake for 7-10 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through from top to bottom and front to back. Be careful not to over-bake, since the cookies will firm up as they cool.
- Let cool on the pan for 5 minutes, then remove to a cooling rack. Store in an airtight container layered between parchment paper. To freeze, put the UNDECORATED cookies in a single layer and then stack them as needed once fully frozen.
- Once the cookies are cool, decorate as desired. You can use frosting, sprinkles, or royal icing, like I did. A tutorial and a linked recipe for royal icing can be found above!