Published On: Tue, Dec 5th, 2023

A pattern sugar cookie project recipe to light up your holidays

A pattern sugar cookie project recipe to light up your holidays
A pattern sugar cookie project recipe to light up your holidays

Photos by Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post; food styling by Gina Nistico for The Washington Post

A big part of me loves to be a little extra. I love baking that looks a little extra. That part of me that loves all things extra is at war with the part of me that doesn’t always have time to make everything extra. I love finding something that feels like minimal work with maximum results. I have spent many hours decorating cookies, and I love it. However, I prefer dealing with something other than piping tips, many piping bags full of icing and then the clean-up.

The idea for these cookies came from scrolling videos of people that make clay designs. My curiosity led me to wonder whether I could do the same thing with cookie dough. Could I dye dough, put it on more dough, roll it out and have it turn out? Because if it worked, it would save me a lot of time and hand cramps. I tried it out and was thrilled to find another shortcut for beautiful sugar cookies that feel a little extra.

I love this dough because it mixes up quickly and requires little chill time. The dough can handle adding small amounts of gel food coloring, making it perfect for this technique. The cookies themselves aren’t overly sweet, so I like to make them into sandwich cookies and fill them with my favorite buttercream.

Save and print the recipe: Pattern Sugar Cookies

If you decide to make these cookies, I have two pieces of advice. First, make the shapes for your design smaller than you think, and be creative! The ideas for these cookies are endless. The designs range as far as your imagination. Even the cutting out of shapes can be creative. For example, just one part of a cookie cutter might be what you need. The ears of a bunny cookie cutter can become petals for a flower.

Here I walk you through how to do a holiday lights scene, which is definitely the “extra” way to go. If you want something simpler, I also share how to make a simple geometric design with polka dots or other basic shapes.

Make ahead: The decorated slab can be covered and refrigerated up to 1 day in advance. Freeze the unbaked cut cookies for up to 1 month, adding 1 to 3 minutes of bake time, or as needed.

Storage: Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week or freeze for up to 1 month.

Where to buy: Hexagon cookie cutters and fondant or clay cutters can be found online and at baking supply stores. For our holiday lights design, we used a small petal-shaped fondant cutter and AmeriColor soft gel paste food coloring.

Substitutions: Gluten-free? >> Use an all-purpose gluten-free flour blend, plus 1/4 teaspoon xanthan gum. Vegan? >> Use dairy-free butter, but refrigerate the dough for at least 1 hour. If it gets too soft while working, refrigerate it for 10 minutes to firm up.

Note: If you want to make sandwich cookies, fill cooled cookies with your favorite buttercream. (Rerolled scraps also make for an ideal bottom of sandwich cookies.)

  • 3/4 cup (150 grams) granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon finely grated orange or lemon zest (optional)
  • 16 tablespoons (2 sticks/227 grams) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup (110 grams) packed light brown sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon fine salt
  • 3 1/2 cups (440 grams) all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
  • 1 teaspoon milk (any kind) or water, as needed
  • 2 to 6 food dyes of your choice, preferably gel food coloring (see Where to buy)

Make the base dough: Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or in a large bowl if using a hand mixer, combine the granulated sugar and zest, if using, and mix on low speed until the sugar is moistened and the zest evenly distributed. Add the butter and brown sugar and beat together on medium-high until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl. Add the egg and vanilla and almond extracts, and continue to mix on medium-high until just combined, about 30 seconds. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl. Add the baking powder and salt and continue to mix on medium-high until well incorporated, about 1 minute.

Stop the mixer and add the flour. Start the mixer on low speed and slowly increase to medium once the flour begins to mix in. Mix until no streaks of flour remain, about 1 minute. If the dough looks dry, add the water or milk; the dough should stick together when squeezed between your fingertips.

Remove about one-fifth of the dough (200 grams); transfer it to a bowl and cover.

Place the remaining dough (about 800 grams) on a 12-by-16-inch piece of parchment paper, cover it with another piece of parchment of the same size, then roll the dough out into a 1/2-inch-thick rectangle about 9 by 12 inches. This is going to be your “canvas.” Leave the top sheet of parchment on and set the dough canvas aside.

Divide and color the dough: Now it’s time to dye the remaining 200 grams of dough into the desired colors for your design. If you are using liquid, as opposed to gel, food coloring, it is a good idea to have a bit of flour on hand to sprinkle on your dough if it gets too sticky.

To make a holiday light design: Divide the dough into five 40-gram portions or four 50-gram portions — one for each color. For example, you can make your lights yellow, red, green and blue, and dye one portion black for the cord. Or use yellow, red and blue for lights and green for the cord.

To make a simple geometric design: For a two-color design, divide the dough into 100-gram portions; for three-color, 66-gram portions; for four-color, 50-gram portions and so forth.

It’s important not to overmix the dough as you’re dyeing it, so avoid kneading. Instead, take one portion, make a small divot in the center and add a drop or two of food coloring. Fold the dough over to encapsulate the dye. Tear the dough in half and then stack the two pieces, squeezing them together. Repeat this process until the dye has been evenly incorporated. Every few tears, turn the dough a different direction to ensure you’re working the dye into all the dough. Repeat with the remaining dough portions.

Cut out the shapes: Once the dough is dyed, it’s time to cut the shapes you’ll need for your design. Lightly flour the counter and rolling pin. Roll out the portions of colored dough to about 1/8-inch thick. It is easiest to cut out all the shapes you’ll be using before placing them on your “canvas.” Using shaped cutters, cut out your design elements, dipping the cutters in flour or dusting the counter and rolling pin as needed to prevent sticking. If desired, reroll scraps of the colored dough to cut more shapes.

For the holiday lights design: Use an oval or petal-shaped cookie cutter for the colored bulbs. Use a knife or pizza cutter on the black or green dough to cut long, thin strips for the cord, reserving some of the dough to help “attach” the lights to the cord later.

For the simple geometric design: Pick your shapes — you can use the same cutter for multiple colors or mix and match different shapes or sizes among the colors. Go for a polka dot design with circles of different sizes, pulled from a biscuit cutter set or other kitchen gadgets (the wide end of a pastry tip is perfect for small circles). Star cutters of multiple sizes are a great option. Ditto snowflakes.

As you work, transfer the shaped dough to a large plate or piece of parchment paper to see what you have to work with.

Assemble the canvas: When all your shapes are ready, start building your masterpiece. Uncover the plain dough rectangle (your “canvas” from above) but leave it on the bottom parchment paper.

Move the cut-out shapes around until you are satisfied with the design. Remember that both the shapes and gaps between them will spread as you roll, so don’t be afraid to pack them close together. An offset spatula is great for placing and moving them.

For the holiday lights design: Lay the long strips of black or green dough on the canvas so they mimic strings of lights. Spread them evenly over the whole rectangle and add some loops for fun and whimsy, if desired. If they break, don’t sweat it. Just piece them together to create continuous lines, as they will be smoothed over in rolling.

Transfer the light shapes onto the dough, placing the oval/petal shapes along the dark strands. You can do one color at a time or alternate between colors. Take very small pieces of black or green dough and set them on the ends of the lights adjacent to the cord to mimic the socket that connects the bulbs to the strand.

For the simple geometric design: Transfer the shapes to the blank canvas, spreading them evenly over the rectangle. You can do all the same color at once or alternate.

Roll, cut and bake the cookies: Cover your finished design with another clean piece of parchment. Using a rolling pin, roll the dough evenly in all directions until it is 1/4- to 3/8-inch thick and just about reaches the edges of the parchment. Slide the whole slab, still on the parchment, onto a large sheet pan and refrigerate for 5 minutes.

Line two large sheet pans with parchment paper. Transfer the sheet of dough on the parchment to the counter, trimming the edges as needed to form a neat rectangle (the scraps can be rerolled for multicolor bonus cookies). Use a 2- to 4-inch cookie cutter (any shape of your choice) to cut your cookies, placing them about 1 inch apart on the prepared sheet pans. Or simply use a sharp knife and cut into squares. Transfer the pans to the refrigerator for at least 5 minutes (do one at a time if you’re tight on space); this will help the cookies hold their shape while baking.

Remove from the refrigerator and bake one sheet at a time, 8 to 12 minutes, or until the cookies puff up, then start to deflate and their bottoms begin to turn golden brown.

Let cool on the pan for 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

Take the leftover dough scraps and roll them together, cut them and bake. They make a fun, multicolor cookie, and nothing goes to waste.

Save and print the recipe: Pattern Sugar Cookies

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