"I used to make Christmas cookies every year with a few friends, but before long everyone dropped out," says Emily Luchetti, executive pastry chef at Farallon restaurant in San Francisco and author of A Passion for Desserts (Chronicle Books, 2003; $35). Five years ago, Luchetti decided to get new help for her annual cookie production; she invited about three dozen relatives and friends ― including children ― for an afternoon of decorating. "It's nice to have a party that's more about making than consuming," she says. "It puts everyone in a holiday spirit and is a lot more fun than doing all the work yourself."
Luchetti starts the party at one o'clock so guests don't expect a full meal. Some warm tomato soup in mugs, cheese and crackers, and hot mulled cider keep sugar highs in check (since there's bound to be a little cookie consuming going on). She makes two basic cookies, one light and one dark, which are stacked and ready for decorating by guests, who use plain or tinted icing according to their own tastes. With a few common trimmings ― colored jimmies, crystal sugar, mini chocolate chips, red hots ― Christmas treats take shape.
See Luchetti's tips below for planning your own cookie-decorating party.
Luchetti's Party Tips
Make cookie dough several days ahead of time and chill it. Bake all the cookies the day before the party.
Bake cookies on cooking parchment. After taking them out of oven, slide the parchment off the sheet onto a counter or rack to cool. Even if you run out of sheets, you can keep on rolling cookies and placing on parchment. When a sheet is free and cool, slide cookie-filled parchment onto it.
Cover the table with a washable tablecloth; cover chairs with garbage bags or towels to protect them.
Have paper plates available to put cookies on to decorate.
Provide disposable serving trays to transport cookies home.
Use meringue powder to make Royal Icing. It's easy and bacteria-safe. Look for it in well-stocked supermarkets, or order from Cake Art Supplies in San Rafael, California ( www.cakeartsupplies.com or 415/456-7773). You can also use fresh pasteurized egg whites, available in the refrigerator case of your supermarket.
For the easiest decorating of all (especially for the younger set), buy tubes or cans of icing. Note, however, that some purchased kinds don't harden.
Make or buy more icing than you think you'll need ― kids pile it on.
Have wet cloths or disposable wipes available for sticky hands.