Fancy-schmancy cookies have become de rigueur - if you bake at all, showing up to a bake sale or party with a plate of plain ol' chocolate chips is a major faux pas. "Good" cookies are those that are either elaborately decorated, contain obscure and exotic ingredients, or are considered skill level: boss to make (French macarons, anyone?). Sometimes, they're all three. But here's the thing - nobody really likes those lavender cookies with hibiscus flowers, and maybe it's just too humid for cookies made entirely from egg whites. And while decorating cookies can be fun, that royal icing can take days to firm up to the point of safe transport - by then, the cookies themselves are stale. What if there was a way to fancy-up your plain, simple sugar cookie recipe to yield beautiful results, no piping bag required? Get this - by borrowing techniques used to make Venetian millefiori beads, you can make delightful slice-n-bake cookies that will beat the pants off any individually-personalized Wilton-school creation.
The Basic Patterns
Use your favorite sugar cookie recipe to whip up a batch of dough. Before you refrigerate it, use one of the designs below, or plan your own idea. It will take a few tries to get the hang of it, but once you do, you'll be unstoppable - get as complicated as you want. Knead food coloring into the dough gradually to achieve the color you want - you can always add more. Gel or paste color works best, but liquid will do in a pinch, especially for lighter shades.
This design is just to get you used to the technique. Divide your dough into thirds, and color one portion any color. Roll a non-colored portion into a log about six inches long, and set aside. Roll the colored portion out into a rectangle about six inches long, and wrap it around the log. Roll the final non-colored portion into a flat rectangle and wrap it around the rest of the dough. Roll the whole thing beneath your palms to lengthen the log until it's about two inches in diameter, then chill.
When you're ready to bake, slice the log into 1/4-inch rounds - the first couple will be a bit wonky, but you'll see the pattern even out as you get into the thick part of the log. Bake as directed.
The sunshine is a bit more complicated, but it shows you how to fill spaces in irregular shapes. Divide your dough in half, and dye one half yellow. Divide the yellow portion into halves, and roll one half into a log. Roll the other yellow portion into a log, and slice it lengthwise into six wedges. Refine each wedge into a triangle-shape by flattening the bottom and pinching the point. Place the wedges onto the yellow log, evenly spaced, all around, with the flat side against the log. Divide your non-colored portion in half. Roll one half into a log and slice into wedges like you did with the yellow, and refine them into triangles. Place the triangles upside down between the yellow triangles, filing in the extra space. Your log should be almost whole again.
Roll the last piece of non-colored dough into a rectangle, and wrap it around the log. Roll the whole thing out to lengthen, then chill, slice and bake.
A Word of Caution...
Experimenting is fun, and hey - even the mistakes are delicious. But try to keep the designs simple and mostly basic shapes. Rolling the completed log to length helps close the spaces and keep the design together, but fine detail can get distorted. The rule of thumb is that the more intricate the design, the less you should roll it - which means the log should be close to its final length as you construct it.
Have fun, and enjoy watching the other bakers mentally try to figure out how you did that!