Cookies for Santa: Decorating Tips from a Master Baker

April - Smith's Bakery Cookie Decorator
'Tis the season to be baking… Who better to ask about making the perfect cookies for Santa than Jim Balmain, owner of Smith's Bakery? With 54 years of baking experience and 55 employees, he says they still make every cookie by hand and strive for excellence. "Everything we do, we do to maintain our reputation. We work together to keep things the way they're supposed to be," Balmain says.

As Kern County's only certified master baker, Balmain knows every facet of the bakery business and has been working in it since he was eight years old. He bought the business from his father and his father's partner in 1985. With his wife, Jacque, of almost 50 years, they have three children and five grandchildren. She runs the bakery's office.

December is the bakery's busiest month. Balmain says the best sellers for the holidays include the star-shaped and tree-shaped shortbread cookies. And, their famous "happy face" shortbread cookie sells well year round. When asked where the happy face idea came from, he says, "We thought it would make it nice if we greeted everyone with a smile."

Personally, his favorite treat is a good, old-fashioned chocolate chip cookie; and even after all these years, he still has something from the bakery every morning. He looks forward to spending time with his family during the holidays. For their Christmas dinner, he will cook the meat, usually prime rib or ham, and his wife will make the fixings.

Smith's Bakery is known for its shortbread cookies that come in all shapes and sizes – wreaths, trees, leaves, pigs, turkeys – and their decorating department creates masterpieces on a daily basis. There are many ways to decorate cookies to make them look more festive, and KCFM wanted to share some of Balmain's tips to create delicious cookies for Santa.

Applying Decorations Before Baking:

Many cookies can be decorated before baking using ingredients such as candies (like M&Ms), colored sugars, dried fruit, nuts, sprinkles, and more. Balmain says before you decide to decorate with such items, you need to make sure they are "oven-able." "You want to make sure that they can go through the oven and come out and look the same," he says.

To properly place the decorations, you can position them by hand and then press them down a little bit into the dough. Balmain says you can also use a rolling pin to roll over the cookie to ensure the embellishments will stay in place while baking.

When cutting out rolled dough with cookie cutters, it's important to use flour sparingly, says Balmain. You want to make sure you use just enough flour to keep the rolling pin from sticking, but not change the flavor or consistency of the dough.

Decorating with Icing and Frosting

Icing and frosting have two different consistencies: frosting is thick and holds shapes like rosettes, and yet remains soft to the touch; icing is thinner and smoothes out as it dries, and forms a hard shell on the top of the cookie. You can spread frosting with a knife or spatula, and you can also squeeze it out of a decorating bag. Icing is usually spread by a spatula or piped over the top of cookie. Cookies must be baked and cooled before applying either frosting or icing. With a few drops of food coloring, you can change your frosting or icing to the color of your choice.

Balmain says in order for your frosting or icing to adhere, you need to wipe off excess flour from the cookie's surface. At Smith's, when they want to create a colored background on their designs, they use an airbrush to spray the cookies with thinned-down food coloring.

Decorating with Chocolate

Chocolate trimmings can turn any cookie into a festive creation with a dip into chocolate or drizzled zig-zags on the top. You can melt chocolate chips or chocolate pieces using either a double broiler or the microwave. If you want to drizzle, place the melted chocolate into a plastic baggie and cut off a tip of the corner for a small hole to squeeze out the chocolate.

Balmain says the key to decorating with chocolate is "warming it properly" to the right consistency. He cautions from thinning the chocolate too much because you don't want it to fall off the cookie; and he also says don't try to thin it with water because that will make the chocolate set up too fast.

For more information about Smith's Bakery, please visit www.smithbakeries.com.

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