Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Natural Food Dye for Iced Cookies

Once, a friend of mine invited me to a cookie exchange. What a lovely idea... everyone makes their favorite recipes, and by the end of the afternoon, everyone goes home with a variety of different types of cookies.

I made the mistake of asking what was in people's cookies. Alas, I didn't get invited back, which is probably for the best!

Among the worst offenders was the canned frosting that people were smearing on their cookies. Kids were gleefully licking it off their fingers. That makes me cringe, I can't even watch! I can only assume that people are ignorant about what is in that stuff.

Using natural, minimally processed ingredients in the foods I cook is important to me. I never use hydrogenated oils, and I try to use whole grains and real flavorings. My family doesn't have allergies, so I use things like flour, milk and eggs. I compromise a little bit when baking, which I don't do very often-- I usually use King Arthur's unbleached white flour (sometimes white wheat, or a combo) and white sugar.

For anyone out there reading, it is really easy to make your own cookie icing. My favorite is royal icing, which I make with powdered egg whites for safety reasons (our local Michaels carries powdered meringue) Actually, it would be even better to make it from real pasteurized eggs... I belatedly read the label on the powdered eggs, and perhaps unsurprisingly, there are preservatives and "artificial flavoring" in them. In any case, I use this recipe from Martha Stewart. I'll work on getting real pasteurized eggs for a future rendition. I still think this recipe is miles better than canned frosting made with hydrogenated oil and filled with preservatives, artificial color and artificial flavor.

Note... if you are making this icing for natural dyes, it might be useful to reduce the amount of liquid. The reason for this is that even though you want to make the dye as concentrated as possible, you might need to add more, and therefore more liquid, than you would normally add with a commercial dye. I didn't do this, and some of our icings were a bit runnier than I would have preferred. Next time!

This year, it occurred to me that perhaps it was time to wean myself off of artificial food dyes. I'm a little more ambivalent on these... it seems to me like you generally use so little that it that how could it be harmful. But the thought of my daughter licking her fingers as she gleefully iced cookies spurred me on. Also, it was super easy and fun to dye eggs with natural dyes, so how hard could it be to do the same with cookie icing? Not that hard, it turns out!

Top, Left to Right: Red Cabbage with Baking Soda, Spirulina with Tumeric, Beet Juice. Bottom Row: Cranberries, Red Cabbage with Vitamin C.

The most successful red was obtained from cranberries! I used about 1 cup of berries and boiled them for about 15-20 minutes. I don't know if the next step was necessary (I might have been just able to use the juice from boiling the berries), but I pureed the fruit in the blender with the liquid from boiling, then strained it with a coffee filter. I then reduced the resulting liquid to about an ounce. It turned the royal icing a lovely deep magenta, pretty believable as red.

Spirulina + tumeric

Green came from powdered spirulina, which was available from the bulk section of our natural grocery. I bought a tablespoon or so for about a dollar. I used only about a teaspoon to color this icing. Since the green seemed a little dark, I added some tumeric to brighten it.

Red Cabbage + Baking Soda

This lovely pale blue came from red cabbage, made basic by the addition of baking soda. I boiled half a cabbage, then removed the cabbage and reduce the liquid down to about 1/4 of a cup. I then split the juice into three jars for further experimentation.

Red Cabbage juice, three ways: left, with baking soda. Center, unaltered. Right, with vitamin C (acidic).
 To get blue, I added baking soda just until I got the color to change. It was a pale baby blue in the icing. When it dried, it looked more aqua.

Red Cabbage + Vitamin C

The above purple is the beet juice with vitamin C added (acidic).


The least impressive was the beets, which made a pale pink! I boiled one beet in about 2 cups of water, then reduced the liquid down to 1 ounce. Perhaps I needed more beets? Little Bug, who loves pink, was delighted!

Little Bug sampled all of the icings, and found them all yummy!

We put all of the icings into squeeze bottles (from Michaels). Silly me, I only had 4... so we also had to use some cake decorating bags and tips.

Little Bug really got into it this year!

Oh, and the chocolate rolled cookie recipe that we used is this one... it is the best. Very easy to handle-- Little Bug rolled them out herself. And it is totally yummy. This is from LilaLoa... check out her website for more details. I noticed she also posted a link to a gluten free version of this recipe!

1 cup butter
1/4 cup shortening
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
2/3 cup cocoa
3 or 3 1/2 cups flour

Cream butter, shortening and sugar together. Add eggs and vanilla. Mix well. Add baking powder and salt and mix again. Stir in the cocoa until well blended. Add flour 1 cup at a time. IF YOU ARE GOING TO MAKE COOKIES RIGHT AWAY, ADD 3 1/2 cups flour. If you are going to "chill" the dough, or just wait for another day to make your cookies, STOP AT 3 cups. It will be totally soft and look all wrong, and you will want to ignore me completely and add more flour, but I'm telling you -- DON'T DO IT. Practice self-restraint. You will be glad you did, and I will be proud of you. Roll out on lightly floured surface. Bake at 375 F for 6 1/2 minutes. (I roll my cookies 3/16" thick.)


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