Ever since painting the cookies for the bibliophile's game shower back in March, I wanted to have a cookie painting party for Nico and his little toddler buddies. Christmas seemed like the perfect time to do it, so we invited two friends over on Monday afternoon and two friends over on Tuesday evening to paint cookies and play. The guests (who just happened to be all girls) ranged in age from two to four years old, and they all seemed to really love it. Nico was so-so on his interest on Monday but got a lot more into it on Tuesday. I have to say, this may turn out to be one of my very favorite Christmas activities of the year. The painting ended up taking up just the right amount of time, the kids enjoyed it, there was really minimal mess, and it was something different and fun. As a bonus, the cookies look iced after baking but the paint doesn't add any additional sugar the way icing or sprinkles will.
In case anyone else wants to try this with toddlers or even older kids, I thought I'd write up a the how-to. I made the cookie dough and the cookie paint on Sunday late afternoon / evening. Since the Monday party was in the morning and we were going to story time with Santa right before, I rolled out and cut the cookies on Sunday night as well. I cut a dozen cookies for each of the three kids for the first party, but if I was doing it again, I'd do ten per kid. With older kids, rolling and cutting could be part of the party, but I find it's a fiddly, frustrating process and I decided I'd rather just do it myself since our guests were so young and there was no good way for all of them to help at once. Each kid got his or her own cookie sheet of cookie cut-outs on parchment paper the next day.
I stored the leftover dough in an old-school Pyrex casserole dish with a glass lid overnight, but I should've double-wrapped it in plastic wrap instead. It was a little dry by the time I rolled out the second batch to cut on Tuesday afternoon, though it worked out okay. For the second party I only had enough dough for seven cookies per kid, which is why I'd reduce the number on the first set.
I used a sugar cookie recipe that I copied out of my mom's hand-written receipe book years ago, which I think was the one she got from her mom (see below). I don't know the origin, but it's the one I always use. It does tend to make crispy cookies, so if you prefer a softer sugar cookie, you'll probably want a different recipe. I rolled the dough a bit too thin on some of the cookies, which let the paint overcook a little. They still tasted okay in the end, though. The paint recipe comes from A Baker's Field Guide to Christmas Cookies by Dede Wilson and is paraphrased below as well. I had never separated eggs before and didn't have any trouble at all with making the paint. I used four eggs, made four colors of paint, and divided each color between two plastic baby food containers with lids. I could've easily divided it into three or four dishes per color and the kids still wouldn't have run out. I stored the paint in the containers in the fridge overnight and it worked great for the second day. If there had been much more of a gap between uses, though, I probably would've just made more paint. I didn't have much luck getting really true colors since the yolks of the eggs I used were super bright yellow…your mileage may vary.
I initially planned to buy the brushes in the baking aisle at Michaels, but the Wilton brand brushes were $3.99 for a three-pack and they looked exactly like plain kids' paintbrushes. Instead I bought a 24-pack of brushes in the kids' art supply section for $1.99. This worked out great because the brushes came in the same four colors of paint I was planning to make. The idea was that there would be a dedicated brush for each paint pot, but once my child got involved, there was brush / color mixing all over the place. The two-year-old and three-year-olds didn't really notice, but the four-year-old became rather protective of her un-besmirched colors. Next time I think I will prepare a set of color pots for each child so that the picky kids can have pristine paint and it won't matter if my kid dumps all the colors together for fun, which he totally did halfway through Tuesday's party. So buy whatever brushes you can find that are cheap and wash them first (I just soaked mine in soapy dishwater for a few minutes, then rinsed.) You'll probably want to soak them in hot water as soon as the painting is done so the egg yolks don't harden in the bristles. I can't tell you if they're dishwasher safe because we don't have one.
Once the kids were done painting, we let them play while the cookies baked and cooled. Then at the end of the playdate, everyone got to take their edible projects home. Reports are that the kids were thrilled to have treats to take home. As Nico and his friends get older, I figure I can add in fancier decorating options, but just the plain paint worked out fantastically this year.
1 cup butter (softened, not melted)
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cream of tartar
1/4 tsp salt
Cream butter, add sugar gradually. Add unbeaten egg and vanilla, beat well. Sift in / stir together remaining dry ingredients in a separate dish, then sift / stir into mix. (NOTE: I did not do the separate dish thing. I added 1/4 cup flour, 1/4 tsp of everything else, and then repeated until I'd reached the needed total amounts.)
Roll into balls and press flat or chill dough to roll out and cut.
After decorating, bake 8 - 10 minutes at 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
For each color:
Separate an egg, keeping the yolk for the paint. Whisk the yolk until smooth. Divide yolk among several dishes if desired, then use gel food coloring to tint each dish. (I had to use a lot of coloring to approximate blue since my yolks were rather aggressively yellow.)