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5 tips for holiday cookie decorating from Quack’s Bakery in Austin

Brittany O'Connor's hand pipes red icing onto a candy cane-shaped cookie to make the stripes.
Patricia Lim
Brittany O'Connor, general manager of Lady Quackenbush's Cakery, decorates a candy cane cookie during a decorating tutorial on Dec. 5.

Unicorn. Bloody eye. Furby. Sentient taco. A random string of words, or inspired cookie designs? They’ve all graced the cookie cases at Quack’s Bakery, an Austin institution known for its mix of cute and quirky-looking desserts.

During the holiday season, Quack’s dials it up to 11.

“We actually decide all of our designs for the holiday season before August,” said Brittany O’Connor, general manager at Lady Quackenbush’s Cakery, one of three storefronts the bakery has in Austin.

Even when it’s 100 degrees outside, “we've got that Christmas music on in our headphones, trying to make it happen,” O’Connor said.

Now, it finally feels like winter, and Quack’s has debuted its holiday cookie lineup — including buttery shortbreads dressed up like snowflakes and candy canes, smiling gingerbread men and DIY gingerbread house decorating kits.

Have you ever stood in front of the cookie case and wondered what happens on the other side? Or are you planning to whip up your own cookies for the holidays? Quack’s offered KUT a few baking and decorating tips.

1. For design, unleash your inner child

When it comes to holiday cookie designs, there's somewhat of a "cookie canon" you'll see over and over again: Santas, mittens, Christmas trees and so on. That doesn't mean you can't make them your own. Quack's adds its own flair to the canon by focusing on the details. For the home baker, O'Connor recommends making your "inner child" chief decorator.

"You get that cookie cutter out, you cut that cookie and go to town. It's an art piece," she said.

Decorating a snowflake cookie is a good place to start because "you can never have too much detail" on a snowflake. Pipe to your heart's content, add sprinkles, run wild.

2. Refrigerate before you bake

Cookies spread out and flatten while baking, which can present a problem if you’re aiming for a specific shape. You might use a cookie cutter to create the perfect gingerbread man … and it could still come out of the oven looking like a blob. One way to prevent that is to chill the pre-cut cookies right before you bake them.

“Let them sit in the walk-in or the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes or so,” O’Connor said. “It's really going to let that butter set up so you don't have these cookies bleed really badly.”

3. Experiment with your icing

Bakers often use royal icing to create smooth designs on their cookies. It can be hard to tell when looking at the finished product, but there are actually multiple types of royal icing on a single cookie.

O’Connor makes a thicker royal icing to pipe details and the borders of shapes — things that need to hold their structure. Then she switches to a thinner version to fill in — or flood — the shapes. The thinner icing gives cookies that classic polished look, while the thicker icing makes sure everything stays where it's meant to, O'Connor said.

The way to get different consistencies is to change up the water content. More water, thinner icing. O’Connor recommends making a big batch of icing that’s on the thicker side, separating it into different bowls and adding varying amounts of water to each bowl to experiment.

4. No professional equipment? No problem

If you’ve ever watched a cookie decorating video on social media, you’ve probably seen bakers whip out dozens of fancy metal piping tips. You don’t actually need them to achieve professional-looking piping.

“We don’t even use any tips in-store to decorate any of these cookies,” O’Connor said. She simply cuts holes of different sizes into the corners of piping bags. If you don’t have piping bags, Ziploc bags also work, she said.

5. Wait for it, wait for it … and wait some more

The most intricately decorated cookies have multiple layers of icing. Many of Quack’s holiday cookies, for example, have a single-color base layer that has to dry before decorators can pipe finer details on top. If you’re aiming big, remember to let the icing solidify before adding more — or risk having different layers mix together. The more watery your icing, the longer you have to wait. A good rule of thumb: "Before you add more detail, you want to be able to touch the top of that cookie and it not stick to your fingers whatsoever," O'Connor said.

“A lot of these cookies are going to be quite a few steps,” she said. “Patience is key.”

Chelsey Zhu is the digital producer at KUT. Got a tip? You can email her at
Patricia Lim is a photo and video journalist at KUT and KUTX. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @limpatricia97.
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