Going wild with cookies

Celebration: A centerpiece made of colorful dinosaurs in an edible 3-D tableau is a real birthday treat.

April 12, 2000|By Amelia Saltsman | Amelia Saltsman,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Just before our son Adam turned 7, he announced that he didn't really like cake and could he have dinosaur cookies instead. After the 33 birthday parties my husband Ralph and I had thrown up to that point for our kids, this was a new one.

Not an earthshaking dilemma, but where would we put the candles? A plate of cookies was, well, just a plate of cookies.

More practical parents might have left it at that or resorted to ice cream, but I considered it a matter of pride to come up with a clever solution to Adam's simple request. Because challenge is the mother of invention at my house, I scrounged around for inspiration. I can't remember what triggered the "Aha" -- the 2-foot square of cardboard I found or the can of frosting in the cupboard.

My brilliant idea? I would bake and decorate cookies to resemble dinosaurs, palm trees and boulders and place them on the cardboard frosted to look like a primordial landscape. With a volcano fashioned from found objects on which to plant the homeless candles, it would be an edible, 3-D tableau.

The night before the party, I slathered a corner of cardboard with chocolate frosting with an offset spatula in a freewheeling Van Gogh sort of way. Then I frosted and "glued" on a paper-cup ice-cream-cone-volcano, and squeezed on a tube of red icing for oozing lava. (In later efforts, I found a stale loaf of bread easier to carve and frost.) Then I quickly swirled green frosting into grasslands and blue frosting into a serpentine river.

Positioning my homemade cookies, "painted" with vibrantly tinted egg wash, in place proved trickier. Where necessary, I balanced them against each other or used a discreetly placed marshmallow for support.

Ralph (who doesn't cook) happened by as I was arranging migrating herds and battles among ferocious tyrannosaurs. "If you cut the legs off a couple of brontosaurs, they'll look like they're wading in the river." I handed him a knife, and he took the project to a new level of trompe l'oeil.

The cookie tableau turned out even better than a cake. It was a colorful, interactive, storytelling centerpiece that enthralled Adam and his friends. And, its sugar rush was mostly visual. After Adam blew out the candles, the children, like a fast-moving hurricane, plucked the not-too-sweet cookies out of the frosting and ate them plain. Thus was born a birthday tradition we dubbed "Cookieland."

That was 10 years ago. Cookieland became an annual family project. We all baked and painted, often cutting cookie shapes freehand or using cardboard templates. Our favorites were a pirate land with sea serpent, toy pirates (scale and expediency were never problems) and a ship with bamboo skewer masts and sails drawn by Adam. Then there was the buffalo hunt (inspiration: "Dances With Wolves"), followed by the Civil War ("Glory") with a Tara-like plantation.

Our cookie oeuvre culminated with a giant cookieland for Adam's bar mitzvah. Almost 3 feet by 4 feet, it reprised all of the past themes and added new ones, including skiers racing down a creamy Alps, Little League players rounding the bases and sentries guarding Buckingham Palace. As eager as when they were 7, those oh-so-cool 13-year-olds couldn't wait to wreak global havoc on this tasty world.

Animal Crackers

Makes 5 dozen 3-inch cookies

1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks)

1 1/2 cups sugar

2 eggs

2 tablespoons whipping cream

1 tablespoon vanilla

4 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

Beat butter with electric mixer until it whitens and is creamy, 3 to 5 minutes. Beat in sugar until well blended.

In small bowl, whisk together eggs, cream and vanilla. Beat into butter mixture, scraping sides of bowl as necessary. Sift together flour and baking powder. Beat into butter mixture until just blended.

Divide dough into thirds. Wrap each in plastic wrap and flatten into disks with heel of hand. Chill 2 hours or overnight.

On lightly floured surface, roll each disk of dough to 1/8-inch thickness. Cut into shapes with cookie cutters or use knife to trace around templates made of cardboard. Place cookies on parchment paper-lined or nonstick baking sheets. Chill cookies briefly if dough seems soft. Chill dough scraps, reroll and cut into shapes.

Bake cookies at 325 degrees until lightly browned, about 12 minutes. Cool on wire racks.

-- Adapted from "Desserts" (Harper & Row, 1986) by Nancy Silverton

Brilliant Cookie Colors

2 egg yolks

2 teaspoons water

food color

Whisk together yolks and water. Divide mixture among several small bowls. Tint each a different color.

With soft paintbrush paint baked cookies with tinted egg wash and place on baking trays. Bake cookies at 400 degrees 2 minutes to "set paint."

Supplies for constructing a cookieland

* Heavy cardboard for base

* Lightweight cardboard for templates, optional

* 4 or 5 (1-pound) cans ready-made frosting

* Food color

* 4-ounce tubes decorating icing, optional

* Materials for building mountains, tunnels, etc., such as loaf of stale bread

* Straws, bamboo skewers and marshmallows to buttress tall cookies, if necessary

* Assorted toys or candies, optional

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