URBANA – When Mare Payne recently came across a Real Simple how-to list on cookie-decorating parties, she decided to give it a look – even though she's an expert on the subject.
"Everything they listed, I've done," she said.
Payne, who began giving annual cookie-decorating parties in 1996, first with a "disastrous" gingerbread-house building soiree, has come up with at least two pieces of advice, though:
"Star tip," she said, waving a decorating element with a star tip that gives the frosting a squiggly texture.
And: Provide plenty of work space for guests.
Payne did that for her 2009 cookie-decorating party on Sunday, putting three leaves in her dining room table and then covering the entire surface with white paper (also one of the Real Simple tips).
Several co-workers and friends showed up around 1 p.m. and spent the next three or four hours talking, joking and decorating cookies that Payne had made on Saturday evening.
She spent three hours the next morning, the day of the party, cutting out and baking the cookies, using metal cookie cutters that had belonged to her mother.
"It surprises me that anyone would want to bake all these cookies," said party guest Melissa Mitchell, who recently retired from the University of Illinois New Bureau, where Payne works.
Payne also supplied frosting but had her guests color it – black frosting was available as well as ready-made frosting of different colors in squirt cans with decorating tips. The guests had to bring their own sprinkles and crystals.
Payne also gave them reindeer antlers to wear.
"Any excuse to put on goofy head wear, Mare is there," said Mitchell, who was the only guest who didn't wear the head gear on Sunday – "because she's a party pooper," guest Doris Dahl joked.
As for decorating, Payne has developed an admirable assembly-line system, laying out on a wire rack, for example, a dozen or so holly-shaped cookies and then applying red frosting at their tops to represent berries and squirting green frosting on the rest.
The other guests admitted to not having as much talent but said the party is all in fun. Payne sees it as a way to "kick back" before the holidays.
And, the guests get to take home all the cookies they decorate, a boon to their family members, friends and co-workers.
"I have two teenage kids so they look forward to this party every year," Dahl said.
Payne, who enjoys cooking and baking, also throws a "souper" happy hour for co-workers one evening before Christmas, serving her homemade soup and bread and the cookies. She also cooks and bakes for an annual Academy Awards party, where she always wins the Oscar predictions game, Mitchell said.
For her cookie-decorating party, Payne uses a sugar cookie and a frosting recipe she came across years ago in a Health Alliance magazine.
"It's the only one I've ever used; it's a great recipe," said Payne, who uses butter rather than margarine.
The recipes follow:
PEGGY'S FAMOUS SUGAR COOKIES
1 cup butter or margarine
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Cream together butter, sugar, egg and vanilla. Add dry ingredients and mix well. Cover tightly and refrigerate overnight. Bake at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes. Use ample flour when cutting the dough because it tends to be moist.
1/2 cup margarine or butter
4 cups powdered sugar
3 tablespoons milk
2 teaspoons vanilla.
Add powdered sugar, milk and vanilla to softened margarine or butter. Mix until smooth. Color as needed.