cookieI am entranced by decorated cookies. They are fun to create by oneself or with others, especially kids. My mother followed the classic rolled sugar cookie recipe in Joy of Cooking and a simple confectioner’s sugar and butter icing that didn’t harden. She divided the icing into several bowls and added food coloring to each. My sister and I sprinkled colored sugars or chocolate jimmies on top, and we did so with enthusiastic abandon.

One of the pleasures of writing the “Cookie Cutter Shop” series is that I get to daydream about decorated cookies. I bake and eat cookies, too, but daydreaming doesn’t result in dirty dishes and weight gain. Since I do need to get words on paper to get paid, baking all day, every day, is not feasible. Neither is unfettered daydreaming. So to point my imagination in the right direction, I’ve collected an arsenal of sights, smells, and tastes that conjure up the experience of baking and enjoying decorated cookies. A whiff of ginger, and I’m entering The Gingerbread House along with Olivia Greyson, my main character. Those sensory cues draw me quickly into Livie and Maddie’s world, where cookies abound and murder waits around the corner.

When I settle down to write, a stack of cookie cookbooks wait within reach. They range from helpful, informative books for the beginning baker to more advanced collections that include challenging recipes I will leave to Olivia and her sidekick and best friend, Maddie Briggs. All the cookbooks have stunning cookie photos that feed my imagination. They also make me want a cookie. Right now. For cookie cutter inspiration, I have copies of Cookie Crumbs, the Cookie Cutter Collector’s Club newsletter, which is filled with information and color photos of vintage cutters. For even more, I can always go online to check vintage cutters for sale, though that route leads to temptation.

If photos and recipes aren’t enough, I turn to my ever-growing collection of baking spices, flavorings, gel food colorings, decorations, and, of course, cookie cutters. When Maddie chooses teal gel coloring for a pastry bag full of royal icing, I feel as if I’m standing beside her. I smell the sweet lemon extract she adds to her cookie dough. I watch the purple edible glitter sparkle as she sprinkles it on a tulip-shaped cookie with pink icing. And, of course, on occasion I have to eat a decorated cookie to remind myself what one tastes like. It’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make for my work.

Much as I love decorated cookies, I have to admit that cookie cutters, especially vintage ones, are endlessly fascinating. And less fattening. Like Olivia, I wonder about the succession of bakers who once pressed a vintage cutter into rolled dough to create that ephemeral delight, a cutout cookie. Was the cutter passed on from mother to daughter to granddaughter? Was it used to cut sugar cookies? Gingerbread cookies? A secret family recipe? Might there have been a teensy dollop of poison in the dough?