Do I really need to even write a post for this one? You know you’re just going to look at the pictures. I will note that these cookies may mislead you into thinking I am some unholy Valentine’s Day freak. I’m not. But I can’t resist a) a super-cute cookie or b) helping those of you who are unholy Valentine’s Day freaks out if you’re looking for a fun idea. So here you go; my gift to you.
I should tell you: these cookies started out like this.
Sooooo…V-Day aside, you can continue making these all spring and summer and anytime you feel like you need an excuse to purchase a bag of peanut M&M’s. If you use those instead of the homemade hearts, the only special equipment you’ll need from my list below is a ricer.
I’ll answer some questions up front:
- Q: Are these difficult to make? They look difficult.
- A: No, they are not. They are surprisingly easy, especially once you get going.
- Q: Shannon, I can’t argue that these are adorable, but: do they taste good?
- A: Absolutely yes they do. it’s a brown sugar cookie with a hint of molasses, and then you’ve got white chocolate and regular sugar cookie mini-hearts topping it off. how could it not be delicious. And, might I add, appealing to a wide variety of potential valentines.
- Q: I hate things which involve special tools. I’m not Martha Stewart and do not have 12 different kitchens on my property which house my collection of 19th-century egg beaters. What do I need?
- A: I’m happy you asked. Although you need a few specific tools, they are things most people (I think) possess, or are very easy to find. They are shown below.
Clockwise from the top, you will need a ricer, a tiny heart fondant cutter (Wilton makes one which comes in a set of three: I use the smallest of the set. You can find them at Michael’s or anywhere which sells cake-decorating items), a small condiment bowl (optional, but it comes in handy), food coloring paste (seriously, don’t use liquid, because you won’t get the same bold effect and you could easily ruin your cookies if you try), and a vegetable peeler.
So first, your hearts. The recipe for the sugar cookie dough you use for them is right here. Omit the lemon zest and add the food color paste before you add the dry ingredients. I added about a 1/2 teaspoon of color; you add what you like. If you do the nests at the size I did them, you’ll have about 30, so you’ll need at least 60 tiny hearts if you’re planning on doing 2 per cookie. if you want more per cookie, factor that in. You may want to make a few extra just in case, so I’d make maybe 70 hearts. You will have plenty of dough left over, so use it to make normal-size hearts, or anything else you want.
As this dough doesn’t spread at all, you can place them pretty close together to bake them. Since they’re tiny, alter the bake time to 10-11 minutes instead of the normal 13-15 minutes. Let them cool completely before starting your nest assembly. These cookies have a crazy shelf-life as long as they’re stored in an airtight container, so make these a few days ahead if you’re not keen on doing everything at once.
On to the nests. I won’t lie: this is my second batch. I treated my first batch like a practice/dry run because I knew it would most likely take me two attempts to get it right. Hopefully my effort will eliminate you having to make a second batch. And truly, the only thing “wrong” with my first batch is I felt they were too big in relation to the tiny hearts. I’ve included a step-by-step below:
- figure 1: Grab enough dough to make a clump about the size of a tennis ball. Place in ricer and puuushhhhh. I found it easiest to stabilize the bottom part on the counter with the ricer part hanging over…it provided the leverage I needed and I was able to control my dough strands better. They won’t be even, but you’ll want dough strands, on average, about an inch and a half long. You’ll have some longer and some shorter, but that’s okay.
- figure 2: Using a thinnish blade or offset spatula (I used the latter), scrape the dough from the ricer. this is how they’ll look when they hit the sheet pan. You’ll see the bottom (where the strands first came out of the ricer) and the top (the side you just ran your blade over.)
- figure 3: The book said to use two forks, but I used my fingers because using my hands seems easier. Using your fingers, sort of flip your dough strands over so the bottom part (where the strands are more separated) are on the top. Arrange the strands to make a small nest, being careful to work lightly and not over-handle the dough.
- figure 4: Using your finger, press down in the center of your nest to form an indentation. Make it a good indentation: these things are still cookies, and will poof up. So indent like you mean it.
The only thing you have left to do is sprinkle with a little sanding sugar, which is total optional and doesn’t alter the beauty of your cookies one bit if you don’t have any. You can even go crazy and use a colored sugar if you’d like. Bake these according to my instructions below, and make sure they cool completely before putting everything together.
Assembly time. I think this falls into the “common sense” category, but make sure you set out everything you need before you begin. It just works easier that way. you’ll need your nests, the tiny hearts, your bar of white chocolate, your veggie peeler, the royal icing, a spreader for the icing, your condiment bowl, and a good surface to work on. One warning: toddlers find tiny red hearts very appealing. If you own one of these toddlers, you may have this issue:
Do not let your toddler pilfer your hearts. I had to distract mine with a tiny bowl of her own. Also a good reason to make a few extra. And it really is a fun kids’ project, or family project, to put these together.
Using your royal icing (recipe below), and a good spreader (what works for me is a little butter spreader), spread a little icing into the indentation of your cookie, just enough to “glue” your curls to the bottom. I do maybe 4-5 at a time. Unwrap your chocolate bar halfway (it’s easier to hold) and, using your peeler, peel away curls from the side edge of the bar.
The white chocolate curls are probably the most difficult part of this project, and they really become quite easy once you get going. Initially, I tried just peeling the chocolate directly onto the nests, but my aim is not that of a sniper, shall we say. It was much easier to peel curls into the condiment bowl and then pour them onto the nests, doing enough for a few at a time.
Keep going with your royal icing/chocolate curls until completed. Take your tiny hearts and press them into the middles. You can use a tiny bit of royal icing to hold these in, but I found I didn’t have to. the natural creaminess of the white chocolate gives them a little something to cling to, so just press gently but firmly and you should have no trouble with them staying in place.
If you don’t want to mess with tiny hearts, tiny heart cutters, or just like a bigger heart in the center of your nest, I understand. I took the next size up from the set of heart cutters, made some medium-sized heart cookies, and set them inside the larger nests like so:
So do what you want; these are your cookies, anyway. You could forget entirely about the little tiny heart sugar cookies and just go get some appropriately sized candies and put them in the center, also. Maybe some little M&M’s in pink and red and white, like little eggs. In truth, these nests were featured in the book as spring nests with eggs; I just changed them up a bit. I plan on making these again in the spring and playing around with some different ways to do eggs in the center…
but enough of that. Here are the recipes. Have a ridiculous amount of fun with these. I did.
The nest cookies are adapted for the holiday from The Art of the Cookie: Baking Up Inspiration by the Dozen by Shelly Kaldunski. It is a treasure trove of cookie ideas, equal parts precious and artsy.
Note: if you are doing the egg version, you won’t need the white chocolate or the recipe for the mini-hearts. All you will need to do is the nest cookies and the royal icing. Have peanut M&M’s in your choice of colors for the eggs.
Love Nests: The Recipe Breakdown.
for the tiny heart sugar cookies:
Please see my recipe for No-Spread, No-Fail Sugar Cookies.
Notes: Omit the lemon zest from the recipe and add your food color paste before you add your dry ingredients to the mix. Roll these out on the thick side, maybe 1/4 inch; they will be easier to work with. Shorten baking time to 10-11 minutes for the tiny hearts. Normal-sized hearts, keep baking time as-is.
for the nests:
- 2 3/4 cups all purpose flour, plus more for dusting (I use/prefer unbleached)
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cup plus two tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 cup tightly packed dark brown sugar (light is fine, too; the dark brown will provide a bit more molasses flavor)
- 1 large egg
- 1 tablespoon molasses
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
- 1-2 tablespoons heavy cream
- sanding sugar, for sprinkling
- 1 4-ounce bar of good-quality white chocolate, for decorating (I use and really recommend Ghiriadelli because of how creamy it is; it makes things go very easily)
- Royal Icing (see recipe below) for decorating
In a bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl using an electric mixer) on medium high speed, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, 2-3 minutes. Add the egg, molasses, and vanilla and beat on low speed until incorporated. Add the flour mixture in three parts and continue to beat until just incorporated, scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition. Add one tablespoon of the cream and mix until incorporated. If the dough seems dry or crumbly, add the second tablespoon of heavy cream and mix again until just incorporated. The dough should come together smoothly and be easy to handle/shape into a disk.
Remove the dough from the bowl and shape into a ball, then flatten into a disk roughly 3/4 to 1 inch thick. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, at least 1 hour or up to overnight.
When you’re ready to make your nests, preheat your oven to 350˚F and place a rack in the middle of your oven. Line baking sheets you’ll be using with parchment paper.
Place a tennis ball-sized mound of dough in a handheld ricer and firmly squeeze, using your countertop for leverage if you need to (see notes above on figures 1-4: how to make your nests for more detailed explanation/tips). Hover the dough (still attached to ricer) over the prepared sheet pan and use a metal spatula thin-bladed knife to detach dough from ricer. Using two forks or your hands (I prefer the latter) carefully form round nests about 2 to 2 1/2 inches in diameter with your strands of dough. using your finger, firmly press an indentation in to the center of each nest. Repeat with the remaining dough, leaving ample space between each nest. I baked mine 6 to a sheet, leaving lots of room between them. Book instructions indicate you can leave 1 inch of space between each. Sprinkle each nest with sanding sugar, if you wish. Place the sheet pan in the refrigerator and chill cookies until firm, about 15 minutes.
Bake 1 sheet at a time until cookies are golden brown around the edges but the tops are still the same color, about 10-13 minutes. Mine took exactly 11 minutes, so check them at the 10-minute mark to see how they’re doing. You don’t want to over-bake these or you’ll have a very dry cookie. Let cool for at least 10 minutes on the pan, then carefully transfer cookies to a rack to cool completely, at least 45 minutes.
To decorate your cookies:
First, and I can’t say this enough, have everything you need within arm’s reach, assembly-line style. Working with 4-5 cookies at a time (so your icing doesn’t harden) and using a small spreader, spread a small amount of the icing into the indentation in the middle of your nest. Using your vegetable peeler, shave some curls from the side of the chocolate bar into a small condiment bowl, enough for 1-2 cookies at a time. slowly pour curls over the middle of each next, gently arranging them as needed. Be careful not to handle them too much: The chocolate is soft, which makes it really nice for curling but also very sensitive to body heat. Once you’ve completed the curls on all your cookies, go back and add your mini-hearts, pressing them gently but with confidence into the curls. The combination of the icing foundation and the softness of the curls should hold them on to your cookie.
Note: if you’re doing the simple egg ones, you’ll only need the royal icing to stick the “eggs” on with. Dab some of the icing on and scoot three little peanut M&M’s on to your nests. Done!
Store in an airtight container for up to 3 days. I think this goes without saying, but these are not cookies you just throw into a bag to knock around against each other, so I wouldn’t recommend freezing them or storing them sitting on top of one another.
for the royal icing:
Below the sugar cookie recipe is the recipe for Royal Icing. Use the vanilla/water combination instead of the lemon juice version, please. Feel free to use your own recipe for royal icing if you have one you prefer or are more comfortable with. It can be on the looser side since you’re basically using it as glue.
Note: this icing recipe will make a decent amount of icing. You don’t need that much unless you plan to ice other cookies or the hearts. Feel free to do what I did and cut the recipe in half.