Monday, September 27, 2010

Natural Colours from Our Pantry

Decorated Sugar Cookies using royal icing was the September 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge which was hosted by Mandy of What the Fruitcake?!.

I'd rather prefer to top the cookies with some fruits and bake them that way. Besides, considering my hate-type relationship with the meringue flavoured sweets and the fact that royal icing gives this taste, at the first place I wasn't so keen about this challenge. But then I thought, it's a nice occasion to experiment with natural colours for the icing.

In the past only natural colours had been used – variety of extracts from plants, fruits or animal products. But in 1856 William Perkin (who was only 18 years old at this time) discovered the first synthetic dye while he was experimenting to synthesize a medicine for treating malaria. At the beginning the synthetic dyes were used only in the production of textiles but in 1900 for the needs of the food industry in the USA there were already used around 80 synthetic dyes which were mainly derived from coal tar.

Many of the synthetic dyes are azoic dyes. In 1937 researches had been started due to the arising suspicions that those dyes (particularly the ones that derive from benzidine and its derivatives) cause bladder and pancreatic cancer. Today there are less azo dyes used in the food industry but the question about their safety is still open. After all, colours are considered as one of the most dangerous food additives. They are linked to many diseases as cancer, asthma, hyperactivity, all kinds of allergies.

Often when used in the commercial foods, on the label, colours are hidden under their E number. E-numbers from 100 to 199 show the existence of colouring agents in the foods. And they could be found almost everywhere – from candies to canned foods, wine and baked goods.

Labelled as “food colourants” colouring agents are sold in many forms – powders, gels, liquids. But never mind how these are named, they are mainly of synthetic origin (if the label doesn't say something else).

However, there are so many plants, fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers that could be used as a colouring agents. Especially when cooking and baking at home.

And so this challenge became as a project for creating food colours from the products we had in the pantry. I forgot to mention that the theme for the decorated cookies was September. So the colours that sprang up in our heads were red, orange, yellow, brown and faded green.

What to obtain them from?

Beetroot for red, ground safflower (or carrot juice) for orange-yellow, ground green tea for green, dutch processed cacao powder for brown. (At the end we didn't use the brown but the colour was very good). This was what we had in the pantry at that time, but it worked fine.

Basic Sugar Cookies Recipe:
Adapted from Peggy Porschen
Makes Approximately 36x 10cm / 4" Cookies
  • 200gr butter, at room temperature;
  • 400gr all purpose flour;
  • 200gr caster sugar;
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten;
  • zest of one lime.
Cream together the butter, sugar and the lime zest. Beat until just becoming creamy in texture. Beat in the egg until well combined. Remove the beaters. Add the sifted flour and mix with a (wooden) spoon until a non sticky dough forms. Divide the dough into 2 or 3 pieces, form them as bricks, place them in airtight bowl and then in the fridge for at least 30 minutes to chill

Once chilled, roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface. Cut out shapes with cookie cutters or a sharp knife. Re-roll scraps and follow the above process until all scraps are used up. Arrange cookies on parchment or silicon lined baking sheets and refrigerate for another 30mins to an hour. Preheat the oven to 180°C .

Bake until golden around the edges, about 8-15mins depending on the size of the cookies. Leave to cool on cooling racks. Once completely cooled, decorate as desired.

Royal Icing Recipe:
Adapted from Joy of Baking
  • 2 large (60 gr) egg whites;
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice;
  • 330 gr confectioners (powdered or icing) sugar, sifted;
  • beetroot juice for red colour;
  • safflower for yellow colour;
  • green tea (we used kukicha) for faded green;
  • cacao powder for brown.
With an electric mixer beat the egg whites with the lemon juice until combined. Add the sifted powdered sugar and beat on low speed until combined and smooth. The icing needs to be used immediately or transferred to an airtight container as royal icing hardens when exposed to air.

Pour the icing in several small bowls and combine with the colour bringing ingredients.

The safflower and the green tea should be preliminary ground in a mortar.
When using beetroot juice it's needed to add more confectioners sugar to the icing to compensate the added liquid.


  1. They're absolutely gorgeous! I love the fact you used natural colours.

  2. great design. looks like framable art!

  3. i love your cookies! Beautiful job!

  4. These look fantastic! Thanks for the tip on dyes. Totally didn't know the synthetic ones are made from coal tar. Shocking!!
    Would you mind checking out my blog? :D

  5. I also used natural coloring on half of my cookie dough. Green tea, Pumpkin for yellow, Cactus for Purple and red, and cocoa for brown. They turned out nice. Even though I avoid every kind of artificial coloring, I couldn't resist using some in the icing for the challenge.
    Your cookies are beautifully decorated!

  6. @ ajcabuang04
    Actually synthetic dyes originally derived from coal tar derivatives, but now they are synthesized from benzene(which is a petroleum product) and its derivatives.

  7. I did not know that we were eating coal tar !!!! thanks for that info, I will switch to natural colors....the cookies are so beautiful, I absolutely loved them.I found your site through daring bakers.

  8. Inspiring cookies, I loved these delicate designs and I like the fact that your exploring natural colourings, it's something I should try to do more often I think.



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