Looking for a highly impractical desert that's both delicious and educational? Look no further! This instructable details how to create a periodic table out of frosted sugar cookies, complete with a background mat to serve them off of and to help keep them in order.
Step 1: Make Cookie Presentation Background
Though it's possible to create the background at any time because it's separate from the actual baking, do this first so you get a feel for what you're getting into and just what it's like to make 110 tiles of anything. Also, making the mat first will help you check the size of the overall outcome before you get too far into the process.
To start, first lay out the 50" x 25" butcher paper sheet that will serve as the background. Use a ruler and pencil to lightly mark a 2.5" grid across the whole sheet. You're going to erase the guide lines later, so don't use a pen or draw too darkly. Sanity check to be sure you haven't mis-measured and that the grid is at least 18 squares across to be sure that your table will fit.
Once the grid is ready, using a pencil lightly outline the shape of the periodic table and each of the groups to make sure it will be correctly positioned. Once you've verified the layout, color in the groups with different colors of marker and outline the table grid with heavy black lines. After the final colors are in place, erase the pencil lines to create a finished look.
Select a separate color of paper for each periodic table group and and cut it into 2"x2" squares. The square will sit on top of the marker color so pick something that contrasts a little. Letter and number the paper squares to match the elements on the table, and after each tile is lettered glue it in position. The nice thing about doing the lettering on separate tiles is that if you mess up the lettering alignment you can do it over easily.
Once the colors and tiles are all complete, coat the whole table in contact paper to create a surface that will stand up to buttery cookies without getting stained with grease and chocolate. At first I wasn't sure that contact paper would be robust enough, but upon actually completing the project I found that contact paper (I bought paper labeled as "book covering" at an office supply store) is perfect. After it's been covered the whole table can stand up not only to holding cookies, but to being washed vigourously with a sponge with no ill effects.
The one catch is that contact paper strong and water resistant, but it isn't particularly sticky, meaning that it will tend to peel off at the edges. This is great when you're trying to align big sheets of contact paper over the table without getting wrinkles in it, but a real problem when you're trying to wash it. To deal with this, once the contact paper was in place square up the edges of the table and coat the edge with scotch tape folded onto both sides of the table. This creates a nice edge and prevents the contact paper from coming unstuck.
Step 2: Mix the Dough, Store and Chill
Sugar Cookie Recipe:
1 cup butter
1.5 cups confectioners sugar
2.5 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cream of tartar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp almond extract
Pinch of salt
- Cream salt, powdered sugar, butter, vanilla, and almond together
- Add egg and mix
- Sift in baking soda, cream de tartar, and flour, mix
Step 3: Roll the Dough Flat
When you remove the dough from the refrigerator it will no longer be sticky, but it will have the opposite problem: it will be too hard. For rolling you want the dough pliant and soft, but not sticky. When it's too cold it will crack and crumble when you try to squish it, so the first thing to do is to "wake" the dough by working it like clay.
Using a metal spoon dig chunks out of the storage container and work them in your palms a bit until they warm up enough to feel like clay. Take clay-like chunk and work it into a pancake shape. Make several handful-sized balls into pancakes and stack them, then squish the whole stack together by pushing down on it. This process is both warming the dough and making it homogeneous, attempting to work out any air bubbles between chunks.
Pull combined dough into a sphere, compressing it into the center as you work with it. Once you have a nice ball, begin flattening it with your hands. Alternate squishing downwards and pinching the edges in to prevent cracks at the circumference. Flip the dough and add more flour to the work surface as often as you need to to prevent sticking. Gradually work the dough into a rectangle shape by pushing and pulling it as you squish. Flattening with your hands this way instead of using a roller provides more control over the shape the dough forms.
Once the hand-flattened rectangle is about .75 inches thick, move it onto baking parchment and get your rolling pin. Flatten to a height of .5 inches with the roller, attempting to maintain the rectangular shape as much as possible as you do so. Once baked the dough will be cut into 2" tiles, so the final unbaked dough rectangle should measure an odd number of inches to allow .5" of clearance around the edges during the cutting process. Measure and cut off the excess dough to make an odd-number-of-inches by odd-number-of-inches rectangle and throw the scraps back into the dough pool.
Use the parchment paper to pull the dough gently onto a lip-less cookie sheet without deforming it. Because the dough is being baked in big sheets, the parchment paper is vital for being able to get it on an off the cookie sheet without cracking or bending the product.
Step 4: Bake the Dough, Let It Cool
Once the dough is on the cookie sheet, it's ready to bake. Preheat oven to 375 and bake for 5 minutes then turn 180 degrees and bake another 5 minutes. Don't be alarmed if the dough is still pasty white at the end of the baking. As a frequent chocolate chip cookie baker but first time sugar-cookie baker I ruined my first batch by letting them cook until they were browned. Also, the more you bake the cookies the more stiff, crumbly, and difficult to cut they become. The bottom edge should be just beginning to turn golden when the cookie comes out.
Once the dough is out of the oven, carefully use the parchment to slide the dough off onto a clear flat space where it can rest and cool while you start your next sheet of dough baking.
Step 5: Prepare the Toppings
Each group on the periodic table is topped with a different flavor of icing or melted chocolate. Before you go whole hog you should experiment with a couple of flavors and find out what you like. The table groups are of wildly differing sizes, so choose your color / flavor combinations wisely. Here are my choices:
(38) Transition metals: white chocolate, peach
(28) Rare earth metals: bourbon spice, green
(15) Halogens: vanilla, blue
(10) Poor metals: chocolate, brown
(6) Alkalai metals: almond, orange
(6) Alkalai earth metals: lemon, yellow
(6) Noble gasses: maple, red
Both the icing and melted chocolate will become hard in a few hours, so don't prepare them until your cookie rectangles are cooled and ready to use. Work with flavors one at a time rather than attempting to prepare multiple toppings in advance.
2 cups sifted powdered sugar
About 3 tbs of cream
Flavoring of choice
Icing is really just powdered sugar wet with a tiny bit of liquid until it forms a paste. To make just sift powdered sugar into a bowl (some powdered sugar brands come quite lumpy and you definitely want a smooth icing), add flavorings, then add cream by the tablespoon full until you get a nice gooey mixture. Be cautious with the addition of cream or it will take a long time to harden up. The finished icing should hold peaks but slowly ooze towards flatness.
If you are using melted chocolate melt chocolate chips in a double boiler, then just apply like icing. One of the most difficult parts of this project was attempting to stack and store all the cookies without damaging the finish, so the time it took the toppings to dry was a huge unexpected problem. Chocolate dries up fastest and hardest, so is by far the easiest to work with. If I was doing it again, I might try using white chocolate as a base for more of the flavors.
Step 6: Apply Toppings to the Cookie Rectangles
Take each of the baked cookie rectangles and spoon a generous quantity of icing onto its center. Work to spread the icing from the middle out, being careful not to scrape the surface and pull up crumbs. Once the cookie square is completely covered let it sit until the topping hardens (should be 2-5 hours depending on how liquid your topping was, how warm the dough was, and the temperature of your kitchen).
If you have problems leaving delicate projects out without them being disturbed by cats or other household pests, then carefully use the parchment paper (still under the cookie rectangle) to slide the iced cookie onto a hard flat surface such as a cutting board and refrigerate until the topping is set. Keep the cookie as supported and flat as possible while moving so that it doesn't bend or crack.
Step 7: Cut Cookies to Size
Once the icing is completely hard it's time to make cookie tiles. Take each iced cookie rectangle and cut the edges square using a good sharp knife. Measure a 2" grid, scoring the icing with a knife or a pin to create guide lines. If you are cutting through one of the chocolate topped cookie rectangles then be careful not to let the chocolate break into uneven pieces as you cut (cutting through cold chocolate is hard). To prevent cracks let it warm up a bit before you try to cut it and use more of a sawing motion to whittle through the top layer of cold chocolate. However while cutting sugar icing or the cookie itself use firm downward strokes to minimize crumbs and tearing.
If you store the cookie tiles at this point, be sure to insert layers of wax paper between the cookies! If the icing is at all tacky the cookies will stick together and ruin the shiny finished look of the topping.
Step 8: Finish the Cookie Edges
Though this ice-a-big-cookie-and-cut-to-size method has the advantage of making it easy to mass-produce cookie tiles, it has the disadvantage of creating crumbly unfinished cookie edges. To fix this and to make the tiles a little bit fancier, the edges are finished with a coating melted chocolate.
At the end of the project I found the chocolate edges to be a mixed blessing, but all things considered I think I'd do it again. On the one hand they add chocolate to the otherwise plain cookie (yum!) and create a nice visual grid for the look of the table. On the other hand, as the chocolate warms the cookies can be really messy to handle. No kidding. *Really* messy. However if you're keeping the cookies in the fridge and taking them out to eat, the chocolate is pure win.
My first plan for coating the edges was to make a pot of melted chocolate and dip them. However I found that even when melted and kept over warm water the chocolate was too gloppy to make the results of dipping look neat. The better solution I came up with was to use a knife to spread molten chocolate across the edges in the manner of peanut butter.
To give the chocolate edging time to harden first do one edge of all the cookies, then the opposite edge, etc. Elevate each newly coated edge while it dries to prevent sticking and smudging. If you finish one set of edges and no cookies are ready for their next edge, you can pop the cookies into the freezer for 5 minutes to harden up the chocolate quickly.
Be prepared to make an awesomely huge chocolate mess. At the end of this step my apron and all my dish towels were practically rigid with chocolate, and there was a coating of sugar across the table, all the chairs, and one of the cats.
Step 9: Letter the Cookie Tiles
Lay the completed cookie tiles on the background provided. This is both gratifying as it will be the first time the project starts to look complete, and is a good way to check you've got enough of all the colors. Melt semi sweet chocolate in double boiler and spoon into an icing bag or ziplock freezer bag with a tiny corner cut off. Test writing on a piece of wax paper to get a feel for it before you try writing on one of the real tiles.
Work your way across the table, moving each row of cookies off of their space in turn so that you can see both the cookie and the underlying guide. Pipe chocolate into the appropriate letters on each cookie and then return it to position.
Step 10: Enjoy the Cookies!
Step back, take a break, take some pictures to show off to your friends! Then enjoy your cookies!
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