When I was a kid, my absolute favorite cookies were Mother’s Circus Animals. Cute little animal-shaped cookies, coated in pink and white waxy icing, and covered in rainbow sprinkles: the best cookies ever. I grew up on those little cookies. I miss those cookies. There aren’t actually a whole lot of non-vegan foods I crave anymore, but Circus Animals are among the ones I do. Every time I pass them in the grocery store, I feel a little twinge of sadness. Every time I see someone else buying them, I get jealous.
The most logical solution was to recreate them, minus the nonfat dry milk, high fructose corn syrup, and sorbitan monostearate. Undesirable additives aside, the main ingredients actually look fairly simple: sugar, flour, and fat. There are no identifiable added flavorings; these cookies taste like straight up sugar (and perhaps circus magic; who knows?). In other words, this is your basic shortbread cookie.
I recently acquired several bags of Lieber’s white “decorating chips,” and while their only ingredients are sugar and cocoa butter, they don’t really taste like authentic white chocolate. They’re sort of like eating sweet wax. While that’s not something I’d normally get excited about (and I actually wondered what I was going to do with all of those disappointing chips), I thought it’d be perfect for recreating the coating on these cookies. The Mother’s cookies get their waxy texture from actual carnauba wax. Since I had no intentions of procuring any of that for my own recipe, I decided just to melt down some Lieber’s chips and dip the cookies in that.
The biggest hurdle here was finding vegan nonpareil sprinkles. Do you know how hard it can be to find sprinkles that don’t contain confectioner’s glaze (otherwise known as shellac, or ground up bugs. Mmmm, yummy!)? Well, I do. It’s hard. I believe you can order them online someplace, but I don’t have the patience for that sort of thing. I went to several stores and completely struck out, and then finally, feeling desperate and defeated, ended up in Wal-Mart. I’d been reading and re-reading ingredients lists on bottles of countless varieties of Wilton sprinkles all day, only to be disappointed every time. They all contained confectioner’s glaze. I almost didn’t even pick up the bottle of Easter/spring-themed sprinkles I saw at Wal-Mart because I already knew they weren’t going to work for me. As it turns out, this particular assortment, which contained two colors of sparkling sugar and nonpareils (!!), was vegan! No bugs! I must have read that label ten times before I believed what I was seeing. And they were even the right shape! Perfect!
For what it’s worth, Whole Foods apparently sells Sprinklez vegan sprinkles, and I would have broken down and gone there had I not eventually found them elsewhere. The thing is, both of the Whole Foods in my area are way out of my way, and that store irritates me, anyway. I just don’t like it. It’s expensive and yuppy and blah. I have accepted that there are some things there that I just can’t buy elsewhere, but I make a point of not needing those things very often. They do have delicious spinach bagels in the bakery case, though. I’ll give them that.
The cookie cutters were easy. I picked up a set of tiny “Noah’s Ark” cutters at Michael’s. The set came with a lion, an elephant, a giraffe, something I think is supposed to be a dog, a teddy bear (huh?), and an ark (useless, but appropriate, I guess). I’m not an expert on Bible stories or anything, but this is the first I’ve heard of teddy bears being herded onto the boat.
So, materials gathered, I set out to make my cookies. I think I got pretty close, at least as far as I can remember. It’s been several years since I’ve eaten Mother’s cookies, so they’re not exactly fresh on my palate. I’m happy with mine, though. They definitely satisfied my craving, and I don’t know if I could have improved them without tasting the originals, which I obviously wasn’t going to do. My mom agrees that they taste similar, but she says mine aren’t as waxy. I can live with that.
The recipe makes about 100 tiny cookies. I actually made a double batch, and it was quite an event. If you’re feeding a lot of people or want to eat nothing but animal cookies for several days, go nuts and double it.
Circus Animal Cookies
Shortbread cut-outs (Adapted from The Pastry Queen by Rebecca Rather):
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) Earth Balance vegan margarine, softened
- 6 tablespoons powdered sugar
- 1 cup whole wheat pastry or all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
White chocolate coating:
- 3 cups non-dairy white chocolate chips, divided
- 2 tablespoons coconut oil, divided
- pink oil-based food coloring for candy making (not the liquid kind from the grocery store!)
In a large bowl, cream together the margarine and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add the flour and baking powder, and mix until just combined. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour, until the dough is firm enough to roll out.
When the dough is adequately chilled, line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Liberally flour your work surface and rolling pin, and have extra flour on hand for flouring your dough. Grab a ball of dough, and return the bowl to the fridge. The dough needs to be kept cold, so any dough you’re not actively working with should be in the fridge. The freezer would probably be even better.
Roll out your dough as thin as you can get it without it breaking. The dough will be sticky, so sprinkle on more flour as necessary. Cut out your cookies, and then put your scrap dough back into the bowl in the fridge. Grab a cold ball of dough, and repeat the process. Try to work quickly, because as the dough warms up, it will get too sticky and hard to work with. If it gets too warm while you’re rolling and cutting, pop it into the freezer for a couple minutes and then try again.
When you fill up your first baking sheet, put it into the fridge and preheat your oven to 300F. Chilling the cut-outs makes the dough less likely to spread in the oven and bake into amorphous blobs. While your oven is heating up and your first tray of cookies is chilling, work on rolling out your second tray.
When your oven is ready, bake the cookies for 13-15 minutes, or until they’re light golden brown. Don’t let them burn! Remove from the oven and allow to cool on the tray for at least 10 minutes before removing to a cooling rack. Allow to cool fully before icing.
So, the cookies are cool, and while you were waiting patiently, you had fun watching Rachael Ray explain how she came up with the revolutionary concept of — wait for it — breakfast for dinner! In two separate episodes! Moving along. Let’s talk icing.
While this will no doubt come as totally obvious non-news to anyone who’s ever dyed chocolate before (i.e. not me), here’s a tip I learned the hard way: you can’t add just any old liquid food coloring to melted chocolate. The chocolate will seize up and get grainy/clumpy, and the color won’t mix in properly. You will be sad. You will have to make an emergency run to Michael’s for oil-based candy dye, and you will have to start all over. Fortunately, the stuff isn’t very expensive, and the colors are super intense, so you only need a tiny amount.
Start by dividing your chocolate chips evenly into two bowls: 1 1/2 cups for the white icing, and 1 1/2 cups for the pink. Melt the chips in the microwave in 30 second intervals, being careful not to burn them. When they’re getting close, but haven’t quite melted all the way, take them out and stir vigorously with a spoon. The remaining clumps should melt from the residual heat.
For the pink icing, add a couple drops of pink food coloring and stir well. A little goes a long way, here. Meanwhile, melt your coconut oil in the microwave, and divide evenly between the two bowls of melted chocolate. Stir well to incorporate. The food coloring will make the pink icing slightly more liquidy than the white; to compensate, you can add a little extra melted coconut oil to the white icing. The oil helps thin out the chocolate and makes it easier to coat the cookies. I think it also contributes to the waxy texture we’re trying to achieve. Depending on the consistency of your white chocolate, you may need more or less oil. Just eyeball it.
A note about coconut oil: since it is only solid in colder temperatures, you’ll probably want to store the cookies in the fridge after they’re coated, lest they stick together. It’s still winter here (barely), and my kitchen is cold, so this wasn’t a problem for me. If I were to make these cookies again in the summer, I would be sure not to let them sit around in the heat.
To coat the cookies, submerge them completely in the melted chocolate (your fingers will get messy; embrace it!) and let the excess drip off before placing on a parchment-lined baking sheet. If the icing starts to get too thick to work with, microwave it for 10-15 seconds to get it nice and melty again. Sprinkle the cookies with sprinkles, and when the tray is full, move it to the fridge to set. When the coating has fully hardened, you can move the cookies to a plastic storage container. Or put them directly in your face! The end!