When frosting is exhausting, columnist finds pretty 'marble-iced' Christmas cookies take half the time

Don't have time for frosting your holiday cookies in buttercream or fancy royal icing? Columnist Tammy Swift found a happy compromise with this way-easier-than-it-looks technique for marbled icing.

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Tammy Swift, Forum columnist.

I like baking sugar cookies. I like eating sugar cookies.

But I don’t really like decorating them.

It always starts out as a great adventure — buying enough butter to put every Wisconsin dairy cow into overtime, whipping up a luscious buttercream and then fastidiously piping every snowy whisker and cherry nose on each Santa cookie.

But by the 12th cookie, I’m ready to pack red buttercream into a Wagner power sprayer and blast my way out of cookie-frosting hell.

Never mind the patience it takes to do fancy “flood” cookies with royal icing. While there's no denying the artistry of these cookies, I believe royal icing tastes like sweetened drywall.


So upon discovering the marbled cookie icing recipe of Rick Martinez, formerly of Bon Appetit’s test kitchen, I was hooked.

True, Martinez’s icing doesn’t contain butter, which is still a baking tragedy. But it hardens into stackable, shippable cookies in two hours and tastes better than royal icing.

It’s also the ideal consistency for Martinez’s “swirl and dip” icing method, which is at least 50% faster than frosting with buttercream or flood icing.

In a nutshell, you create a white cookie icing, then use that base to create several different colored icings tinted with gel food coloring. (Note: Liquid food coloring makes the icing too soupy.)

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Tammy Swift used Rick Martinez's "tie-dye icing" effect to make fun T-shirt cookies.
Tammy Swift / The Forum

Spoon a few tablespoons of the white icing on a large plate, then drizzle a couple of the colored icings on the edge of the pool of white icing. You also can use a toothpick to swirl the colors into the white (don't overmix or you'll lose the marbling pattern).

Dunk the top of the cookie into the icings and flip over. The design will continue spreading and shifting until it dries.

I used Martinez’s recipe and technique last weekend to create super-cute “tie-dye” cookies for my partner’s granddaughter.

They turned out so cool I decided to try the same technique to frost Christmas cookies this year. Then I happened to stumble across yet another marbling method from Land O' Lakes, which was even easier (yay!) than Martinez’s technique.


I thought the results were pretty nifty.

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This Land O' Lakes marbled icing effect was easy to do and yielded eye-catching results. The cookies can be embellished further with metallic or colored sprinkles while the icing is still wet.
Tammy Swift / The Forum

Whether you use the Land O'Lakes method or Martinez's method, these tips might help:

  • Sift the powdered sugar before mixing it so you don’t get clumps.
  • If using more than one color, pay attention to how you place them. Red and green actually turn brown when mixed. Ho-ho-horrible.
  • After three or four dunks in the color-swirled icing, the colors will become too muddled to create a clear marbled effect. Dispose of that icing and create a new pool of white with colored-icing accents. 
  • Although the Land O’ Lakes recipe calls for royal icing, I followed the technique using Martinez’s icing recipe — and it worked well.

Time-Saving Marbled Cookie Icing Technique

Adapted from and Rick Martinez’s Tie-Dye Cookie Glaze

Favorite cookies, cooled

2 cups powdered sugar, sifted

5-6 tablespoons whole milk

¼ teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon clear vanilla extract (or any favorite flavoring)


Gel food coloring, in preferred colors

  1. Place baking racks on top of waxed paper or cookie sheets to catch icing drips.
  2. Mix powdered sugar with milk, salt and extract; whisk until smooth. Mixture should be as thick as heavy cream. If it’s too thin, add more powdered sugar, a teaspoon at a time. 
  3. Spoon ½ cup of plain icing into a shallow bowl that is wide enough for dunking cookies. Place 2 to 3 drops of gel food coloring on the surface of the icing and swirl gently with a knife or bamboo skewer to create a design.
  4. Grab a cookie by the sides and gently dip the top of the cookie into the marbled royal icing. Let the excess icing drip into a spare bowl or onto a  square of waxed paper. Quickly turn the cookie upright and place onto a cooling rack. Important note: Letting the icing drip onto waxed paper instead of back into the bowl might seem like a messy and unnecessary step. However, this is key to making perfectly marbled cookies every time.
  5.  You can help the design along by tipping the cookie in different directions or even creating additional patterns with a toothpick dipped in icing and food coloring. If the effect isn’t something you like, you can wipe off the wet icing with a paper towel and start over. Place finished cookie on baking rack to dry.
  6. After several dunks, the icing will lose the desired marbled effect. To ensure your cookies are a success, discard the used icing and make a new bowl with a ½ cup of white icing and 2 to 3 drops of food color.
  7. Display dry cookies on a fancy plate and wait for your guests to "marble" over your handiwork!


Tammy Swift portrait for Brightspot module

Hi, I'm Tammy Swift, a long-time columnist for The Forum. Over the years, I've written about everything from growing up on the farm and life as a single woman to marriage, divorce and the "joys" of menopause. I'm also slightly obsessed with my dog. Check out my latest columns below. Reach me at

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