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One of my favorite childhood treats were pink and white circus animal cookies; and honestly, I still love them! In a quest to create a copycat version of my fave cookies, I have come up with what I think is the best rendition out there.
After many, many attempts to recreate the cookies from the very same ingredients listed on the package, I tossed my test recipe aside and went back to the drawing board. If I could make the store-bought cookies better, what would I change about them? The cookie itself is yummy, but I knew I could make it better using real butter and adding an egg. The result is the marriage of a sugar cookie and shortbread recipe. The tiny cookies are buttery, crisp, and hold up well when dipped in candy melts. This recipe makes enough for your cookie jar and then some.
Circus Animal Cookies Ingredients
This recipe calls for powdered sugar. By using powdered vs. granulated, the sugar combines easily with the butter and creates a sandy, crisp texture.
Unlike shortbread, this recipe uses only all-purpose flour. This helps the cookies hold up a little better.
An egg also gives the cookies structure and a lovely golden color. Vanilla is a classic flavor for these little cookies.
Tips and Tricks for The Best Circus Animal Cookies
The dough should not be over-mixed or the cookies will puff up and not be flat. Not a huge issue, but gentle mixing definitely yields the best results.
Rolling the dough thinly is important because the candy melts will add extra thickness to the cookies. One-quarter inch is too thick, but 1/8-inch is perfect.
Pricking the cookies with a toothpick also helps prevent the cookies from puffing up and helps them bake evenly.
This dough is very easy to work with. It should be chilled, but not ice cold out of the fridge or it won’t roll out as nicely. Allow the dough to sit at room temperature for about 15 minutes before rolling. Or another option is to roll the dough right after mixing and refrigerate until ready to cut the shapes.
Rolling the dough between two sheets of parchment paper is the best way. Dusting with a bit of flour is okay, but too much will make the cookies tough and take away from their buttery flavor and sandy texture.
Transfer the cookies using a very thin spatula in order to keep the delicate shapes intact.
Where To Buy Mini Animal Cookie Cutters
I found mini cookie cutters online at Amazon and in Michael’s. Traditional circus animal cookies have slightly different shapes and animals, but I got pretty close!
The size of these cutters was perfect for my circus animal cookies.
What Kind of Icing or Frosting is Best?
Icing and frosting are not the same thing. Icing is thinner and more of a glaze that sets and hardens. Frosting tends to be thicker and spreadable.
The candy melts functions as a glaze in this recipe. If desired, a powdered sugar glaze can be used in place of the candy melts. White chocolate can also be used, but is more difficult to work with and tint. While pink and white makes these the classic copycat circus animal cookies, any color would be fun, or use all white, if desired.
Rainbow nonpareils are the standard for store-bought cookies. They’re easy to find in the baking section of any grocery store. To change things up, use other colors and types.
Circus Animal Cookie
For the Cookies:
For the Coating:
- One 10-ounce bag bright white candy melts
- One 10-ounce bag bright pink candy melts
- Rainbow nonpareils
- Place butter in the bowl of an electric stand mixer or use a medium bowl and electric hand-mixer. Beat butter for 30-60 seconds until creamy. Add the powdered sugar and beat again just until creamy and well-combined. Add the egg and vanilla. Beat again just until combined. Add the flour, baking soda, and salt all at once and beat on low speed just until dough starts to come together, 1-2 minutes. It's okay if there is some unincorporated flour. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl and finish mixing dough with a wooden spoon or silicone spatula.
- Turn dough out onto a large square of plastic wrap or waxed paper and use the sides of the wrap or paper to pull the dough together into a ball. Flatten into a disk that is about 1-inch in thickness. Wrap well and chill for at least 30 minutes.
- When ready to bake cookies, remove dough from fridge and let stand for a few minutes at room temperature to make it easier to roll. Preheat oven to 350°F and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
- Using two pieces of parchment paper or a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into a large rectangle or oval that is about 1/4-inch thick. Using the small cookie cutters, cut the dough into animal shapes and transfer to the prepared baking sheets.
- Bake at 350 for about 10 minutes °F.
- To decorate: Line two baking sheets with wax or parchment paper. Melt white candy melts according to package directions. Dip half of the cookies into the white candy melts, allowing the excess to drip back into the bowl. Place on the waxed or parchment paper. Immediately after dipping, sprinkle with a pinch of the rainbow nonpareils. Repeat with pink candy melts and remaining cookies. Allow cookies to harden completely before removing from the paper. Store in an airtight container for several weeks in a cool, dry container. (Cookies can be refrigerated or frozen, if needed, but are fairly shelf stable.)
Meggan Hill is the Executive Chef and CEO of Culinary Hill, a popular digital publication in the food space. She loves to combine her Midwestern food memories with her culinary school education to create her own delicious take on modern family fare. Millions of readers visit Culinary Hill each month for meticulously-tested recipes as well as skills and tricks for ingredient prep, cooking ahead, menu planning, and entertaining. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the iCUE Culinary Arts program at College of the Canyons.