I love those cookie decorating tutorials in magazines and on television that make it look like any mannequin could decorate cookies like a pro in 5 minutes. You know which ones I’m talking about. The pictures that show all the pastry bags and squeeze bottles neatly filled with the perfect consistency of icing. And the spatulas are color coordinated to the bowls and mixer. The naked cookies are all baked and lined up waiting to be frosted by smiling mothers and angelic children. You can just feel the joy that’s about to be born from this experience.
You try and recreate the whole scene, maybe without all the color coordination. By the time the are cookies baked, the icing is made and the bags are filled, you’re exhausted. Royal icing is showing up in your hair, down your bra, and on your shoes. And, there’s not a single perfectly decorated cookie to show for this melee.*
Allow me to let you in on a little secret. There are squadrons of helpers behind the scenes making and coloring the icing, filling the bags and bottles, baking the cookies. No wonder those Stepford wives look so happy and clean while they’re pretending to pipe an outline.
Here are some tips that I’ve learned (the hard way) to embrace. They won’t insure that your cookies look like a pro did them, even on the first try. But they will make your sugary encounter so much more positive and pleasant, that you’ll definitely want to give it another go again sometime.
1. Prepare your dough and the cookies the day before you want to decorate. Spreading the tasks out over two days make the whole process much more manageable and enjoyable. Freezing dough is the way I roll (literally). If you bake the cookies a day in advance of decorating, tightly wrap the trays with plastic wrap to ensure freshness.
2. Timing is everything. No matter how much time you allow for decorating the cookies, allow more. Rushing the process may result in cookies that don’t show off your best artistry. Trust me on this one. I STILL have timing issues.
3. Strategy. Think about what supplies and tools you’ll need in advance. Having everything thought out and prepared eliminates the frantic search for everything at the last minute. The time and energy you save doing this can be appropriated to your perfecting your piping skills.
4. Keep it clean, kids. Grease is the mortal enemy of royal icing. Make sure you de-grease your mixing bowl and beater by washing with white vinegar to remove any micro-traces of grease.
5. Keep it simple. Make your first attempts successful by choosing simple designs that don’t require more than 3 colors. A well-executed simple design truly is a thing of beauty. It’s important to learn the basics and be really comfortable with them, before trying the fancy stuff. Do you think Michelangelo just started out and poof! He created the Sistine Chapel? I don’t think so. All right , I’ll grant you that he might have had a leg up even when he was just drawing stick figures. [wink] The point is, we all have our learning curves. When you believe you’ve mastered piping lines, move on to something else.
6. Less is more. When adding food color to royal icing, start with a pin dot’s worth of color to a small amount of icing. Keep adding icing and color in small increments til you get the desired color. You can add color, but you can’t take it away. And, too much food color can inhibit proper drying as well as causing that cursed bleeding.
7. Don’t cramp your style. If your work area is cluttered and disorganized, it WILL constrict and block your creative juices. Clean as you go and give yourself plenty of space to work comfortably. You won’t regret it.
8. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? So simple, but so true. Practice, practice, practice on parchment paper. And on cookies. The first cookies I ever decorated were horrid. Truly. It’s taken me a few years to get where I am, and I’m not even where I want to be. Don’t be hard on yourself. Stick with it.
9. A watched cookie will never dry. Flooded cookies, in my opinion, need a good 8 hrs to dry. If you need to speed up the process, put a tray of cookies on the middle rack of a COLD oven and turn on the oven light. It’s a humidity-free environment for your cookies. Just check every so often that they’re not over exposed to the heat of the light bulb. You want the icing to set, not separate.
10. There is no such thing as an unwanted cookie. No matter what the outcome of your cookie decorating efforts, you’ll always be everyone’s hero. You made cookies, for crying out loud!
What? You don’t believe that my early attempts weren’t very good? Here…I’ll show you what I have photo’d. And, these aren’t the worst, by a long shot.
AACCCKKK! I must really like you guys to share these with you.
Moral of the story is the next time you see a cookie demo where an artfully designed cookie is whipped out in about 3 seconds flat, remember, that somewhere behind closed doors, there’s a mountain of bowls begging to be washed. And, happy helpers are munching on the rejects.
*In the spirit of full disclosure, and writing about what one really knows, I can fully attest to the fact that I’ve wrestled with my own demons of decorating, and am a better decorator for it.Read More »
It’s that awful time of year. Mixed messages abound: temperatures outside beckon us to the shore to enjoy what’s left of summer while the countdown to the beginning of fall is slamming into us at every juncture. Clothing ads show happy people cavorting around while dressed like Nanuck of the North. Halloween candy is making its debut in grocery stores, and that holiday is more than 2 months away! As if that isn’t enough to turn your stomach, there are the [gulp] ‘back to school’ ads. Everywhere. For everything.
Now,when I was growing up, my mother used to start merrily chirping about a new school year around the beginning of July. Oh yes, my mother would sing song “It’s the 4th of July! Summer’s half over! You kids will be back in school before you know it!” I’m pretty sure she rubbed her hands back and forth while emitting a scary “Mwahahahahahahaha”, too, all mad scientist style. She brainwashed us into skipping merrily to school on those first days. I think she even had us going to sleep early, too; at least one month in advance of September.
It’s different now. The time leading up to the first days of school are chock full of anticipation and trepidation. Arms trembling with fear encircling the waists of the stoic. Then there’s the tears and the wailing. And that’s just the mothers!!!
Consider these cookies your lifeline. They are what will distract you from concentrating on the fear while giving those idle hands a purpose, and ultimately, a sweet treat for happy recipients.
The how-to on this is pretty straightforward. But, I know everyone likes illustrations and pictures with their dose of written information, so I will comply with my non-DSLR fancy schmancy no-trick trick photography.
Start with cookies. You knew that. Because I knew I wanted to over pipe the finished cookie with a black outline that would crisp up the final cookie, I began by outlining everything in white stiff royal icing.
Begin by filling the darkest color first and letting it dry (you knew this, I know you did.) Fill darkest color first, to avoid the heartbreak of the dreaded ‘bleed’.
To change things up a bit, I decided to have the windows on the schoolhouse raised up a bit, for added dimension. So, I outlined the windows on a piece of parchment and quickly filled them in. *NOTE: Do not just outline on parchment, and then walk away and go shopping or go to the gym. When the royal icing is drying on parchment, it shrinks because the liquid is evaporating. I once made this mistake only to hear HUNDREDS of little ‘pings’ and ‘pops’. The outlines were leaping around on the parchment like Mexican jumping beans. I’m. Not. Kidding.
Now, fill the little windows. Another major tip for you: when filling small spaces, avoid filling to the point of the beautiful puffy stage. You’ll only then experience the heartbreak of implosions, or potholes or whatever you want to call them. Again, not to belabor the science experiment aspect of this job; it’s all about the evaporation and the small, confined space. The royal wants to naturally puff up on it’s own, because it’s actually shrinking on the parchment or the cookie. Less royal filling = fewer potholes. You’ve got enough to worry about with your overwhelming emotions about your kid going to school and abandoning you growing up.
OH, and you know about these, right? Squeeze bottles from CK & Co. are available at cake & craft stores everywhere. They’re what I use for all my flood consistency icing.
Now, on to the cookie. Here’s my next cookie decorator/brain surgeon secret: When filling big spaces, quickly fill one side at a time. Thusly:
This method fills the cookie in a much more efficient way (IMHO) with less chance of the royal setting up before you’ve finished flooding the area. Don’t forget to take your toothpick or skewer and pop the bubbles. I didn’t as I was too busy trying to ‘get the shot’.
Let everything dry. Carefully peel off your windows, pipe a bit of stiff royal on the back of each window and affix to cookie. Continue decorating to your heart’s content.
There. You did it. You look like the most together Mother of the Year by making these cookies for the students and even the teacher. Now send that kid marching out the door. Then sit down, eat a cookie and have a good cry. Your secret’s safe with me.
Today was a different kind of work day. Oh, yes, there were cookies and royal icing. But I also had to get dressed in something other than frosting spattered yoga pants and a big T shirt. And wear make-up.
Today I had an interview with AOL Small Business for their “Entrepreneur Spotlight” feature. Not only did Lauren Drell conduct the interview, but she filmed it and did the lighting for it,too! Sort of the online version of me: baking, decorating and billing. Lauren is so good at what she does that I really couldn’t tell where the chitchat ended and the interview began! She even got me to say the ”F” word: ”FIFTY”!
As soon as it’s up and running, I’ll let you know.
Until then, happy baking!Read More »
I love food blogs. Writers sharing their personal experiences which have jogged food memories that culminate in well-crafted, stunningly photographed dishes. Oh, my….it’s a beautiful thing. To the unsuspecting reader, it appears to be a seamless, flawless, organic experience. As a newbie blogger, I too, want to share the best of what I do. You know, accentuate the ecstasy of what I do, while eliminating the agony.
Now, I may be new to blogosphere, but not new to cookie and cake design. I’ve been doing it long enough to have streamlined the process; rarely do I make too many more cookies than I need to sufficiently adorn the cake, and I can eyeball the correct amount of cookie dough and royal icing I’ll need for an order within grams! But this last project had me wanting to deploy my own JetBlue inflatable slide.
The request was butterfly cookies for a baby shower. Simple enough, right? And, I had a link to the invitation so I could see the artwork and get a feel for the aesthetic mood. A beautiful butterfly in its modern simplicity.
The striated pattern on the butterflies would translate so beautifully to my cookies. I could paint the stripes on with diluted food color, as shown in this excellent video. [insert screeching brake sound here] Wait a minute!!! I don’t do this! [insert cloudy vision of classroom] Damn you, 7th grade art teacher, Mrs. Christianson, for giving me that D in the first grading period. Damn you for paying more attention to the students who could draw and paint with what seemed to be the skill of Michaelangelo, while you scowled at my stick figures. With my confidence stymied, I put the cookies aside and procrastinated by doing a load or two of laundry.
When Jackie came home that evening, she sensed my hesitancy and pitched in to help. We practiced on paper and then took to the cookies. Here’s what we started with:
We practiced on paper til I decided it was high time to sacrifice some cookies. Here’s the melee that ensued:
Maybe paint, then drizzle? You know, for a more multi-dimensional look? Or maybe just drizzle?
Um. I don’t think so. No pressure here. Cookies are due in 36 hours. The sweat is now squirting from the top of my head, like in a ‘Cathy’ comic strip. ”I’m a sham/I’m no good/I’m a big, fat, failure” is the soundtrack that I’m listening to in my brain. And, I’m getting testy. Very. Testy.
This is the time to walk away. The sweating, the angst, the knots in the stomach aren’t going to give way to any kind of successful outcome. Go to the think tank (shower).
All this cookie really needed was a lighter touch. Dilute the food color a bit more, and lightly brush it on, overlapping the strokes every so often. Oh, and a crisp outline, too.
I never, ever would have shared this #cookiefail with anyone. But, I tweeted that I had about 7 reject cookies up for grabs. I had lots of takers, too. And, then, out of the mouth of a babe, otherwise known as Lauren, an incredibly talented, sweet and wise-beyond-her-years food blogger, tweeted back and said “Write a blog post about it!” With that one little sentence, no longer was I a loser, but a teacher. A giving, no-holds-barred teacher, willing to expose my own shortcomings in an effort to illustrate that without the occasional failure, we’re not challenged to move beyond our fears.
Do these look like failure to you?
Thank you, Lauren! Now, on to the pile of dishes in the sink that nobody blogs about either!Read More »
I am an unabashed lover of buttercream. The kind of soft, billowy buttercream that melts in my mouth and doesn’t leave some weird film on my teeth. Because if there’s buttercream, that usually means cake, and in turn, that means that someone’s celebrating something! And, that is one of my definitions of happy. In fact, I have a client whose 5 year old daughter thinks EVERY celebratory meal should end in buttercream frosted cake. No wonder I adore that child.
That said (you knew this was coming), I’m not talking about confectioner sugar buttercream. I don’t care for the fact that it crusts over after it’s been exposed to air. Blechhhhhh. You can’t use that kind of frosting and achieve a silky, smooth finish that you see on my cakes. I’m talking about ‘the other’ kind of buttercream.
Now, not to get all Harold McGee or Shirley Corriher on you, but, this buttercream is an emulsion. You know, like when you properly mix oil and vinegar together so it doesn’t separate and is one lovely consistency. That’s an emulsion. Buttercream’s the same thing. Except you’re going to slowly incorporate the butter into a meringue in such a way that it’s all absorbed and beautiful, and not looking like a gloppy mess of scrambled eggs. Ready? Let’s go to work:
First of all, there are three basic ingredients in this type of buttercream, known as Swiss Meringue: pasteurized egg whites, sugar and butter:
Swiss Meringue Buttercream
1 cup egg whites (7-8 large fresh eggs or use pasteurized whites like these)
1 cup (7 oz/200gms) granulated sugar*
1 lb. (454 gms) room temperature unsalted butter, cut into aprox. 1 inch pieces
You can increase this anyway you’d like, as long as the ratio is the same. A 5 qt. stand mixer bowl can easily take on double these amounts.
1. Combine egg whites and sugar in stand mixer bowl and whisk gently, yet continuously over a pan of simmering water. If you walk away, the egg will cook and you don’t want solid bits of egg in buttercream. Keep mixing until mixture has reached 140º, is warm to the touch and all the sugar has dissolved.
2. Place the mixing bowl on the mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Start on a low speed building up to full power as the meringue thickens. It won’t take too long, so keep an eye on it.
3. Check the meringue when you see whisk ‘trails’ in the mixture. We’re looking for a medium stiff peak, like this:
4. Now, attach your flat paddle, turn the mixer to low, and begin adding the butter. Slowly. 1 -2 pieces at a time, adding more only after each piece has been incorporated.
5. Continue slowly adding the butter til it’s all incorporated. The meringue will deflate. That’s to be expected. Keep the mixer speed on low so as not to incorporate too much air. Air bubbles will just take longer to smooth out on your cake and look like potholes. Not pretty.
6. By the time you’ve completed adding the butter, the mixture should look like buttercream. If it looks like cottage cheese, it just means your butter was too cold. Turn the speed up a bit and you’ll be rid of the lumps.
7. By now, you should have a big bowl of fluffy, gorgeous buttercream that you’re dying to run your finger through. Add a TBsp or so of vanilla extract or almond extract and mix thoroughly. If you’re adding food color, do it one or two drops at a time til you’ve achieved the desired color.
Congratulate yourself. You’ve made REAL buttercream.
You can store buttercream in the ‘fridge in a covered container for a good week, or in the freezer for about three months. When you take it out to use it, just paddle it out til nice and smooth.
Now, go make a cake or cupcakes and celebrate!
*Note: You can up the amount of sugar to 9 ounces (roughly 1/4 c) for a stiffer meringue, which will result in a sturdier buttercream.Read More »
By now you know that I am a cookie decorator. And I’ve even made a business of it. The cookies I create are designed to evoke an emotion, mimic an image or capture a moment. I’ve trained my brain to try to translate every object I see into its cookie equivalent, a bit like a foreign language interpreter goes from one language to another.
It is truly gratifying when my clients and their guests see the cookies I’ve created. They ooh & ahh, but, there’s one statement that gets me every time: ”It’s too pretty to eat. I’m going to save it.” People, my cookies are meant to be eaten and enjoyed. I’ve worked hard over the years to tweak the recipe until it’s the perfect balance of butter and sugar, with the right amount of salt, and the perfect blend of flours. Eat the cookie.
Sadly, I’m so busy baking and decorating during the day, I don’t blog as often as I’d like to. After standing in the kitchen for what can be 10+ hours a day, I’m just too exhausted to think straight, much less sit at the computer. But, I’m never too busy to tweet. I enjoy the lively 140 character repartee that commences between all of us. So, when Jennie and Kim invited me to meet Cathy and a group of food bloggers for dinner, I jumped at the chance. WOW, an evening with foodie folks who relish the conversation as much as the flavor of what they’re eating. Feeling a bit intimidated since I’m a newbie blogger, I decided to make party favors for this soiree. My plan was to deflect attention from my lack of posts, sponsors and subscribers by blinding them with clever cookie creativity. Thunderbolt idea moment: bloggers and their blogs! That’s how I’d honor these folks.
This wonderfully funny and smart group of people loved their cookies and welcomed me into the fold with open arms. Sure, they cook & write recipes (or not), but I wield a piping bag! Above all, I learned a valuable lesson. Food bloggers are people, too. They have their quirks, eccentricities, and Achilles’ heels. And, just like my clients, they all said, without fail, that the cookies were too pretty to eat. AARRGG!! EAT THE COOKIES!!
PS. This is what a happy cookie eater looks like. Right, Carol?Read More »