It began, as it always does, with a simple email from this client.
“You up for Sacred Heart of Jesus cookies?”
“You bet I am! What’s a Sacred Heart of Jesus?”
A few links later, I said yes, and I was off googling Sacred Hearts. The religious significance didn’t really matter. But the powerful image of that burning heart with the thorny vine around it, dripping blood ,that not only spoke to the cookie decorator in me, but to my childhood.
When I was 11 years old, I announced to my parents that when I grew up I would become a Roman Catholic, then take my vows to become Sister Mary Stewart. While it wasn’t “The Flying Nun” who inspired me, she didn’t exactly squash my desire, either. It was more likely the little girls on my block who I played with almost every day after school. Kathleen and Maura wore fabulous (in my mind) plaid uniforms to their parochial schools. They went to catechism, which I thought would be much more fun than Hebrew school. They were from big families that grew bigger each year, and I was so jealous that I begged and pleaded with my mother to have another baby (preferably a girl). These girls had rosaries. I wanted a rosary. They had pictures of Jesus, and Pope Paul XI and John F. Kennedy lined up on their walls. We didn’t have religious people or presidents on our walls, but my Bible stories book had an illustration of Moses with long eyebrows that pointed up to the sky. He wasn’t nearly as young and beautiful as Jesus. I wanted no part of him. Through not fault of its own, Judiasm just couldn’t hold a candle to everything that sparkled so brightly in the Catholic church. Judiasm just didn’t have enough glamour.
My mother tried to dissuade me. She told me to read Kathryn Hulme’s “The Nun’s Story”. For some reason, the melodramatic story of the life-altering choice Sister Luke had to make enthralled me, and the idea of cropping or shaving off my hair and wearing the habit, taking communion, doing penance and, of course, entering the confessional booth assured me that my decision was the right one. Religious teachings never entered my mind. I was pretty sure I could get on board with anything they asked of me.
I never converted, much less enter the convent. But, there’s still a huge streak of curiosity in me. I can’t tour a European church without first looking for the confessional booth. On our first visit to Rome, I found this shop right near our hotel. A papal conclave? I’m glued to the TV looking for the white smoke.
And, not so long ago, Tonya gave me the honor of making the cake for her daughter’s first holy communion.
And now, these beautiful Sacred Hearts of Jesus.
1 heart cutter
1 teardrop cutter
No. 2 & 3 decorating tips
15-20 second icings in red, pale yellow, yellow-orange, orange, darker red
brown and black stiff or piping icing
Start with a heart cookie and an appropriately sized tear drop cookie.
Cut the teardrop with the heart cutter so the two can fit together.
Fit the cut tear drop into the top of the heart and bake as you normally would.
First, fill the hearts. These are a very ‘healthy’ sized cookie, so I outlined first, filled one half of the heart, then the other.
I don’t play golf. I don’t putt. I don’t drive balls or carts.
And, I certainly don’t watch golf, although I do get a chuckle out of hearing the analysts whisper their comments to the television viewing audience. I don’t listen to what they say, I just hear the whispering and wonder if they really think the players will be distracted if they speak normally, or scream when a player gets a bogey or an eagle.*
So, it’s not surprising, when golf is an element on the list for a biography cake (yes, I’m still bellyaching about that), that I take matters into my own hands, and twist it all up so that (a) the outcome is unexpected and (b) I’m entertained.
There are only so many cookies 8 inch and 6 inch round cakes can hold, no matter what the theme or subject matter is. On a biography cake, I start by assuming that all the elements are of equal priority, otherwise, they wouldn’t be on the list to make it to the cake. Then, how do I transform something into a cookie that will hold its own with the other cookies and tell the story, hieroglyphically speaking?
Back to golf. Golf clubs are problematic in that their handles are very thin. A cookie golf club is a cookie that’s destined to break easily. Balls are round and one dimensional.
And, don’t forget, the age of the birthday person is always depicted on the cake, too. If ever I needed a cookie caddy, it’s now. I do what I always do when I can’t think, when I’m failing, when I’m considering returning the deposit check. I search images and print them.
Suddenly, it dawns on me, and I figure out my way out of this sandtrap.
One set of cookies with two meanings aced it, don’t you think?
* I have no idea what these terms mean.Read More »
will may make me very unpopular with those of you planning birthday cakes in the near future, but I’m willing to take that chance. Biography cakes give me a headache.
You know what biography cakes are, right? Cakes that are festooned with the birthday person’s favorite things in world, regardless of the fact that one image, invariably, has nothing whatsoever to do with any of the others. No connecting thread whatsoever, be it color, vegetable, animal or mineral. Oh, it’s wonderful for he or she who is being celebrated by all the friends and family familiar with what all the inside quirks and jokes. I’d probably love it, too, if I walked into a dark room suddenly coming alive with light and friends popping up screaming “SURPRISE”, and seeing a big cake celebrating me and my disdain for broccoli, my love of certain show tunes,tap dancing and, of course, Mitzi.
But for now, my eyes are crossed and are glazing over as I study this list before me. The beads of sweat spring up on my upper lip because my need for symmetry is not just being thwarted, but smashed to smithereens, and that makes me anxious, very anxious. Oh, the colors I’ll have to make, so many colors that aren’t a scheme or a palate, just colors. The joy I normally feel for my job is being sucked out of me before I even turn on the mixer.
I am not happy. There’s nothing here to keep me entertained for the time I have to invest in this project. And, if Mama ain’t entertained, NOBODY’S entertained.
And then, like a breakthrough after years in therapy, I look at my page of notes and have a breakthrough.
That’s right. Lobster roll. Apparently, the birthday boy is crazy about lobster rolls. What took me so long to think of this? I couldn’t see the rebus word puzzle right in front of my nose because I was so paralyzed with fear over how to make a cookie look like that iconic seafood salad in a buttered bun not look like sushi or something worse.
And so simple to do, too. With so many different ideas to get onto one cake, each cookie can’t be too detailed or involved, or else the party will be over with by the time I finish everything I need to do for this cake.
So, I found a nice image of a lobster and scaled it down to a size that would work on the cake. I cut it out and sketched what I think a hot dog bun would look with this lobster sunk into its middle. The cookie was cut and baked. With some red royal icing in a squeeze bottle fit with a No. 2 tip, and my rendering stuffed into my projector*, I started the cookie.
After a couple of hours drying time, I outlined the ‘roll’ with ivory icing, then filled the rest of the roll in with a toasty brown hot dog bun color.
After all that dried, I added a few lobstery details, such as the black outlining and a few ‘grilled bun marks’. These cookies are small and I want to make sure people can see them without having to nose up to the cake to figure out what they are.
Are they perfect? No, but they’ll make their point perfectly when they make this birthday boy and his guests smile.
*You didn’t think I was going to freehand this, I hope.
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The phone rang at about 6:45 pm on Monday night. I answered and heard a sweet, young woman’s voice asking if I could bang out a few cookies with a particular phrase on them. They didn’t have to be fancy; just a square or round cookie would do. And only 1 dozen were needed to be shipped out on Wednesday.
Normal cookie decorators would have said “fine”, and that would have been that. But, I’m not normal.
My hands were more than quite full at the time she called. I couldn’t concentrate on what I was doing and focus on our conversation, so I kept on talking to stall for time.
Me: “Hmmm. What’s the occasion for these cookies?”
Client: ”Our product beat the number one product in sales last week and we’re totally pumped about it.”
Me: ”Well, that IS something to celebrate! What’s your product?”
Before I knew it, I was talking about perfume bottle shapes and fonts and luster dusting. Something a little cartoon-y, a little more special than just a generic cookie shape with a congratulatory phrase on it. Something that the recipients would remember, the client and I would both remember. Something that would be more than a cookie-cutter-off-the-shelf product.
As I’ve said here before, I’m no genius. But by taking just a minute or two to shift my imagination into a higher gear, I designed a product that was particular to the client. Now when that client thinks about another gift of cookies, they’ll remember me every time they want to laud a sales performance, a special birthday, or for no particular reason at all.
So when I say I’m not a normal cookie decorator, I mean it.
And, incidentally, that translates to a bottom line that’s a bit more than normal, too.
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A dreary Sunday afternoon is a perfect time for me to begin thinking about the work week. So, after checking on the dwindling supply of cookie dough that’s always in my freezer, I decided to get a jump on my projects by preparing a few batches of dough. And, in order to make room for the fresh sheets of dough that I like to work with, I removed the pieces of parchment that sandwiched the already twice rolled dough that was ready for retirement.
Ordinarily, I bake these scraps off until they’re just a couple of shades of dark brown away from burned. My nose tells me exactly when that is, because the nutty aroma of browned butter reminds me to take these scraps out of the oven. The scraps get broken up and are stored in the freezer as a bakers’ treat.
But, since I’m trying to be more conscious about what I snack on now, I’m not doing that for a while. And you don’t have to, either.
Breathe some new life into that over-rolled, tired dough by working it into your fresh batch of dough. Through some sort of scientific magic, new dough obliterates whatever gluten has been built up in the re-rolled dough, thereby softening the dough and increasing the new batch’s yield of tender cookies. Be careful not to overload your new dough with too much old dough, or you’ll defeat the whole purpose of this trick. The old dough shouldn’t be more than about 1/4th of the weight of the new dough. You don’t have to be too exact…I just try to eyeball it. Add the old (defrosted) dough to the new dough that’s almost completely mixed and give it a few spins around in the mixer so the two generations become one. Then it’s roll, freeze, cut and bake.
And if cookies are your bread n’ butter like they’re mine, your waistline will be doubly grateful that you’re not eating into the profits.Read More »
Do any of you have this issue? You have an order for 100 cookies. Half are one color, half another. Dough is made, cookies are baked, no problem. Leftover dough in the freezer is never a problem because there are always cookies to bake.
Then it’s time to make the icing. And, if you’re anything like me, you run short just about mid-to-end of the project. So you have to remix and match that color. And it never does match exactly, does it?
So, the question is, how do you determine exactly how much royal icing it will take to ice those cookies? Especially if these are colors that won’t be used for another project?
Here’s how I do it. Get out your scale, a piece of paper & a pencil and, if you’re anything like me, a calculator.
1. Begin by making some royal icing.
2. Weigh an empty squeeze bottle (assuming that’s what you use to flood your cookies).
3. Fill the bottle and weigh it.
Yes, I know it’s a 2 ounce bottle, but as you can see, I fill it to the tippy-top. Subtract the weight of the empty bottle from the full bottle’s weight and presto! In this instance, the bottle hold 3 ounces.
4. Now, flood a cookie. One will do just fine, because it’s only a sample. If you’re like me, you’ll scrape this cookie because you’re cocky and forget to make extras.
5. Weight the bottle once you’ve flooded the cookie.
6. Subtract the amount left in the bottle from the full bottle’s weight. In this instance I converted the fraction to a decimal, so 2.625 is subtracted from 3.375. Answer: .75 or 3/4 of an ounce of royal covered the cookie.
7. Multiply that .75 by the number of cookies you need to flood, in this case, 100. 75 ounces of is what I’ll need to make 2 colors for this order.
It’s easy now. I make more icing, weigh out about 40 ounces (to account for mistakes that must be scraped), for each color and there I have it! I don’t have to worry about having too little of a color, or too much of a color. It’s just right.
How do you figure out how much icing you’ll need? Do you have a foolproof method that’s even easier than this one? I’d love to hear from you.
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Sometimes an idea seems so simple and so obvious to me, that I just assume everyone knows the same trick.
And that’s why this post has been collecting dust in my draft pile for months.
But last night, when I got an urgent DM from Cathy, I decided it might be time to edit and push publish.
If the woman who butchers, cures, preserves and cooks doesn’t know this trick, then maybe you don’t either? Especially when you’re in full Thanksgiving mode and like me, you’re making this seductive, 3 layer temptress, created by the pastry wunderkind, Stella.
No need for pencils, crayons or compasses, or rulers. No math formulas either. And by all means, no need to stockpile precut parchment circles in all sorts of sizes that you may or may not use.
Start with your cake pan, a pair of scissors, a sharp knife and a piece of parchment paper.
Fold the parchment in half lengthwise and slice it in two with your knife.
From the rectangle you’re going to fold one corner up to meet the top of the parchment sheets and form a sharp angle. (Layer both sheets and do cut two at once for additional time saving.)
Now, fold that rectangular piece of paper over the triangle and make a sharp crease.
Again, use your knife and slice through that excess flap.
Now, begin folding that triangle as though you were making a paper airplane.
After all the fold have been made, place the point of this folded paper at the center of the upturned pan.
Grab the scissors and cut the excess edge away, following the curve of your pan.
Now, unfold the triangle into the perfect circle and try it on for size. Give it a trim if it’s still a little too large.
The next thing you know, you’ll be making origami birds and grasshoppers.
But for now, go make cake.
Happy Thanksgiving!Read More »
The other day, finding myself in a bit of a pinch, I ran over to the cake decorating supply store on 22nd Street. It’s the store where all the pastry chefs, cake decorators, culinary school students and confectionary geeks resign themselves to going to at one time or another. It’s different from all other supply houses in the area in that in addition to selling every baking pan, tool and gizmo available on the market, they also sell edibles, like chocolate, cocoa powder, and fondant. And, their legendary service is fodder for urban folklore.*
As I maneuvered around the young mother intently studying the menu of available edible cartoon images for the top of a cake, I overheard two ladies asking about a particular cakebox that the store didn’t carry. Panic set in. ”OH NO! What will we do? How will we carry the cake?” Before I could even think, I heard the sound of my own voice. ”How big is the cake? How big is the base?” In a few sentences accompanied by sweeping arm gestures usually reserved for a rousing game of Charades, I described to these damsels in distress how to transform the boxes they already owned into one tent-like covering that would shelter the cake during its transport to its final destination.
As I explained the process, I watched the panic on their faces melt away, quickly replaced by relieved smiles. ”Thank you so much”, cooed the younger of the two women. ”You should be online”, said the other lady. I returned the smile, turned away and thought YES! BLOG POST!
If I could help these ladies with their packing dilemma, surely this post will help you, too, right?
Begin with 2 cake boxes the same size as your cake base. 10 inch base? 10 inch cake box. Grab a pair of scissors, too. And, have a roll of cellophane tape handy for sealing the sides as you’re finishing.
Line one box inside the other and cut off the front flaps of both boxes. I save these flaps to work out templates, as well as a bridge for the occasional gap on the finished top of the box.
Separate the two boxes and face them toward each other, their newly cut sides fitting one over the other. I’ve folded one of the box tops down, so I’m not showing a sea of muddy brown.
Turn the box around so you can identify the tabs on the side panels of the box. Insert them into their corresponding slots. Do one side only. You’ll want the other side open so you can slide the cake into the box easily.
You should now have something that resembles this:
Now with that one open side, you can slide your cake right into its temporary home. Yes, it’s a Halloween cake. And, yes, that’s how long I’ve been sitting on this post.
Once the cake is pushed inside the box as far as it can go (See why it’s always good to have a cake base larger than your actual cake? The base behaves like a protective bumper.), you can start closing up the box by inserting the two remaining tabs into their respective slots.
It’s beginning to look like a tent, right?
Now take those big flaps and bring them up together to form the pitched roof of the tent.
Fold the side flaps down and adjust them so the cake is fully shielded, but not so close that the box touches or rests upon the cake. Use a bit of cellophane tape to hold them in place. Swivel the box around and repeat on the other side.
You should have something that looks like this. A tent!!!
There. Snug as a bug in a rug.
Commandeering potholes along the way, of course, is another story entirely.
*Legendary is yours to define.
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Call ‘them’ whatever you like, royal icing plaques or run outs are a decorated cookie’s perfect confectionary accessory. They can add dimension to a cookie’s surface, as well as artistic accuracy. And, we’ve all seen many wonderful tutorials instructing us how to create these masterpieces. Let’s face it, making them is so much fun.
Removing them is another story, the story no one really takes the time to describe. The instructions in many of these tutorials say, “peel carefully from the parchment paper”. While that’s absolutely correct, if you haven’t played with this technique, more of your hard work will lie broken into bits and you’ll curse and shake your fists in the air, as you vow silently to yourself that you will never make another cookie as long as you live.
Frankly, I take all this for granted since I learned this trick in culinary school. Until my college roommate (and budding cookie decorator) Debbie messaged me asking just how to go about unsticking these plaques from the parchment, I didn’t give it much thought. But, as I tried to succinctly answer her with the instructions, I thought…”BINGO…BLOG POST!”
So, I printed out a big Times Roman “G” and used some leftover royal icing to pipe out a few on parchment. Then, I resurrected my Flip video camera and got J to video my hands in action.
Nothing to fear here. Just make sure you let your creations dry for at least 8 hours before attempting to remove. Find a flat, smooth surface with a 90 degree edge on it so you can pull the parchment as easily as I have. Gather the released plaques and put them aside so you don’t scatter them hither and yon while you’re doing your victory lap around the kitchen.
And, say thanks to Debbie for giving me a great idea for a blog post.
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Right now, I should be cutting out cookies, lots of cookies. But right now, this helpful hint needs to be shared. Frankly, it’s the kind of tip I would never have thought to share, mostly because I assumed everyone already knew about it, like my shpritz bottle tip. We all know what happens when one assumes something.
If you’re like me, you collect a lot of metal cookie cutters. And, invariably, affixed to the cutter is a sticker coated with enough adhesive on the back to keep it secured for the next 200 years. Great for SKU reading devices, but a nuisance for the person actually putting the cutter to its proper use.
If you just peel the cutter away, you’re left with an impossible to clean residue, and probably some leftover pieces of the sticker that refuse to budge.
Well, I have a simple, chemical-free solution to this little annoyance: your hair dryer. It’s simple, it’s fast and it works.
See the little Eiffel Tower cutter in the photo? That’s today’s culprit.
Turn the hairdryer on to the highest and hottest setting and point toward the sticker. If you’re holding the cutter between your fingers, beware….that metal can get very hot, very quickly. Here the cord of the hairdryer is being used to steady the cutter.
Point the dryer’s hot airstream directly on the label for about a minute or more. Sometimes the label will darken, but not always. Turn off the dryer and test an edge to see if the label lifts easily.
This is perfect. It’s lifting without tugging, and there’s no glue-y residue.
Now, just wash your cutter in hot, soapy water, dry thoroughly and start cutting out cookies!
Just like I am going to do now.
Many thanks to Cookie Cutter Company for the adorable Eiffel Tower cutter!
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