Thursday, May 18, 2017

Essential Cookie Decorating Tools

Over the years I have come to discover that decorating cookies with the right tools makes all the difference.  It doesn't take much to create beautifully-iced sugar cookies, but with a few must-have tools and equipment, the possibilities are endless.  I don't consider myself a professional when it comes to making these types of cookies, but having made thousands of them in the last decade, I think I can say that I am very familiar with the process.


Many of the tools that I have selected can be found at a well-supplied cake decorating store, and through various online sources.  In fact, if you have a favorite source for these handy tools, by all means stick with them.  Nothing here is hard to get, and everything, with the exception of the heavy-duty cake decorating turntable, is quite affordable.

Essential Cookie Decorating Tools List
  1. Baking Sheets (half-sheets)
  2. Cake Decorating Turntable 
  3. Cookie Spatula
  4. Small Offset Spatula
  5. 16" or 18" Disposable Pastry Bags & Squeeze Bottles
  6. Plastic Couplers for Piping Tips
  7. Piping Tips 
  8. Modeling Scriber's Tool or Toothpicks
  9. Tweezers
  10. Demitasse Spoons
  11. Food Coloring Pens
  12. Small Paint Brushes
  13. Gel Paste Food Coloring (Americolor is best)
  14. Meringue Powder
  15. Sanding Sugars
  16. Silver Dragées
Let's go through each of these items individually so that you understand how and why I use them.


  • Silver Drageés:  Having these in a variety of sizes helps create the most beautiful cookies.  They are my go-to embellishment whenever I want to make exquisite cookies for someone special.  I like them so much that I dedicated a post to them a while back.  Click here to read about these French candies.
  • Squeeze Bottles:  it's up to you as to whether you use pastry bags or squeeze bottles for cookie decorating.  Both are very effective and very easy to use.  If you buy squeeze bottles for this purpose, make sure that the necks of the bottles can fit the pastry couplers for the piping tips, otherwise you will have to use the nozzle that comes with the squeeze bottle. 
  • Plastic Couplers:  a must-have in every cookie decorator's kit. These allow you to use piping tips on your squeeze bottles or pastry bags.  Not only do they secure the tip onto the bottle or bag, they also allow you to quickly change tips if you need to.
  • Food Coloring Pens:  I like having these so that I can trace shapes onto an uniced cookie before I begin to outline and flood, but they're also great for working on dry icing.  Get fine-tip pens from either Wilton or Americolor.
  • Food Coloring Gels & Pastes:  I like to have a variety of colors from which to choose whenever I'm mixing icings.  The bottles by Americolor (large or small)  give more control in terms of amounts that you dispense.  You can add it by the drop, whereas if you use the Wilton pastes, you must dole those out very carefully with a toothpick or skewer.  I use both and think that they're great products.

Squeeze bottles come in several sizes.  The most versatile are the 2oz. and 8oz. bottles.  As you can see, the best ones to have are those which can fit the coupler & threaded nut.  Most come with plastic piping tips, but I find it better to use my own metal pastry tips.  The bottles can be filled with icing by either using a disposable pastry bag or in a pinch, a sandwich bag.  Make sure that these are cleaned with very hot soapy water after every use.



  • Meringue Powder:  making royal icing with meringue powder is simple.  I go through these containers very quickly, so I buy the largest ones I can get.  I've tried Ateco and Wilton throughout the years, and I have to say that I prefer Wilton.  The powder is the whitest available, which doesn't tint the final product.
  • Sanding Sugars:  you don't need to have a rainbow of colored sanding sugars to make great cookies, because clear sugars are just as effective.  Buy these in bulk and store them in jars in a cool, dry place.  Both coarse and fine sanding sugars are the ones I recommend getting.


  • Cookie Spatula:  you'll find yourself moving cookies around from countertop to baking sheet, so it's essential to have metal spatulas large enough to support the cut out cookies.  Get thin metal ones (above) made by Ateco.  They slide easily under delicate cookies.
  • Small Offset Spatula: small offset spatulas are great for moving small cookies, smoothing out icing on top of a cookie, or for removing stray bits of cookies from the side of a cut out.
  • Demitasse Spoons:  having a set of small spoons allows you to sprinkle sanding sugars, nonpareils and other small candies onto cookies.  Have several of these handy whenever you're decorating cookies.
  • Tweezers:  dedicate at least one set of tweezers for cookie decorating.  It makes for precise work of placing drageés and other delicate embellishments onto wet icing.  
  • Scriber's Tool (modeling tool): I finally bought myself a couple of scriber's tools for cookie decorating, and I can't tell you how happy I am.  Toothpicks and skewers work in a pinch, but scriber's tools are even better for moving royal icing around, popping bubbles in the icing, and for dragging icing for decorative effects.  
  • Fine Paint Brushes:  these are essential for removing stray sugar crystals, flakes of cookie or anything that you don't want on the cookies.  They're great for fanning out wet icing if you like the effect that creates, but they're also perfect for painting icings and colors onto cookies.  Get yourself several sizes of these at craft stores.
  • Baking Sheets (half-sheets): having at least 4 rimmed baking sheets allows a good amount of cookies to dry evenly in one single layer, and it makes transporting them from one area to another so much easier.  If space is limited, I stack the half sheets crisscrossed and let my iced cookies dry that way.  






  • Piping Tips:  buy a good amount of piping tips for cookie decorating and keep them stored in containers meant for this purpose.  Keep reading for more information.
  • Cake Decorating Turntable: this may not be something that you immediately associate with cookie decorating, but let me assure you that I am lost without my heavy, cast-iron cake decorating turntable.  I like to load up the large round with several cookies at a time while I apply the icing.  Being able to turn the top of the stand, gives me the ability to approach my cookie decorating from different angles.  It's an expensive item, but I highly recommend getting the Ateco 612 turntable, which has a cast-iron base.  
  • Disposable Pastry Bags:  If you decorate a lot of cookies, buy these in bulk.  Usually sold in rolls of 100 from baking supply stores, the most versatile to have on hand are the 16" or 18" bags. Having the larger bags makes loading them with icing a very easy task.  The bags can be trimmed down to smaller sizes with a pair of scissors.


  • Plain Round Piping Tips:  get at least 6 piping tips of each size, from the #1 tip all the way up to the #5 tip.  Buy yourself a small case to keep these organized.  Use them exclusively for royal icing and keep them separate from your tips used for buttercream icings. 


  • Decorating Piping Tips:  these tips are meant for cake decorating, but they are also great for cookie decorating.  Again, keep a separate set for royal icing work and label the container so that you know what's what.





As you can see, it doesn't take much to create beautiful cookies.  You can get by with a few of these items if you occasionally decorate sugar cookies, but if you find yourself turning this hobby into a passion, then I recommend adding everything I've described here.   The majority of these essential cookie decorating tools will last you a lifetime with proper care.  You will be thankful that you have the scriber's tool or the fine paint brushes, among other things, the next time you find yourself decorating sugar cookies for friends and family.

I've given you my ultimate cookie decorator's tools list and the reasons why I think they're wise to have.  Pick and choose what works best for you, and decorate cookies to your heart's desire.  

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Pratale Chianti Classico 2014


A very smooth Chianti Classico is what you'll get with Pratale's 2014 blend. Made in the Italian region of Tuscany, Chianti Classico wines are composed primarily from Sangiovese grapes.  Other varietals such as Mammalo, Colorino and Canaiolo, get added according to winemaking traditions.

The term 'classico' is used in certain landscape-specific regions in Italy, setting them apart from standard Italian wines.  In Chianti, the Classico labels will include the black cockerel symbol to designate it as DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita).  This DOCG designation is the highest classification that an Italian wine can get, ensuring that the product meets Italy's strictest guidelines.  These include: permitted grape varieties, ripeness, winemaking procedures and limits on yield.  What's more, bottles will have a numbered, government-issued seal around the neck to prevent counterfeiting. 



What I like about the Pratale Chianti Classico is that there are hints of ripe cherries and plums.  There is an all around balance of fruit and tannins to this medium-bodied, ruby-colored wine, which makes it palatable with red sauce pastas.  Try it with any dish that is mildly-spicy, and use your favorite wineglasses to enjoy a glass or two of it.  

Saluti!

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Enjoying Tea Every Day

The daily ritual of making time for tea is one that is enjoyed by billions of individuals worldwide.  There is something absolutely soothing, centering and meditative about putting the kettle on the stovetop, choosing which teapot and teacups to use for the purpose, and carefully measuring out the tea leaves.  I would feel lost if I didn't have my cup of restorative tea in the afternoons.  For me, it is the perfect pick-me-up beverage.


Many cultures around the world consume this beverage throughout the day, and here at home, we are no different.  In the mornings I prefer to have a pot of coffee with my breakfast, but my husband is partial to several cups of tea first thing, each day.  In the afternoons, however, tea is the beverage of choice, and if I'm lucky, I lay out a little something sweet to go with it.  

In my opinion, it's a good idea to serve tea in smaller cups, rather than large breakfast cups or mugs, because it minimizes the chances of the last sips of tea becoming cold.  There is nothing worse than tea that's gone cold. Moreover, one can extend the tea hour if there is more than one pouring.  My cat, Lion, thinks that it's a good idea too, because he gets to sit on the lap for "tea breaks".  I'm not kidding when I say that the moment he hears the kettle being put on the burner, and the teapot and cups getting placed on the table, he readies himself nearby to jump onto the lap as soon as we sit down and pour.

Loose leaf or tea bags?  We use both.  It's not beneath this household to have some of our favorite teas in premeasured tea bags.  In fact, for breakfast, it's nice not to have to measure out something in the wee hours of the morning. They're also great when you feel like having just one cup.  Some of our favorite brands that come in premeasured tea bags are from Taylors of Harrogate (Scottish Breakfast, Yorkshire Gold, Irish Breakfast), Barry's Tea, and Harney & Sons.

For loose leaf tea, which is the preferred way to make tea in the afternoons, we like to source them from reliable purveyors of fine teas, such as the English Tea StoreWilliams-SonomaMariage Frères, and The Head Nut.


Over the years, I have photographed a few of our teas here on the blog, usually as part of another blog post.  I thought it would be a good idea, however, to gather a few of my favorite ones from years past, and dedicate an entire post to the art of enjoying tea every single day.

As I was scouring my photographic library (I have close to 50,000 photos from the time I started blogging!), I was immediately taken down memory lane to some really good times.  It made me a bit sad, however, to find beautiful photographs of my cat, Ms. Kitty, who is no longer with us.  I was so glad to have the memories captured on film though, because I can always look back and remember.


One thing that made me smile while picking and choosing my photos, was how often I used my drabware.  I suppose it's because I not only like the earth tone of drabware (photo above), but because I love the shapes of the teacups and how comfortable they feel in the hand.  If you have these in your home then you know exactly what I'm talking about.

Honey & Flavored Sugars
Tea served using Wedgwood Queen's Ware.

Certain teas are greatly enhanced with a bit of local honey straight from the honey pot.  Usually I will pair green teas with honey, because they are delicate, but every once in a while I will add it to a cup of black tea.


This hollowed out lemon that was turned into a honeypot was an idea from Martha Stewart.  It's such an unusually charming way of serving honey at the table.  Try it the next time you're expecting to serve tea for dessert.


Do you make flavored sugars at home?  You should if you bake a lot or drink tea on a regular basis.  A spoonful of lemon sugar is superb with Earl Grey, an Irish Breakfast, Assam, and even some chamomile tea.  


Lavender sugar is a natural with herbal teas.  You don't need a lot of it to sweeten and perfume a delicate white tea, some hibiscus-infused tea, and even a straight-from-the-garden tisane.  

Cakes & Madeleines

Madeleines were made for serving with tea.  These delicate cakes are perfect two-bite sweets that don't need much, other than a nice cup of tea.  If you're serving them for a tea, count on having at least 3 madeleines per person.  You'd be amazed at how quickly they disappear when you present them on a platter.


The nice thing about madeleines is that they are so easy to make.  The moment they come out of the oven, the little cakelets can be turned out and served in time to pour that first cup.  The fresher the madeleines, the better!


Whenever I have layered cakes at a birthday party or a special luncheon, I like to brew several pots of tea to serve with it.  Those delicate porcelain cups are made by the French company, Apilco.


Do you see what I mean about Lion enjoying tea time?  This was probably one of the funniest moments we've had while company was over.  As soon as we sat down to have our cake and tea, Lion jumped onto my husband's lap and demanded to be held like a baby over the shoulder.  Silly!


You can see what I mean about the teacup shape of our drabware.  During the holidays, steamed puddings are absolutely delicious with tea.  I need to make more of them this year.


If I'm serving tea to several people, I make sure to have plenty of teaspoons, linen napkins, teapots, sugar bowls and creamers nearby.  It's a good idea to have the tea strainer over a waste bowl near the teapot(s) as well.


These delicate sterling silver forks are just right for wedges of spicy bundt cake.  The teacups are vintage pieces of Wedgwood Queen's Ware from the 1950s.

Cookies

If I had my way, I would serve cookies with tea every single day.  It isn't always the case that I have cookies in my kitchen, but when I do, you can best believe that I serve them with our tea.  Like madeleines, they are not fussy sweets to nibble on.


The delicate flavor and rich color of this hibiscus-infused tea is greatly enhanced with the right teacup.  Iced sugar cookies, however small, are always welcomed with a cup of tea.


I do like my Fire King restaurant ware jadeite cups for tea, but I have yet to find the perfect teapot to go with my collection.  I suppose it wasn't de rigueur back in the 1940s and 50s to serve tea in jadeite, but I think it's perfectly fine these days.


I'm not one to bake and ice sugar cookies, and not eat them when I get the chance.  This  Easter tea from several springs ago was set with Wedgwood drabware, and some of my vintage silverware.  I like how the tinted sugar cookie dough looks on the fruit saucers.  


Woodland bird cookies on jadeite:  what's not to love?  Sencha tea from Japan is among my favorites.


To my friend that hasn't tried matcha tea but wants to:  do it!  Serve the matcha on white bone china teacups like I do.  This tea is phenomenal!


I'm showing this photo to prove that even when I'm in a rush and working (hence the cookie cutters and food coloring markers in the background), I still have to have some tea.  I'm thinking of getting a Fiestaware teapot to go with the jadeite.  What do you all think?


If I have a free afternoon with nothing on the agenda, then I pamper myself. Some homemade cookies, freshly picked berries from the garden, and a pot of tea is just the thing to relax.  That, and a good book.


Perusing cookbooks while having tea is one of my favorite pastimes.


Gilded drabware is probably what gets used the most.  There is something so soothing about the oatmeal hue and the bands of gleaming 22K gold.  How could I resist those broomstick sugar cookies and that tempting pumpkin?


Here are some gingersnaps served on Japanese lustreware from several years ago.  




For those of you who understand the joys of having a cup or two of tea every single day, cheers!  If you aren't one to drink much tea, but would like to try adding it to your routine, I highly encourage you to experiment with several varieties and brands until you find what you like. Once you begin to discover the pleasures of having tea every day, you will find yourself looking forward to it.  It will become an essential part of the day that will nourish, sooth and center you.

Enjoy your tea every day.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Le 7 Torri Fiano di Avellino 2015

If you're in search of a good white wine to have this spring, look to this Southern Italian white by Le 7 Torri.  Made from the Fiano grapes in Campania and Basilicata, but also in certain areas of Sicily, Fiano di Avellino is an interesting varietal that is worth trying.

Its distinctively strong, yellow color hints at the honeyed and flower notes that are evident in this full-bodied wine.  Moreover, there is a slight tropical fruit flavor to the delicious Fiano, which makes it perfect to pair with many seafood and chicken dishes.  Think smoked salmon canapés, poached halibut, or even a nice piece of red snapper.  I'm even going to go so far as to suggest to pair the wine with Ina Garten's Mustard-Roasted Fish Recipe.  That recipe is delicious!



Don't forget pasta dishes, such as linguine with clams or even garlic and olive oil pasta.  Tasty!  Enjoy a chilled glass or two of Le 7 Torri this week.

Cheers!