Monday, May 2, 2016

Spring is Here

Spring is here and I am happy about it because it means warmer weather, verdant foliage, and an abundance of furry and feathered critters.  The past few days in this part of the country have been a bit on the gloomy and damp side, but otherwise we've been enjoying stretches of sunny days with wonderful temperatures.

As busy as we all are, it's a good idea to take a moment or two to go outdoors and observe what is around us this time of year.  The dogwoods are in full bloom right now.  The crabapple trees are fragrant and ever so pretty with their abundant flowers.  The squirrels, robins and even the occasional groundhogs or foxes have decided to make their presence felt throughout the landscape.

On one of my recent walks I took a few photographs and even a short video of the kinds of things happening around our home.  It's been somewhat of a tradition to have a 'spring has sprung' post here on the blog, so this is it!

Whenever I am standing in this spot on the field, I have to pause and take a look.  I also like to listen to what is happening around the area.  You can see birds, deer, bees and countless insects from this vantage point.  

Turning to my right I can see the barn and the trees which surround it.  A small flowering dogwood is among the first to bloom.  It's beautiful.

If I decide to take a stroll down this way I will come upon even more majestic dogwoods.  At the moment everything looks tame and somewhat subdued, but come summer, the meadow will be buzzing with activity and the grass will be thick and abundant.

You can see the row of dogwoods on the horizon, next to the apple trees. Those white poles are part of the afforestation objective.  It will be decades before those trees become large enough to block the view, but it's something which will benefit the field for generations to come.

Here I am standing next to some newly-planted trees.  I love the view from here.

Looking down toward where I originally started my walk, you can still make out the barn.  In a few months when the grass is allowed to grow quite tall and thick, I won't be able to see the stone structure from this area.

Do you have flowering crabapple trees in your yard?  There is something so alluring about crabapple trees this time of year.  Not only are the flowers absolutely gorgeous to look at up close, but their scent is something else.

I wish you could smell these fragrant flowers.  In a few seasons the trees will be laden with lots of tiny fruit.   

You have no idea how happy I am that we now have black squirrels in the area. I had only encountered these in a neighboring town whenever I happened to be near the train station.  This year we seem to have been bestowed with their charming presence.  We always look out for them from our windows and on this day, I was fast enough with the camera to take these photos.

Here it is digging for something to eat.

Success!  The black squirrel found a small nut which it quickly devoured on the spot.

I'm a big sucker for groundhogs.  It isn't officially spring until we see one of the resident groundhogs out and about.  We've named this cutie, 'Henrietta'. She is always focused on eating the best greens near a hill, but she seems to be quite the explorer.  We've caught her near a small gully which runs alongside the driveway.  I wish we could just pick her up and hug her.

Here's a short video of her eating.


Little Henrietta loves to take short, quick nibbles of grass and other greens. With her stubby legs and waddling gait, she moves with purpose and determination.  Isn't she adorable?

OK, there is no excuse for you to be indoors right now.  Go out and take a walk in a park or simply sit out on your yard to enjoy the view.  You never know what you're going to find scampering on your lawn.  Spring and Fall are my favorite seasons of the year, and you can bet that as busy as I am, I will make it my mission to take longer walks so that I too can enjoy the changes in the landscape.  

I hope all of you are having a fantastic start to spring!

Monday, April 25, 2016

How to Package and Ship Decorated Sugar Cookies

Shipping fragile sugar cookies that are decorated with royal icing require special care.  These types of cookies get baked on a monthly basis at my home, and more often than not, they are shipped throughout the United States to friends, family and clients.  I try my best to ensure that the treats arrive in one piece because it would be a waste of my time, material, expertise and money if I were to be neglectful in their packaging.

What I've learned throughout the years of mailing out hundreds upon hundreds of cookies is that you must have a sturdy box, lots of packing peanuts, small-bubble bubble wrap and perhaps some cardboard cut outs to use for layering.

Moreover, the sugar cookies themselves must be rolled out to a thickness of a solid 1/4" to give them the firmness required for shipping.  Anything thinner will have a greater chance of breaking into small pieces or snapping in half.

Learn from these tips so that your works of edible art arrive at their destination in one piece.  I guarantee that you will have peace of mind as the cookie decorator if you follow these simple steps, and that the recipient(s) of the cookies will appreciate the care you took in making sure that they arrived safely.

If truth be told, I can't remember the last time one of my cookies arrived broken.

My preferred way to package up cookies for gift giving is to place cookies in cellophane bags tied with colorful ribbons or natural twine.  However, if you are keen on those clear-topped boxes that you assemble and line with crinkle paper, even better.  The best types of cookie shapes to place in clear cellophane bags are squares, rounds, hearts, rectangles or flowers.  Any other shapes which have delicate edges or extended areas, such as the spout on the watering can above, need to have support underneath so that the details don't snap off. I like to use stiff cardstock that's approximately the same size as the cookie. The cellophane bag gets lined with the piece of cardstock, and then I carefully place the cookie on top of that.  Easy!

Note:  extra large cookies, like those cut out and baked with the large Martha by Mail cookie cutters need even more support to keep them in one piece. I've found that thick posterboard cut to size is the best way to keep them from breaking.  You will need very large cellophane bags to accommodate both the board and the cookie.   

Once your decorated cookies have been packaged up in cellophane bags and tied securely, cut out as many 12" squares of bubblewrap as you have cookies.  It's time to create cookie bundles!

A. Place the cookie in the middle of the bubble wrap, bubble-side up.  
B. Fold the bottom portion of the bubble wrap over the cookie and secure the ends with some scotch tape.
C. Fold both sides of the bundle toward the center and secure each with some scotch tape.
D. Your cookie should be a tight fitting bundle securely wrapped and taped.  Continue wrapping and taping all of your cookies.

This is the back side of a wrapped cookie bundle.  

You can also wrap a cookie by shifting the square of bubble wrap so that it's at an angle.

The goal is to make sure that each cookie has enough padding around the front and back.

Your shipping box should be a heavy duty box that will withstand the rigors of transportation.  Find one that suits the number of cookies you intend to ship. It's up to you whether you want a square box or a rectangular box.  The former is great for smaller amounts and the latter is perfect for larger quantities or cookies that need extra padding.

  • Line the bottom of the box with a flat layer of packing peanuts. Don't leave any peaks or mounds of packing peanuts for this bottom layer.  
  • Add a layer of bubble wrap. 

  • It's wise to line the walls of the box with bubblewrap to give the sides extra padding.  I take a roll of bubble wrap and simply drop two long strips overlapping each other crosswise (much like lining a baking pan with parchment when making brownies).
  • Add a cardboard cutout at the bottom and begin to add cookie bundles. 
  • Keep the cookies flat along the cardboard cutout and fit as many as you can without forcing the cookies.  
  • Add packing peanuts to fill in any gaps, especially around the edges of the box.
  • Lay another piece of bubble wrap, then a cardboard cutout, and repeat the layering process.

Here is a diagram of what the layered box should look like when it's finished. Starting from the bottom and assembling the box until it's filled, the finished package should be a series of secured layers.  

The upper layers should really be nothing but bubble wrap and packing peanuts (and a note or card!).  You want to have enough packing material so that nothing is shifting.  When you close the box, before taping it shut, give it a few small shakes.  Is anything moving inside?  Do you hear cookies sliding?  If you do, find out where the problem is and secure it.  If you don't hear a peep out of those cookies, then it's safe to tape shut.

I never like to skimp on packing material whenever I send cookies through the mail.  Whether it's bubble wrap, packing peanuts, packing tape or boxes, I like to have plenty of them.  Adding a few stickers that say 'Fragile' helps, but so does a clearly written or typed address label.  The box itself should be taped with clear packing tape and it really should be mailed out the quickest way possible.  Personally, I've had a really good success rate sending everything USPS Priority Mail with tracking and delivery confirmation.  If you're selling these to a client, make sure to insure the package as well.

My wish is that this small tutorial helps you and gives you the confidence to send those beautifully iced sugar cookies to as many individuals as possible. It's great to hear from family members, friends and customers when everything arrives in one piece.

Happy baking and happy cookie decorating!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Garden Party Sugar Cookies

Bright, colorful sugar cookies inspired by the garden take on such a charming appeal when you make several shapes.  Last year I made a set of cookies for a dear friend who is an avid gardener, and this year, I was asked to recreate the shapes using a variety of cheerful colors.  With flowers, ladybugs, watering cans and garden sheds, you can easily plan an outdoor party or an open house, and have decorated sugar cookies for guests.

This particular set of cookies were cut out with a variety of cookie cutters from my collection.  The flowers and watering can were part of a set from Macy's under the Martha Stewart Collection brand, the ladybug was from the Martha by Mail Beautiful Bug Cookie Cutters Set, and the garden shed is the Birdhouse Cookie Cutter by Coppergifts.  With a range of colors of royal icing, the cookie designs can be iced with a minimum of effort.

Chances are that you've encountered a ladybug or two, or more, while out in the garden.  These beneficial and useful beetles which feast on garden pests such as aphids, can quickly be made into decorated sugar cookies if you follow a simple design.  Their bright red or orange color, and black accents, are easy to mimic in cookie form.

Cut out the ladybugs using your cookie cutter and outline and flood an oval head in black royal icing using a #3 plain piping tip. Outline and flood a triangle toward the bottom of the cookie to designate the parting of its wings.  

Note: that tiny tool in the center of my rotating cake stand is the mini screwdriver from an eyeglass repair kit.  Look for them at the check out of your local grocery store and buy one to have just for cookie decorating.  This helpful tool will make it easy to create accents in your royal icing or pop out air bubbles.

Outline and flood the wings of the ladybugs in either red or bright orange royal icing using a #3 plain piping tip.  While the icing is wet, add dots along each wing.  Let dry completely.

Once the icing has dried, pipe two small dots for eyes and small antennae along the sides.  Done!

The garden sheds are also quite simple.

Outline and flood the roofline in white royal icing using a #3 piping tip. Outline and flood a doorway in either bright yellow or turquoise royal icing using a #3 piping tip.  Outline and flood the facade of the garden shed in a contrasting color using a #3 piping tip.  

Let the bases dry completely before continuing.  I love how these colors pop with hints of spring.

Add a trellised siding underneath the roofline using white icing and a #2 piping tip.  Add an outline to the doorway in white royal icing using a #2 piping tip and add a dot for a door handle.  Outline the roofline with white royal icing using a #2 piping tip.  For the pot of flowers, pipe a small pot shape using light green royal icing and pipe small dots in yellow and orange to mimic flowers.  Let this dry completely.

For the watering cans, outline and flood the spouts and handles using turquoise royal icing and a #3 piping tip.  Let this dry.  Outline and flood the rest of the watering can in light green royal icing using a #4 piping tip.  Let the bases dry completely.  

Outline the handles and spouts using the same turquoise royal icing and a #2 piping tip.  With a #2 piping tip and some white royal icing, add stripes at the base of the watering can and across the lid.  Pipe a flower in the center of the can using simple dots.  Pipe three dots at the head of the spout and dots along the handle.  Let these dry.

The flowers are very, very easy.  Outline and flood the bases in any color, such as bright orange and white, and let them dry.  Using a contrasting color, pipe the outlines of the petals and add dots where you see fit.  

A color palette like this very appropriate for spring.  Choose colors that are exuberant and happy.  Spring is all about color and about being outdoors in the garden, planting, pruning, sprucing up and planning for the months to come.     

Bake and ice some garden party sugar cookies to get you in the mood for entertaining outdoors this season.  Display the cookies on a dessert table atop cake stands or platters, and have cellophane bags at the ready for anyone who wants to take them home.  If you want to make some for a bake sale or for a shop to sell, carefully place them in cellophane bags and tie them with some natural garden twine or some green raffia.  These cookies aren't going to last very long because everyone is going to want them.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

'The Little Red Hen' Sugar Cookies

'The Little Red Hen' is a familiar children's book published by Little Golden Books, and many kindergarteners are taught the virtue of work ethic through its story line.  Told from the perspective of the little red hen and her barnyard friends, the book is a classic and a favorite with kids.

I was recently asked to make a set of cookies for a classroom that was putting on a production of 'The Little Red Hen'.  The cookies were given out as a reward to every single child that participated in this stage performance.  Let me assure you, they were a hit!

Keeping the sugar cookies to two shapes and only five colors, I baked and iced chickens as well as pigs for the children.

  Do you remember this book from childhood?  

I cut out large pigs using a cookie cutter from Copper Gifts and used a rooster cookie cutter that I got from my friend, Janet.  She told me that she discovered this little rooster at a specialty kitchenwares store in Carmel, California.  It's really charming and makes beautiful cookies.

As you've seen me do countless times, prepare to ice the cut out pig cookies by placing them on a decorator's turntable.  Why do I like working this way?  It's because I like to rotate the cookies while decorating; it helps me maneuver certain angles with the piping bag much more easily.  The bamboo toothpick is there to help me coax the icing into corners and to poke out any air bubbles from the icing.

Outline and flood the pigs using a #4 or #5 plain round tip with bright pink royal icing, and let the base coats dry completely.

Using a little bit of fuchsia-colored royal icing for the accents and a #2 plain round piping tip, pipe a circle for a nose, a partial triangle for ears, two beads of icing for the cloven hooves, and a curly pig tail.  Using a #1 piping tip, add a black dot for an eye.  Let dry completely.

The 'little red hens' are outlined and flooded in red royal icing using a #4 piping tip.  This is left to dy.  Using a #2 piping tip and the same color (simply switch piping tips), pipe tail feathers and an outline for the wing as shown. Using a #1 piping tip and black royal icing, pipe a dot for an eye and three-pointed feet and legs.  Using a #1 piping tip and yellow royal icing, pipe a small beak.  Let dry completely.

My neighbor Cathy tells me that these cookies were a big success with the kindergarteners and teachers.  As a cookie decorator, you don't need to wait for a production of 'The Little Red Hen' at a local elementary school to make these simple cookies.  Ice some for a family reunion, a spring or summer cookout with friends, or make them to sell at a local farmers market.  You can also make some to surprise any neighbors or individuals who have a farm and practice animal husbandry.

Don't shy away from using bright colors like these, because they really will stand out and catch people's attention.

Happy Cookie Decorating!