Saturday, June 28, 2014

Perfect Royal Icing

The Perfect Royal Icing is finally yours.  For those of you who bake and ice cookies throughout the year or bake and ice festive cakes with highly decorative work, having a good, reliable royal icing is absolutely essential. Everyone wants their royal icing to pipe well, flow beautifully and finish off with a smooth surface.  Moreover, the perfect royal icing has to taste as good as it looks and it has to be easy to remember so that one can whip a batch at a moment's notice.

Over the years I have tried many recipes from various sources, but not until now have I actually approached coming up with one of my own.  What I did was what any responsible recipe developer normally does.  They study sources and then experiment in the kitchen until the recipe is to his or her specifications and perfect.  In my pursuit of the perfect royal icing I turned to those trusted sources from my personal cookbook library, remembering which recipes I had tried and loved.

Bo Friberg’s ‘The Professional Pastry Chef’, The Culinary Institute’s ‘Baking at Home’, Le Cordon Bleu’s ‘Professional Baking 3rd Edition’, Larousse Gastronomique, Anne Willan’s ‘La Varenne Pratique’, Lisa Yockelson’s ‘Baking by Flavor’, Nancy Baggett’s ‘The All-American Cookie Book and Martha Stewart’s ‘Baking Handbook’, were the books I pulled out to compare.  I made many mental notes on proportions, preparation and tips from each and every one of these individuals, calling to mind what qualities I liked best from previous experiences.  

From the sifting of the confectioners sugar and the use of lemon juice as a stabilizing & flavoring agent, to the beating of the icing on a particular speed for an exact amount of time and observing the texture of the finished icing, I narrowed it down and paid attention to everything.  It was my goal to make it easy for all of you to achieve perfect results at home.  

The recipe is now yours.

Good Things by David

The Ingredients
  • 5 cups {610 g} confectioners sugar, sifted
  • 4 tablespoons {40 g} meringue powder
  • 4 tablespoons {60 ml.} strained lemon juice
  • 4 tablespoons {60 ml.} water
  • 1/4 teaspoon {1.25 ml.} vanilla extract ~lemon or orange extract can be substituted, but do not use 'flavors'

Yield: approximately 2-1/2 cups
Note: the recipe can be scaled down in half or multiplied depending on the amount needed.
  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, add all of the ingredients and mix on low speed for 30 seconds to 1 minute.  Let the ingredients come together.  Stop and scrape the icing from the paddle and bowl.
  2. Raise the speed to medium and beat the icing for exactly 2 minutes.  Set a timer.
  3. Stop the machine and observe the icing.  It should be smooth and glossy.  
  4. The icing is now ready to be used.  Divide among bowls to tint with food coloring or store it in a glass or stainless steel bowl.  I don’t advocate storing royal icing in plastic containers as these are difficult to keep grease-free, which may cause the icing to separate.
  5. If you’re not ready to proceed icing cookies, place a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the icing.  Royal icing dries out quickly.
Note:  Icing can be stored at room temperature since it is made with meringue powder, but it can also be refrigerated.  Store icing for up to 5 days.  Mix well with a spatula before using.

The photo above (A) shows you how not to cover royal icing for storage. Plastic wrap has to be placed directly onto the surface of the icing (B) in order to keep it from drying out.

Perfect Royal Icing Three Ways

Stiff Royal Icing is what you have when the mixer stops.  At this point you can use the icing to pipe filigree, lace work or script onto a cake (think weddings) or cookie.  A stiff peak will remain if you lift a bit of it with a spoon or spatula.  If you still think it isn't stiff enough, add more confectioners sugar by the tablespoon until you have a very stiff icing.  

You can make your own custom-colored sweet toppings for cakes, cookies and cupcakes if you pipe out shapes onto a parchment-lined or wax paper-lined baking sheet.  Let the shapes dry completely before using them.

Flooding Cookies with royal icing requires the right consistency in order to achieve good results.  You will need to thin out the icing when it comes off the mixer for this purpose.  Using a 1/4 teaspoon measuring spoon, add water bit by bit and mix to combine.  Either do this to the entire batch of icing or to each portion of icing to be tinted.  Only add 1/4 teaspoon of water at a time before checking to see if it needs more. 

Observe the Texture
A & B ~ When you lift a spoon of icing and let it fall back into the bowl, it drops like a thick ribbon.  
C ~ After about 15 seconds, the ribbon will begin to dissolve back into the icing.  
D ~ At  1 minute, the surface of the icing will be smoothed out.

This is what you want your icing to be like if you're going to pipe and flood cookies just like you've seen me do here on Good Things by David.  If the icing has thinned out more than it should, add confectioners sugar to bring it back to the right consistency.

Runny Icing is perfect for using as a glaze on cookies.  This is perhaps the easiest thing to achieve, because it only requires you to thin out the royal icing with water until you have a drippy consistency.  Those Patriotic Star Cookies were created with thinned out royal icing.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating.  If I'm lucky, I get to keep a cookie or two to enjoy. 

Gather the simple ingredients from your pantry and make some royal icing for those beautifully-shaped cookies that I know many of you make.  Tint bowl after bowl of portioned icing to make your favorite colors and let the fun begin.  A bit of imagination, some whimsical artistry and a steady hand is all you need now to create beautiful cookies.  You're going to love working with this icing.  

Friday, June 20, 2014

Martha by Mail and The Catalog for Living

It was back in 2000 when I encountered the Martha by Mail catalog just as we were moving into our first home.  The idea of starting a home with a blank slate was new and exciting for us, so at the time I turned to the trusted source for everything concerning the home. What was it about this catalog that captured my attention from the moment I saw it?  Was it the unique product line designed and selected by Martha & the editors of her company that wasn’t available elsewhere, or was it that I noticed and picked up on what America’s lifestyle maven was using in one of her television segments, and had to have it?  Actually, it was a mixture of several things.

I had never in my life come across a catalog which encompassed so many facets of the home with such beautifully-designed, high-quality products.  Martha by Mail contained items ranging from crafting, gardening, homekeeping, baking, cooking, pantry, home decorating, entertaining, weddings, catering, outdoors, holidays, pets and even baby.  Many companies, artisans, food purveyors, craftsman and designers were gathered from all over the world to create for this catalog, and it was through thoughtful designs from the team at MSLO that made many of these products timeless and stand out above the rest.  L.E. Smith, Mosser, Frankoma, Robinson Ransbottom, NordicWare, Wilton, Ateco, Lloyd Flanders, Sterling China, Broggi, Chiarugi, Krosnos, Juliska, Jenaer Glas, Rainer, Michael Bonne Copperworks, Fenton, Bernhardt Furniture, Eleni’s, Niman Ranch and CK Products, were just some of the silversmiths, food purveyors, foundries, glassworks, potteries and furniture makers which provided products for the catalog. 

It was a very good era for us collectors who became enamored with the catalog.   Martha and her team understood how important it was to source & produce from the very best. 

Collectors can’t seem to get enough of the discontinued Martha by Mail catalog.  As you can well imagine, many of these products have now become classic collectibles, which, depending on the rarity, can command prices that are many times what they were originally.  Who doesn’t remember the Hotel Silver, the blown glass pedestal fish bowls, the heavy cast-aluminum animal cake pans, the American made jadeite, the Wedgwood earthenware & bone china, the glass canisters, the creamy Burleigh Ware, and the araucana egg soaps?  These are but a few of the now-classic and highly sought after items.

I’ve written extensively about my collection of copper cookie cutters and other keepsakes from this catalog here on Good Things by David, but I’ve never really written about the catalogs themselves.  It was because of an exceptionally generous gift of Martha by Mail catalogs I received recently from my very good friend, Kenn, that I began to think of the reasons why a good amount of us have kept these past issues.  

Several of my collector friends chimed in when I asked them to share their thoughts.  If you collect Martha by Mail, subsequently called The Catalog for Living, or are just beginning to collect from the assortment of products out there, take a look at these beautiful images of the catalog issues.  There is even a scan of a complete catalog for you if you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing one.  

A selection of the most iconic issues.

In the late 1990s, Martha by Mail commissioned brand new jadeite from three of the most eminent glassworks in this country.  L.E. Smith, Fenton & Mosser went through their archives, at Martha's request, and brought back certain patterns, while creating other 'fantasy pieces'.  These new interpretations, such as the jadeite turkeys, did not stem from classic jadeite pieces produced in the 1940s & 1950s.  

Martha by Mail jadeite graced the catalog covers twice.  This particular Fall 1999 catalog shows  a rooster covered dish, faceted tumblers, cake stands, soup bowls, cereal bowls, plates, a honeypot and vases.  

In a future post I will showcase Martha's pressed glass in its various colors from the catalog.

A goose feather tree in a light green shade was another iconic product made exclusively for Martha by Mail.  Festooned with ornaments made from crafting kits, the trees have seldom exchanged hands through the collectors market.

A white picket fence covered in patriotic bunting and miniature American flags makes this cover especially striking & memorable.  

The Bee & Hive symbols were representative of Martha by Mail.  A beautiful & collectible two-part mold was used to produce this cake, while the marzipan bees were a handmade Wendy Kromer confection.  All of  it sits on a pink milk glass cake stand produced by L.E. Smith.  I adore this cover.   

Drabware, another catalog exclusive, was produced by the venerable china company of Wedgwood.  A coffeepot, milk jug, teacup and saucer grace the summer 2001 cover.  This particular china pattern will forever be associated with Martha by Mail.  

Iconic ~ Timeless ~ Forever Beautiful

A weathered shingle-faced cottage covered in lanterns, carved pumpkins, faux crows and window silhouettes, conspire to make an eerie and spooky atmosphere.  Halloween was a favorite with designers and customers of Martha by Mail.  

By 2002, the Martha by Mail name had changed to The Catalog for Living.  The cover shows a beribboned gift box covered in embossed paper that was the signature wrapping of Martha by Mail.  Below the box is a stack of Wedgwood Platinum Scroll Plates on top of an L.E. Smith white milk glass cake stand.

Finally, this was to be the last catalog ever printed before the closing of the exclusive merchandising division of MSLO.  A jolly snowman cake made from a two-part mold sitting on a sweetly-decorated platter.

Martha by Mail

I collect the catalogs because I love the staging of the photographs.  It’s helped me with ideas on table setting, decorating, holiday, themes, etc.  No matter if I’m entertaining at home or on a professional level, I love pulling inspiration from these catalogs.  I feel as though there’s a different attention to detail in the catalogs that you would miss if you had the magazine alone.  

The catalog was so special, in part, because it offered perhaps the most carefully curated selection of high-quality home products ever offered through a single outlet.  The sourcing efforts for assembling & commissioning such a unique and hard-to-find product selection were unprecedented.  I think the catalog’s legacy is a testament to the talented MSLO teams that contributed;  their passion for beauty and quality were infused in every product and on every catalog page.  These products have allowed me to express a design aesthetic that I feel truly represents my style and tastes.  The catalogs themselves have served as an endless mine for design inspiration.

I started with Martha prior to the very first TV episode.  I’d been reading about her prior to the episode and was so intrigued.  I am from a small town and our local paper had shared an Altanta Journal article about Martha’s first episode describing what she wore, etc.  Once I saw her ‘in person’ I was immediately hooked.  The catalog introduced me to an entirely different world.  Growing up, I only knew about shopping at Belk’s, JCPenney, Sears and our local hardware stores.  There were things in the catalog I never knew existed.  It was a long time ago, but those thoughts still stick with me.

When I first got interested in Martha my mom was still here with us.  She and I used to love watching Martha and we started our collection with her MBM yellow ware bowls as well as jadeite!  It was special to share that with mom.  I love to collect the MBM items.  When I cook/bake, the end result is always better when it’s prepared just as Martha had!  The quality of the products was impeccable, which you all can agree on.  Oh Martha, bring back Martha by Mail!

She made it cool to enjoy doing "woman duties" for both sexes and it showed in her catalog.   Top of the line tools and housewares, furniture and crafts that you may not have needed but craved.   You really can't find items like this today.  And not one item ever went out of style.   Timeless.  MBM was like the Tiffany's for the domestic person or just anyone who loved quality.  Her quirky personality was revealed in her picks.  Where else can I find oversized cookie cutters or an outdoor table that looks like it could be in a Parisian bistro?   They wear incredibly well.  My poor outdoor table.   I forgot to bring it in this year with all of our snow, but it survived and is still perfect.  No damage whatsoever.  And really, you just knew she was there for every step of production.  Her stamp, her okay, her breath was on every item.  If only we would have world peace and MBM again.  Sigh.
~Mother & Collector in New York City

Martha Stewart shows you exactly how to pull it all together.  With her catalog MBM you could own a piece of the lifestyle.  The fabulous table arranged for a breakfast, party or holiday.  Kitchen items that look as good as they work.  Craft kits to make the next family treasure.  Martha Stewart made it easy to develop a new interest.  The catalogs are a great resource for using and collecting her products.  Some of the merchandise was practical and affordable.  A few things were luxury pieces to be put on the wish list.  All could be enjoyed for the inspiration they provided.  It really is so special to own something from her line.  It is so sweet my mom is always on the lookout when she second-hand-shops for MBM things or her books or magazines.  My dad built me two bookshelves to hold all my Martha items and it is fun to share this interest with them! 

In 1997, when I looked through my first Martha by Mail catalog, we were about to move into our home.  I was struck by the unique nature of the merchandise, and it resonated with my personal design sense.  I had often found great inspiration for our new home when watching Martha Stewart Living and reading the magazine.  I knew that Martha’s sense of style was what I wanted in our home.  MBM made that easy.  Over the years, I just couldn’t let go of the catalogs.  Long after the business had closed, I would page through them, still finding inspiration when I wanted to do something different, or change things seasonally.  All these years later, what I value most is that what was once unique is now timeless.  No other catalog, no other merchandise line compares to Martha by Mail.  Long live the bee!

Click on the link to view a complete catalog.

I want to thank everyone who shared their thoughts & personal insight for this singular post.  A very special thank you to Kenn, for his enthusiasm & support in helping me put this all together.  Without his kind generosity, the post would not have been possible.

From one collector to another, enjoy!


Sunday, June 15, 2014

Can I Freeze Iced Cookies?

Dear David

Dear David, is it possible for me to bake and freeze your Sugar Cookies ahead of time and can they also be frozen once iced for a later date?  ~Patrick


This question gets asked every now and then here on the blog and I always tell people that they most certainly can freeze my sugar cookies once they've baked and cooled.  In fact, I think it's a time-saving thing to do if you're going to be icing dozens of cookies for an event or celebration.  No one wants to be stuck at the last minute baking & icing a mass of cookies in the wee hours of the night.  That is not fun.

Here are some things to consider if you want to freeze baked & undecorated cookies, as well as baked, iced & decorated cookies.

Baked & Undecorated Cookies

  • Once baked and cooled, freeze exposed cookies in single layers on a flat cookie sheet.
  • Frozen solid cookies should then be placed in freezer zip-top bags or vacuum-sealed bags in stacks of no more than 4 cookies; remove as much air as possible from the bags to prevent freezer burn.  These are best left on baking sheets, but they can also be put into plastic freezer containers.
  • Freeze cookies for up to one month.
  • Thaw sealed cookies overnight in the refrigerator.
  • Bring to room temperature before icing and decorating your cookies.

Baked, Iced & Decorated Cookies (iced cookies to be frozen can be flocked with sanding sugars & decorated with white nonpareils or silver dragees; do not freeze cookies with colored sprinkles or colored nonpareils as colors will bleed once they thaw)
  • After your iced & decorated cookies have dried completely, freeze in single layers on flat cookie sheets.  
  • Frozen solid cookies should then be placed in freezer zip-top bags or vacuum-sealed bags in stacks of no more than 4 cookies; place parchment or waxed paper in between each cookie & remove as much air as possible from the bags to prevent freezer burn.  
  • When stacking cookies, form stacks of same-shaped cookies and not a random assortment of shapes--this prevents cracks or breaks.
  • Freeze for up to one month.
  • Thaw sealed cookies overnight in the refrigerator.
  • Bring to room temperature before serving or packaging up the cookies for gift giving.
I hope this answers your question, Patrick, and I do hope that you readers out there who have always wondered about freezing your decorated cookies profit from this little tutorial.  It's nice to know that one can get cookie decorating projects out of the way a few weeks ahead of time, especially around the holidays.  Think of this as we head into summer with many parties and weddings to be had.  

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Keeping Your China Protected

One of life's lessons is to learn from our mistakes so that we don't repeat them. Due to an oversight on my part I recently lost a nice piece of Wedgwood china from one of my prized collections.  This accident could have been prevented had I taken my own advice and not been so careless when storing a stack of my plates.  You see, I have been protecting my fine china for years by layering each piece with felt rounds and I have to say that it has always worked for me. How could I have lost a piece of china if I was doing this you ask?  I happened to use the wrong-sized round in between a stack of plates.

Over the last few months, with my shifting of pieces of china from one cabinet over to another, I have inadvertently been switching the proper-sized pieces of felt with ones that were too small.  It took this particular accident to make me realize that I had been careless.  It's always in hindsight that we see our mistakes and wish we had done something differently, isn't it?

This is what happened:  as I lowering some luncheon plates onto the counter, my hand slipped and the entire stack came down rather hard.  When I heard a break my heart just sank.  I quickly searched for the damage and it became apparent that a large piece had been chipped off the rim from one of the plates.  This plate had a felt round that was a couple of inches smaller than the diameter; clearly the wrong size!  As you can well imagine, the blunder triggered all of the usual feelings one goes through after the fact and it took me a long time to get over it.  Well, sort of...

Learn from this mistake of mine and don't let it happen to you.

This is what not to do.  It's a mistake and foolhardy to just stack pieces of fine china any which way, because pieces will slip, things will shift (if you're in earthquake country, forget it!).  These photographs (above) from my collections were taken to illustrate the point.  It's not what I normally do with my Wedgwood or other pieces of fine china.

And now for the broken piece.  Avert your eyes if you're squeamish.

You can see how badly the luncheon plate was damaged; the plate is now completely useless to me and I have yet to get rid of it.  How can I upcycle this piece?  Any suggestions?

It's funny, but after inspecting the awful chip, a few things occurred to me.  I've read that all Wedgwood Drabware (antique & from the 2000 line) was fashioned out of dark clay.  This special earthenware is prized for its rich, dark color and now, through my misfortune, you can see that this is true.  That clay is indeed a deep putty color.

This is what you should always do with your fine china.  If you want, buy precut pieces of felt from housewares stores or online if you don't want to do any work, but with just a pair of scissors, a pencil and a bolt of felt from a fabric store, these pieces can be cut in a matter of minutes.  

If you're cutting your own, put your plate upside down onto the felt and trace the outline with your pencil.  Trace as many rounds as you have plates, making sure all correspond with the diameter of those pieces, and then simply cut out the rounds.  You can see that my stacks of felt are ready to be placed in between each piece.  

Don't get lazy like I did and use the wrong-sized round in between your plates.  That stack of rim soup bowls in the background shows you that the felt goes all the way to the edge.  

One more thing.  Please use your nice china from time to time and don't let it collect dust.  It's such a pleasure to reach for your favorite pieces every now & then, even if it's just you having a pot of tea with a scone in the afternoon.

Keeping your fine china protected is all a part of good homekeeping.  When you become complacent and not pay attention to the way you're storing and handling your china, accidents can happen.  I hope this serves as a reminder to each one of you to not only care for your prized pieces, but to use them as much as possible.  Yes, many of us plan to pass our fine china to members of the family, but while they're in our possession, why not enjoy them to the fullest?  

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Under the Sea Cookies

Baking and decorating cookies in the shapes of sea creatures is such a fun way to bring a little of the deep into one's home, without having to dive countless fathoms to catch a glimpse of them.  Imagine tentacled octopuses, small seahorses, turtles, fish, lobsters, starfish and jellyfish iced in bright, cheerful icing.  A squiggle here, a dot there, a sprinkling of sanding sugar where you see fit, along with a good measure of creativity, is all you need to create an oceanic wonderland.

That is exactly what one dear reader did a little while back.  Carol created these sweet wonders for a very special production of The Little Mermaid in Hoboken, NJ, where her daughter is music director.  To help defray the costs of this large-scale musical, Carol baked and iced dozens upon dozens of Under the Sea Cookies that she sold at the event.  She was kind enough to have shared the wonderful cookies with me and told me that she took a little inspiration from yours truly!

It seems now that Carol has a little more time on her hands, she has taken on the art of cookie baking and decorating rather seriously.  With a book or two on cookie decorating and some of the basic cookie decorating tools from a local crafts store, this budding artist is dazzling her family, friends and the community with her superb cookies.

Personally, I think it's inspiring to see someone 'dive' into this art form without any fear and have them be the talk of the town.  With a little determination and a bit of practice, anyone can create a fantastic array of sea animals just like these.  They're appropriate for parties and, as you can see, bake sales!

Carol's Under the Sea Cookies are just the thing for summer.


You can see the array of shapes that Carol used for her maritime cookies.  I love the colors that she mixed because they're so bright.

That adorable sea turtle has such a realistic-looking shell colored a deep turquoise that's been sprinkled with fine sanding sugar.  The purple octopus and the school of fish are just dazzling.

I'm not sure where Carol got her octopus cookie cutter, but I think it's marvelous!  For this cookie, a bead of purple icing was piped for a border and was then covered with sanding sugar.  Each tentacle was given a bead of turquoise icing.  Two dots for eyes was all that was needed to complete the little guy.

Look at that jellyfish!  A colorful wonder indeed and the lobster next to it seems like something out of The Little Mermaid.

I had to give you another closeup of the sea turtle because it's so adorable. The fact that Carol gave this little fellow a smiley mouth makes it that more adorable.

As I said, Carol has started creating cookies for all types of celebrations for family and friends.  Those crosses with piped flowers were for a christening and the pram, rattle & baby bottle were clearly meant for a baby shower.  

Here is a multitude of prams with lovely detailed work.  Isn't it beautiful?

Whenever readers share their creations with me, it makes me happy to know that many are out there baking such beautiful treats for loved ones.  The mission of Good Things by David has always been about creating something wonderful and sharing it with readers.  If a reader happens to glean a thing or two from my blog and is inspired to create something similar or something entirely different because of it, well that just makes what I do here even more rewarding.  It's all about Sharing Good Things for a Good Life.

Thank You Carol for sharing!