Thursday, March 24, 2016

Cats and Hearts Sugar Cookies

Cats and Hearts make a wonderful theme for a kid's birthday party, and this year, I set out to create some adorable one-of-a-kind sugar cookies for my niece's special day.  I had been searching online for some cookie decorating inspiration, but I just couldn't find what I was looking for.  It wasn't until I came across a handmade Valentine card that I had my breakthrough moment. I knew the instant I laid eyes on the charming image of a cat hugging a giant heart, that it would translate well for decorated sugar cookies.

I had to search through my cookie cutters for the hearts that I thought would be great for this project, and then sketch out the treats to see how I could make them work.

This is my original sketch of the cookie, along with the cookie cutters and candy elements I wanted to use.  

These cookie cutters are made by Wilton and can be found at craft stores.  At the very top of the photo we have the Wilton Hearts 4-piece set.  The largest of the set is the base for the Cat & Heart sugar cookies.  Below we have the Wilton soft-grip heart cookie cutter and the Wilton cupcake cookie cutter.  The soft grip cutter is used for the kitty cat's head and the cupcake cutter is used to cut out the ears from the heart.  

Keep reading for the how-to!

After talking to my niece as to the colors she wished to have on her cookies,  I baked several batches of my sugar cookie doughs, which were enhanced with some fresh vanilla beans from Joshua MacTaggart's Brand of Vanilla.  I have to thank my friend Joy of 'How'd You Do That', for putting this great purveyor on my radar!  Then it was onto making batch after batch of my royal icing. 

The wonderful color palette of royal icing included a light orange for a ginger tabby cat, a soft gray for the gray tabby cat, some white, pink, red and light burgundy for the hearts.

The decorative candy elements that I used for this project are really meant for Valentine's Day cookies, but for this set of treats they were absolutely perfect. The eye candies, the mini pastel hearts, the large heart candies and the multi-colored minis are just some of the great items I used.

As you can see, photo a. shows you how I cut out the heads of the kitty cat cookies.  Using the soft-grip Wilton heart cutter, I cut out the heart shapes and then removed the top centers of each of these with the Wilton cupcake cookie cutter.  At this point you are left with a little devilish-looking shape.  In photo b., cut out the bottom third of the kitty cat heads with the large Wilton heart cookie cutter, because this is the shape you will be attaching these cookies to. Make sure that you've used the large, red Wilton heart cookie cutter for the heart cookie bases.  It is then only a matter of applying some beaten egg to wedge the cookies together.  

Have prepared baking sheets ready.  Once they get a 30 minute chill period, they can then be baked in a 350F oven for approximately 16-18 minutes.  Let cool completely.

Note: it is important to roll the cat heads and the heart cookie bases the same thickness, so that you have a finished cookie that is flat and even for decorating with royal icing. 

Using a food-coloring marker (Wilton or Ateco), trace out the cat paws on the large heart.  I used the  heart lobes of the small red Wilton heart cutter to make these paws.  Next, choose the eye candies carefully so that they are the same size.  As you can see, the pupils vary from candy to candy so make sure your kitties don't have funny-looking eyes.  Outline and flood the heads of the cats in gray or light orange royal icing and carefully place large heart candies for ears, two candy eyes and one small pastel-colored candy heart for a nose.  Outline and flood the paws of the kitties in the same color, giving them white "mittens".  Outline and flood the large heart in the color of your choice.  Let the royal icing dry completely.

Using white royal icing, pipe the whiskers and the small outline of the cat's mouth.  I piped a bead of icing along the perimeter of the head, paws and hearts in the same color of royal icing to make them stand out even more (this is optional of course).  You can leave the giant hearts as is, you can write a message on them or you can pipe icing and attach candies to them.  It's up to you!

I piped three claws on a couple of cookies to see what they would look like. Not a big fan of this look, so I kept the majority of them with plain white mittens.  Still cute though!

A side view of the finished cookies shows you the even thickness of the heads and large hearts.  It's really important to get that right so that you have a flawless finish.  Using wooden dowels when rolling out your cookie dough helps.

Aren't they cute?

As for the heart cookies that I made for my niece, I used the cutters from Wilton and I also used a large bubble heart that measures 6" wide by 5" high.  The royal icing colors and the nonpareils were perfect for these shapes.

The large bubble hearts were outlined and flooded in a single color and were then sprinkled with nonpareils (let dry completely).  The other hearts were outlined and flooded in a single color, left to dry completely, and were then given a border of alternating colored dots.

The ruffled hearts were first decorated with large dots of royal icing on each ruffle; these were covered in nonpareils while the icing was wet.  Once dried completely, any stray candies were brushed off.  A heart in the center was outlined and flooded in royal icing and was then given a small bead of royal icing along the edge.  Done!

The small ruffled hearts were piped as follows:  Pipe royal icing dots with spaces in between, along the edge of the heart cookies.  Immediately pipe royal icing dots in a different color in between the spaces of the outer dots (this plugs up the border and creates a dam).  Immediately flood the middle of the cookie with that color of royal icing and let dry completely.  Easy!  

Made this way, the dots on the border of the cookies are embedded into the icing.

I love these hearts!

Paper Source is a constant inspiration to me and I love their products to no end.  Right around Valentine's Day, I stocked up on cellophane bags, pink ribbons, enameled heart stickers and Xoxo mini clothespins so that I could package my niece's cookies for mailing.

The kitty cats were carefully placed in clear cellophane bags which were then sealed shut with two mini clothes pins and those beautiful enameled stickers.  

If you look closely, you can see the distinct cookie shapes on the backs of the cookies.  

This kitty is ready to be shipped out.

Large cellophane bags, small cellophane bags, pink ribbons, both wide and narrow, made this cookie box for my niece's birthday extra special.  Among my favorite cookies from the dozens I made were the large bubble hearts.  That bubble gum pink royal icing really made that particular cookie rather extraordinary.

Happy Birthday to my wonderful niece!

Cats and Hearts Sugar Cookies are bound to make anyone smile upon receiving them.  Whether you reserve these exceptional cookies for Valentine's Day, a birthday party or for any other celebration, make sure that you give yourself a couple of days to create them.  Keeping candies, icings and cookie supplies at the ready makes this kind of undertaking less of an ordeal, and much more enjoyable.  I can't tell you how much fun I had making them. 

From my home to yours, make it a family tradition to gift the little ones some decorated cookies for their birthdays.  They're going to love you for it.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Ice Cream Cone Cupcakes

Cupcakes are great for those times when you want something sweet for dessert without having to take up too much time in the kitchen.  Kids birthday parties, school bake sales, workplace related events, among other things, can benefit from having cupcakes for dessert.  Recently I was asked to make some cupcakes for a few individuals in town, and because of the warm weather we were experiencing at the time, I decided to bake the little cakes in ice cream cone cups.  

Have you ever baked cupcakes in ice cream cone cups?  You should because it's very easy, and because it delivers an unexpected surprise when you set them out for guests.

Whether you set out a dozen of them on a great cake stand or you package them up in cellophane bags for a bake sale or for gift giving, I think it's a good idea to make them as colorful as possible.  Remember, they should be just as enticing as an ice cream cone topped with sprinkles.

What I did was make one batch of my vanilla cupcake batter, and then place the flat-bottom ice cream cones into a standard muffin pan.  You'll see certain websites advise you to pack crumpled up foil wrap around the bases of the ice cream cones to keep them from tipping over, but if you're careful when filling the cups with batter, and when you transfer them to the oven, you should be fine leaving them as is.  Simply transfer them to the oven with great care.

One thing I will say about making these cupcakes is to be careful not to fill the cups more than halfway with cupcake batter.  This should be no more than 2 tablespoons of batter per ice cream cone cup.  Bake at 350F for approximately 20 minutes (the same as a standard cupcake).

As soon as the cupcakes have cooled, then it's onto the frosting.  You have some room here to experiment with the type of frosting you and your family prefer.  These are some tasty options for ice cream cone cupcakes:

Piping the frostings onto the tops of the ice cream cone cupcakes can be done with either a plain round piping tip, an open star piping tip or even a closed star piping tip.  If you want to experiment with other pastry tips, by all means do.

If you're making these for a kid's birthday party, I highly recommend having a bar set up with colored sprinkles, hot fudge, maraschino cherries, chopped cookies and various candies so that the guests can custom make their own cupcakes.

Don't be surprised if you catch the adults making their own too!

For a bake sale or to give out as gifts to coworkers, use the simple vanilla buttercream (recipe above) which will harden as soon as you refrigerate the cupcakes, and then place the decorated cupcakes into gusseted cellophane bags.  It helps tremendously to place rectangles of cardstock on the bottom of each bag so that the cupcake stands up without tipping over.  Tie with baker's twine and you're done!

Make some ice cream cone cupcakes as soon as you feel the warm weather approaching, or plan your next party with some in mind.  Nothing is easier to make than sweet cupcakes disguised as ice cream cones.  Have fun making them!

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Easter Bunny and Easter Egg Sugar Cookies

Create beautiful Easter bunny and Easter egg sugar cookies to give as special gifts this coming holiday.  A few decorated treats can easily be placed into Easter baskets for the kids, but they can also be baked by the dozen for favors at your Easter luncheon.  

Elegant, yet easy to do, each of these cookies can get embellished with any number of sprinkles, pearl candies or sanding sugars.  You can, however, keep them simple and charming without any edible ornaments.  With only four colors of royal icing, there is minimal effort in making a flock of bunnies and eggs.

The first order of business is to choose the cookie cutters for this project and then make the cookie doughs.  The bunny you see here is an American made copper cookie cutter from Copper Gifts.  When I found out that my friend Janet was putting her entire collection of cookie cutters up for sale, I sought out the shapes I needed to fill my own collection and purchased them (thanks, Janet!).  

Each high-quality copper cookie cutter made from this midwest company gets stamped with a star and the name 'Braman'.  The tops of the cookie cutters are finished with a rolled hem which makes them comfortable to use when cutting out cookies.    

For these Easter bunny shapes, outline and flood the bases of your baked and cooled sugar cookies in pastel-colored royal icing.

Note: one of the things I like doing with my cutouts after they've chilled thoroughly, is to flip them so that they face the other direction if I feel that they need it (this is done before I bake the cookies).  I'm sure you've done the same thing before.  Aren't they charming this way? 

Using a set of tweezers reserved for cookie decorating, carefully drop a pearl candy for an eye while the icing is still wet.  Those beautiful pearl candies I'm using are by Wilton.  

The large Easter eggs were cut out with one of the large cutters from the Martha by Mail Egg Cookie Cutters Set.  

One thing I like to stress to individuals who ask about decorating with royal icing is the importance of sifting the confectioners sugar before mixing the icing; no exceptions.  That is how one achieves such a smooth finish on the cookies.  I like to take the icing as close to the edge of the cookie as possible without it spilling over.

Pastry bags filled with icing, candy embellishments, a set of tweezers, a decorator's pick and a handy cake decorating turntable are some of the things you will need to make these Easter sugar cookies.  Keep things handy and set items on trays or plates with rims so that you can catch any wayward sprinkles. 

Easter Egg Sugar Cookies:
  • Outline and flood the base of your cookie in a pastel-colored royal icing using a #4 plain round piping tip.  Let this dry completely
  • Pipe three loops/petals at each end of the egg using a #2 plain round tip and carefully center a pearl candy in the center of the petals.
  • Pipe three parallel beads of icing using a different color of royal icing (#2 piping tip) in an arc, near the top of the egg, and near the bottom of the egg.  Make sure that the arcs are going in the appropriate direction in order to give the egg cookies contour.
  • Pipe a 5 or 6 petal flower in the middle of the egg and carefully drop a pearl candy in the center.

  • Pipe two more flowers along the center of the egg and place more pearl candies.  
  • Last, but not least, pipe dots throughout the egg in a contrasting color.

Easter Bunny Sugar Cookies
  • Outline and flood the base of the cookie in a pastel-colored royal icing using a #4 piping tip, and carefully place a pearl candy for an eye.  Let the base dry completely
  • Using a #2 piping tip, outline the cookie using the same color of royal icing.  Add two curved beads of royal icing to delineate the forequarters and the hind legs of the bunny.  

  • Add an ear using pink royal icing: outline and flood a small oval in the center of the ear.  Let dry completely

Once the cookies have dried completely, you can then package them up in clear cellophane bags tied with colorful ribbons.  Those can then be added to Easter baskets or they can get hidden for a tasty Easter egg hunt!  Imagine the fun of having to find these. 

These decorated sugar cookies were so much fun to make for someone special down in West Virginia.    I think the family is going to like them!

Nothing about these Easter Bunny & Easter Egg cookies is difficult, so don't hesitate for one moment to dig out your cookie cutters to make a few or a bunch of them this season.  If I were to serve these at home I would lay them out on big white ironstone platters or I would place one giant cookie at each place setting for a special lunch.  However you decide to share them, make them pretty and make them tasty.  Everyone is going to want one.

Happy Easter!

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Wine Review: Biante Garnacha (Grenache), Campo de Borja 2014

Dear Readers,

I have been wanting to do a wine tasting here on the blog and write short, one paragraph reviews of the good wines I enjoy at home.  It's no secret to those who know me that I like to pair my dinners with good wines several times a month, and that I have my opinions when it comes to them.  I'm no wine expert, but over the years I have come to trust my palate to guide me to good, decent wines and to steer clear of the ones that leave a bad taste in your mouth.  

This is what the parameters will be for my wine reviews so that you can better understand what I like and what I will cover.  

  • I will not present sweet wines because I don't like them.
  • I will review red, white, and rosé varieties as I see fit.
  • I won't write bad reviews, because it's not what I do here on this website.  Bad wines that I encounter won't make the cut.
  • I will stick to wines with an alcohol content between 12% and 14%.  These are the ones I prefer, because overly alcoholic wines aren't pleasant to me.
  • As to the grape varietal, I like a large spectrum of them and special blends from around the world, so it will be a delicious odyssey of my preferences.
  • I'm not too fussy about having a particular wine glass for a certain varietal.  Don't be surprised if you see stemless glasses, goblets or antique glassware for these posts.
  • Wines that I review will not be more than $15 per bottle.  I have come to realize that it isn't necessary to spend a large amount of money to drink a wine that is quite decent and of good quality.

What I hope to do with these reviews is let you in on what we like here at home and have you try them for yourself. 

This lovely red by 'Biante' is their 2014 garnacha from the the Campo de Borja in Spain.  The grenache grape, known as 'garnacha' in Spanish, is a delicious varietal, and over the years I have become a big fan of it. This 2014 vintage is pretty outstanding.  It has a deep ruby color and tastes of dark cherries with notes of plum.  Its medium-body quality makes it a pleasure to pair with lamb or roast chicken.  If you need a good wine to serve to guests this Easter with that spring lamb, this would be the one to try.