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You can teach an old dog new tricks.

Yesterday, my kids celebrated the “100th Day of School.”  So for me, that means cookies!  What better way to celebrate, right?

I made “100” cookies for my daughter’s 1st grade class.  I also took this as an opportunity to try out some new tricks.

When I posted my “Top 14 things I learned in 2011” post, several of you commented about using the “plastic wrap around the icing inside the piping bag” trick.  I will admit that was one I hadn’t tried yet, even though I had seen several serious “cookiers” post they did this.  So, I thought this would be the perfect time to try it out.

For those not familiar with this trick, it’s pretty straight forward.  Just lay out some plastic wrap.  Scoop your icing into the middle of it.  Scoop more than you think.  My first round ended up being a very small piping bag because it holds more than I thought.

Then fold over one side until it grabs onto the other side.

Fold the other side over, then twist the ends in opposite directions to seal it.  Like a piece of candy!

Then just feed one end into the bag and through the coupler.  (I found this to be the most difficult part.  I ended up rolling down the bag to make it easier to get to the coupler).

I even decided to try it with my thick flood icing (20-second). (The above pictures are with this icing).  I find it quite a pain to get it in the squeeze bottles because it’s so thick.  A funnel is always involved.  So I was curious if this would work for that as well.

It worked out great!  I was able to fill the bag with as much icing as would normally fill one large squeeze bottle.

I also found that my icing didn’t separate as quickly as it normally does in a squeeze bottle.  Not sure why.  I’ll have to play around with this more to see if that continues to happen.  (Which would be a good thing, mind you).

The next thing I tried was using dowels to roll out my cookie dough.

I have a confession.  I don’t normally measure the thickness of my dough.  Ever.  I roll it until it “feels” right.  But I have found that my cookies can sometimes be uneven (one cookie thicker than another) and even different thicknesses within one cookie.  Both of those = bad for me.  I’m not a huge fan of the rings on the roller, and I couldn’t track down the dough board that everyone seems to love (ans it’s quite pricey), so I thought I’d start with the $.75 option.  What did I have to lose?  (Other than $.75).

I went with 1/4 inch.  Then I just rolled like I normally do.  Parchment paper, dough (with dowels on either side), more parchment.

After rolling it out for the first time, I realized one very startling thing.  I thought I knew how thick a 1/4 of an inch was, but after seeing my dough REALLY that thickness, I realized I was quite wrong.  It is WAY thicker than I thought.

So I think I’ve been rolling my dough more like an 1/8 of an inch, which after making these at 1/4 of an inch, I now think is too thin.  But, you do get fewer cookies out of a batch (obviously).

(Can you tell my 4th grader is learning fractions?  They are all over the place!)

So if you are currently eyeballing your dough thickness, I recommend spending the $1 and buying to dowels.  Curious if you will be as surprised as I was.

Our school colors are red and blue, but since there are lots of girls in the class, and it’s close to Valentine’s day, I threw in some pink.  Because I made the cookies and I can.

Both of these techniques are ones I will continue to use.  The plastic wrap made things MUCH easier, and the dowels made for nice, thick, even cookies.  Try these if you haven’t before and maybe you’ll add them to your list of tricks, too.

Happy baking!

It finally happened.

Hi.  My name is Tara.  And I am an Angry Birds addict.

I have all 3 aps.  3 stars in all of them.  I know, I know.  But I need something to do while waiting in carline to pick up the kids, right?

I have been dreaming of Angry Birds in sugary configurations for over a year now, but I’ve just never had the opportunity to make them.  So when a friend called and said that she was throwing a first-ever party for her 7-year-old daughter, an Angry Birds party, I was ready.  And when she said she wanted to “go nuts”, my heart about stopped.

So go nuts we did.

**DISCLAIMER: Please forgive the background.  There was only so much I could do with the table in the middle of a multi-purpose room.

First was the cake.  I could make these little fondant figures all day long.  The perfect outlet for my OCD.

And we couldn’t forget the GOLDEN EGG!

Next were the cookies.  They ended up taking longer than I had expected.  The pigs were ok, the the birds were quite pesky.  After about 8 or 10, I ended up completely starting over because I wasn’t happy with the way they were turning out.  I’m glad I did, though, because these look much better than the first found.

And since we were using them for the goodie bags, they were all wrapped up and ready to go!

She decided not to eat the cake at the party, but to save that for her actual birthday.  So we did a cupcake tower for all the kids to eat there.

She bought some plastic toppers, but there weren’t enough for everyone, so we just used them as filler.

And the birthday girl (who is my youngest daughter’s BFF) has been harassing asking me to make Angry Birds cake pops for almost a year, so those were a must.

For extra decorations, we used apothecary jars and tumblers filled with gum balls, rock candy sticks (which I sprayed with Wilton sprays to get the nice, bright colors), gummy worms and twirl suckers.  I also made some extra royal icing birds and pigs, and those looked super cute on a stick!

For the drinks, we used different flavors of Kool-aid in mini water bottles.  Custom labels and striped straws finished off the look!

She made the cutest decorations.  Birds & pigs out of balloons with faces!  Too cute!  And I forgot to take a picture of the centerpieces.  They were these fabulous nests with golden eggs and a stuffed angry bird (of which she had MANY) in the middle.  It was darling.

We were both happy with the way everything turned out.

And I’ve gotten my Angry Bird fix for a LONG time.

Well, at least in edible form.  Bring on the updates.

Top 14 Things I Learned in 2011

2011 has been an interesting year.  Good and challenging, all mixed together.

I started blogging, hanging out more on Twitter, and even finally landed on Facebook.  And since doing so, I have met so many wonderful people that are willing to share their gifts and love of baking and decorating, making sugar as tasty and beautiful as possible.  I am thankful to be part of such a wonderful community.

I am also ashamed to be so slack on doing my part.  So I have vowed to blog (at least) once a week this year.  52 posts.  Surely I can do that.

What better way than to start January 1 off with a post!  And what better post than to share all the wonderful tips and tricks I’ve learned this year, and to say thank you to those willing to share their secrets and talents.  I couldn’t narrow it down to 10, so 14 it is.

DRUM ROLL PLEASE……..

14.  I began my decorating ala Wilton at Hobby Lobby.  Everything I did was in a Wilton disposable icing bag.  Imagine my surprise to see cookie decorators using squeeze bottles.  So great for flood icing. These have ended up being my favorites:

The larger 8oz size (I bought many from Karen’s Cookies)

And the smaller 2oz size (not the tips.  They are awful):

13.  I also learned that you don’t have to use fancy glass Pyrex bowls to mix icing.  I use these awesome small plastic bowls from the $1 section at Target.  They are flexible, which makes for easy mixing and scraping down the sides.  And at $.25 a bowl, you can’t beat the price.  They are perfect for dipping cake pops w/chocolate, too.  (Thank you, Bakerella, for showing me the light.)

12.  Toothpicks.  Who would have ever thought they could be such a valuable tool.  They are great for popping bubbles, making a smooth horizon icing line, sneaking icing to the edge, moving sprinkles, plugging tips to keep icing from drying out,…the list goes on and on.  Couldn’t live without them.

11.  Along the same line, I have found great love for my giant safety pin.  It is my premium bubble popper.  My favorite tool for marbeling.  For some things, I love it more than toothpicks.  (Yes, it’s true).

10.  This year has been eye-opening for me with regards to taste, as well.  I’ve experimented with different extracts and gotten some wonderful flavors.  (I love lemon & vanilla in my sugar cookies).  I’ve also learned about Emulsions.  SweetSugarBelle and Bake at 350 were the first I saw talk about them.  My favorite is this one:

It has a wonderful nutty flavor.  It has no alcohol, is kosher certifited, sugar and gluten free.  And it tastes yummy, too!  The exchange for extracts the same, but don’t bake out as much, leaving a more robust flavor.  TJ Maxx and Ross are great places to find them at cheap prices!

9.  For a while, I tried placing all of my sprinkles and candies on my treats by hand.  Then one day, I was a few dollars short in an order to get the free shipping (admit it.  You know you’ve done it) so I threw in a pair of tweezers that were on special.  One of my best purchases.  These are the ones I have, and I adore them.  They will grab and hold on to the smallest of sprinkle.

8.  The heat gun.  A relatively new tool that I have learned about.  Flour Box Bakery is the one who started the craze.  It has taken some experimenting (too much heat will crack outlines, fyi) but I think this is going to be a great long-term tool since I live in such a humid climate.  This is the one I have.  Bought it at Walmart for $20.

7.  I also learned about the wonders of vinegar.  Up until last year, I think I had the same bottle in my panty for the past 13 years.  Now, I go through gallons.  I use it to replace fabric softener.  Great for stains and de-stinking the sink.  But I also found that it is royal icing’s best friend.  Before I make icing, I wipe EVERYTHING that is going to come in contact with my icing down with vinegar.  The mixing bowl, beater, bowls, spatulas,…you name it.  It has completely removed the issue of any oil/grease getting to my royal icing.  Since I’ve started using it, I have had zero issues with my icing.  Who knew something that smelled so awful could be so magical.

6.  Again, being from the Wilton school of thought, I just assumed you had to use the Wilton gel colors.  Then AmeriColor came into my life.  Such vibrant colors.  Easier to use.  No taste.  I switched all of my colors, donated my Wilton colors to a local girl scout troop and never looked back.  (Sorry, Wilton).  AmeriColor gels are your friend.

5.  I’ve never been a huge fan of the taste of royal icing.  Very sweet with a bitter after taste.  Then, thanks to Sweetopia and Bake at 350, I learned that was largely the fault of the meringue powder.  Wilton brand is the only kind sold in my small town hobby store, and since that is what they pushed at the Wilton class, that is what I used.  But thanks to these wonderful ladies, I learned that Ateco is the way to go.  And WHAT A DIFFERENCE it makes in the taste!  Yes, I have to buy it online.  But it is worth 10-times what I have to pay for it.  Thank you, ladies,  for showing me the light.

4.  Icing tips.  I was scared of anything smaller than a 2.  I used a 3 whenever possible.  Then, I heard someone talk about “PME OO” tips.  Double zero??  Are you kidding me?  Surely no one is insane enough for that kind of madness.  And at $4.50 a pop?  My Wilton babies cost $.99.  (Ah, to be so naive).  So I decided to try one of these magic tips.  I bought a 1.5.  I filled a bag, squeezed, and….out came smooth, curl-free lines!  I was stunned.  How could this be?  Could the icing tip really make that much of a difference?  The answer, simply, is YES! I am slowly working to replace all of my Wilton 1-5 tips (Sorry again, Wilton).  The difference in my piping improved instantly simply by switching to these tips. (and they don’t discolor when you accidentally leave them soaking in water overnight because you forgot to clean them before you went to bed.  Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything.)  I have since even purchased (and used) a PME O.  I haven’t gotten brave enough for the OO.  Maybe in 2012.

3.  Flood icing.  It brought me great stress when I first started decorating cookies.  Was it too thin?  What is “syrup” or “gel” consistency, anyways? I mean, if my flood icing wasn’t the perfect consistency my cookies were doomed!  So, maybe I tend to get a little dramatic, but this is cookies we are talking about.  Then I learned 8-10 seconds when you drag a knife through it.  Ok, I could do that.  But I still had mishaps with my icing running over the edge if I didn’t pipe a line first (which I didn’t always want).  Then Callye (once again) showed me the light.  20 second icing.  What??  But that breaks all the rules!  Could it be true??  Could it be possible?  So I tried it.  And a miracle happened in my kitchen.  With 20-second icing, I had such control over the icing.  And it gave such a great “poofy” effect.  It was very freeing, and now I almost never go thinner than 20 seconds. (In fact once, I went to 30 second icing!  I know, I know.)  If you haven’t tried making 20-second icing, do it.  Today.  You will love it.  Or your money back!  No, wait.

2.  I bake everything out of my home kitchen.  And while it’s a decent sized kitchen with pretty good counter space, when I started decorating cookies, that counter space went fast!  There were baking sheets and cooling racks everywhere.  Then, I read this.  (Thank you, Callye @ SweetSugarBelle). I know she was talking about a fan, but when I saw the baking sheet rack in the background, it was a huge light bulb moment for me.  They can be a little pricey, but after some research, I found one for a great price, and it has been my best friend ever since.  (I love it so much, it has its own post.)

and the #1 tip that I learned this year is…………

A squirt bottle.

Yep, you read that right.  A plain, $.99 squirt bottle. But oh, the magic it possesses.  (Besides squirting kids and cats).  It is the PERFECT tool for thinning royal icing to flood icing.  Instead of having to go back and forth to the sink, trying to get the right amount of water to drip out of the facet, now I just stand at my decorating counter and spray the perfect amount of lightly misted wated each and every time.  I’ve learned that 12 sprays will give me perfect flood icing every time.  Such a time saver, and no more stress about getting too much water and over-thinning my icing.  This life-altering tip was learned through Callye @ SweetSugarBelle’s (if you don’t stalk read her, you need to.  She’s a WEALTH of information!) and she learned the trick from Gail of One Tough Cookie. Thank you, Gail & Callye!!!

So there you have it.  The new tricks and tools I’ve learned about this year that have changed the way I bake and decorate.  If you don’t use some of these, give them a try.  And feel free to post any of your on tips.  I’m always looking for new ones!

HAPPY NEW YEAR, and may 2012 be an extra sweet one for you and your family!

You don’t bring me flowers

Last week, a friend of mine was in a bit of a slump.  And not the short-term kind.  The type of slump that only bright, happy things can get you through the day.  She needed some flowers.

But, of course, in my language, that translates to cookies.  Cookies make all things better.  Especially smiley, flower-shaped ones.

**Disclaimer** As if my photos aren’t lighting-challenged enough, these were taken at 11pm, so pretend there is beautiful, natural light shining in on them, would ya?  Thanks.

Flower Bouquet

I used the bamboo stick idea from Callye @ Sweet Sugar Belle.  I was going to stick them in big brownies to make them doublely yummy, but that didn’t happen.  So foam blocks it is!

And since I went a little nuts on the number of flowers I made, I decided to make one for each of my girl’s teachers.  My 13-year-old son would have been mortified if I walked into his school with these little babies, so his teachers had to do without.  (That’s what they get for teaching middle school)

My 1st grader’s teacher is a frog fanatic, so we had to throw the frog prince in there for her.

And my 4th grader’s teacher – well, I don’t know anything about her.  But what woman doesn’t like edible flowers and smiley face, right?

And because I couldn’t seem to stop myself, I also wrapped up the leftovers and put them in little tin buckets and passed them around at school.  (No, I was not trying to score points with the principal’s assistant.  Why do you ask?)

These were really easy to do and made everyone that saw them smile.  So if you know anyone that could use a little pick-me-up, these cuties will do the trick!

It feels good to be back in the kitchen.  Have a great week!

Works for me Wednesday – Bright White Coloring

I remember several years ago, walking through the baking section of Hobby Lobby and thinking “what in the world would you use white icing coloring for?”  Ah, I was so naive.

When I first started reading about decorating sugar cookies, several bloggers mentioned using it for their white royal icing.  This may seem redundant, but it really does make a difference.  It really makes your whites “pop”, and it keeps them from looking dingy.

Well, I have found another great use for this bottle of wonder.

I have been decorating Easter cookies this week, and found myself in the undesirable situation where I had to color match some icing.  I didn’t make enough, so I was trying to match my blue and purple.  Now, for those that don’t know me, I’m not really as pastel color kind-of-girl.  I’m bold, dark, bright colors.  So, when I went to mix up my blue, I got it WAY too bright.  I mixed in a little of the white icing to tone it down.  But because it was pretty dark, I ended up having to dip into some of the white icing for the purple.  But the blue matched, so all was well.

Until, of course, I mixed the purple too dark, also.  (Did I mention that I do not function well late at night?) So because I had used all the extra white icing on the blue, I was out of luck.

But then my white color came to the rescue.

Did you know that you can also use this stuff to lighten icing?  You would think it would be obvious, but not to me.  It worked like a charm.

This little bottle has become indispensible in my baking box.  If you don’t own any, you are missing out on the magic.

My first year Christmas baking

As a new baker and REALLY new at decorating cookies (just 3 months), I was really happy with the way everything turned out.  (It’s fun to see  how everyone’s favorite is different).  As a newbie at all this, I have had to seek out people who really know what they are doing, since I clearly do not fall into that category.  So most of these have been inspired by the amazing talent that I have recently discovered, such as Bake at 350, Sweetopia, Bakerella, Tidy Mom, I am Baker and so many more!  Thank you all so much for sharing your talents with those of us who are less…gifted.  *raising hand*

For no reason other than curiosity, I decided to try a new icing recipe.  The one I had been using was good, but after seeing other’s cookies, I decided to try something new.  I used the recipe listed on Bake at 350.   I have to admit, I like hers better.  I like the shine, and it was smoother to work with.  And it made a nicer flood icing.  So Bridget, you’ve got a convert!

I had to try the ornaments. The marbling was such fun! Thank you for the inspiration, Bridget.

The Santas were a bit of a challenge for me. Somehow I ended up with no Santa-shaped cutter.  Not clue how that happened.  I tried a candy corn cutter, but he ended up looking like a gnome.  Didn’t have an ice cream cone, so I just went with the circle.  That meant I had to freehand the Santa face.  Not one of my skills to date, but I think they turned out ok.  A little extra for the “puff”.

I love the reindeer.  I think they are one of my favorites.  With a little added bling for the nose.

Played around with some Christmas tree designs.  The lights are my favorite.  They were inspired by a picture I saw on Twitter.  I wish I could remember who it was, but her cookies were fabulous!  If it’s you, please leave a comment (assuming anyone actually reads this, of course) so I can give proper credit.

I also really like the gingerbread people.  They were fun.

And I can’t have Christmas stuff without candy canes!  I was going to make the icing peppermint flavored, but alas. Maybe next year.

The snowmen are another favorite.  I couldn’t decide whether to sanding sugar or not, so I did half and half.  Somehow I had no green, so that guy got rainbow sparkles!

Then there are the snowflakes.  While I think overall they look ok, they definitely show my lack-o-piping skills.  I’m still working on the straight lines (thanks for the tip, THE Tough Cookie!). The sugar helps mask it a little, but I left the blue plain, so they show it the most.

Thanks for reading if you made it this far.  I had a great time making them, and I look forward to getting better (and faster!).

Merry Christmas!