Two things…

So, there are two things you need to do.

First, you must stalk follow Bridget at Bake at 350.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

{whistling}

Did you come back?  It’s easy to get sucked in over there.  She’s a cookie maven.

And #2?

You need to make these.

Nutella & Sea Salt Stuffed Sugar Cookies.

I’ve been in the mood for something Nutella-y, so when I saw Bridget’s post, I knew they would fit the bill perfectly.

I followed the recipe almost exactly, just doing a few things differently.  Some worked, some didn’t.  I’ll share both.

1) Instead of scooping out 2 TBSP of batter and dividing it in half, I scooped out 1 TBSP, put the Nutella on top of it, then scooped out another 1 TBSP and put it on top.  My OCD required that each side be 1 TBSP.  I just didn’t trust my splitting skills.

2) I did all of the 1 TBSP bottoms first, then added the Nutella all at once.  That way, the Nutella wasn’t sitting out for too long.  Because….(see #3)

3)  The Nutella warms up very quickly.  If you let it un-freeze after you put it on top of the dough (like to answer the door and talk to a neighbor for 15 minutes), it makes a BIG mess.  Trust me.  (Can you guess which one I’m talking about?)

4) I used silpats rather than parchment.  Because I did this, I didn’t need to scoop the Nutella off with a spatula.  I just lifted them off with my fingers.

5) Mine took closer to 14 minutes to cook.  I took them out at 10, and the centers were too doughy.  But it’s always very humid here, so I typically do have to cook things longer.

These cookies are pure magic.  Nice crunch on the outside.  Soft, fudgy, nutty center.  With that slight twist of the salt.  I had to stop myself.  They are just that good.

So trust me and do these 2 things.  It will start your week right.

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Here is a link to the recipe.

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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!

Late to the party

I was raised that if you are not 15 minutes early to something, then you are late.  9:59am to a 10:00 meeting does not constitute being on time.  That is late.  And forget 10 minutes late.  Not an option.

But that was 22 years ago, before a husband and three kids were thrown into the loop.  That, my friend, changes everything.

So it is of no surprise to people that know me that I am just now really getting on Facebook.

In my defense, I’ve had a personal account for a year and a half.  And I’ve been on Twitter for over a year.  So I’m not a complete social media recluse.  Only in the area of the largest social media platfom out there.

Ok, saying it that way sounds bad.

But all that aside, I’m out there.  Livin’ large.  I’m “The Sugar Tree”.  Not to be confused with the other Sugar Tree.  Apparently there are 2 of us.  But she’s in Canada and I’m in Tennessee, so we have totally different twangs.

Or you can just click here –> The Sugar Tree

I’m also still on Twitter.  @TheSugarTree.

And unlike here, apparently, I actually post stuff there.  It’s revolutionary, I know.

WFMW: My new best friend

I am a home baker.  When I make cookies, it takes over my entire kitchen.  Baking sheets everything.  Cooling racks stacked where my coffee station belongs.  My second oven doubles as a drying rack.  So when I need to cook dinner after a day of cookie-ing, I can’t even make pizza because my cookies are drying in both ovens.

Being a relatively new cookie decorator, I just assumed that was how baking at home was done.  Until I saw this.

Genius.  Pure and simple.

Mind you, I’m no where near the cookier that Callye is, so I didn’t need the jumbo 20-tiered bad boy.  The half rack works great for me.  I use the half-sheet cookie sheets, and two of them fit into each slot.

So now, I just wheel it in the kitchen when I need it.  All of my cookies are right there at my disposal.  They are all nicely organized.  And when it’s time for dinner, I just wheel it into the dining room and you’d never know I had been baking all day.

It is, hands down, the best baking purchase I have made to date.  Well, and PME Supatubes.  But that’s another post.

I ordered mine from here.  It arrived quickly and was by far the best price.

Have a great Wednesday!

 

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!

Remembering

The mind is a funny thing.

Most days, I can’t remember what I had for breakfast yesterday. And I can’t remember whether I wore the same outfit to church 2 weeks ago.

But I’ll never forget the look on my husband’s face when, 11 years ago today, he walked into my hospital room to tell me that our son didn’t make it.  When I left the room after he was born, he was alive.  But an hour and a half later, he was not.

I also remember the hospital wallpaper melting from all the pain medication I was on.

And I remember the birth certificate registrar coming into my room and, after looking around and seeing no baby, asking me if he was down in the nursery.  And I remember her leaving the room quickly and not coming back after I quietly told her where he really was.

And I remember calling my only friend at the time to tell her what happened and see if she could stay with me that night in the hospital so my husband could go take care of our 2-year-old son.  But she had plans for the evening with friends.  Maybe tomorrow?

And I remember having to tell my mom what had happened over the phone.  She was in Europe.  Day 3 of a month-long trip that she and her girlfriends had been saving for 5 years in order to take.  And I remember telling her not to come home, even though she threatened to multiple times.  I found out a few months ago that she still hasn’t looked at the pictures from that trip.  Remembering can be a painful thing.

But I also remember the comforting music being played over the loud speakers – “How Marvelous Is Your Name” – even though no one heard it but me.

And I remember the outpouring of love I felt from my church and from people that I didn’t even know.  For weeks.

And I remember laying on the couch, the day I came home from the hospital, and my 2-year-old son putting his hand on my arm and telling me “Mommy, it will be ok.”

It’s funny the things you remember 11-years later.  But I’m thankful for the memories, good and bad.

And I’m thankful that God has used Jonah’s short life to drastically change our life.

Before he was born, we were making a lot of money and spending it as fast as we could.  I rarely saw my husband because he was working 80-90 hours a week.  Couldn’t turn down that money.  But after Jonah was born, it all changed.  Our focus became our family.  And while that has presented its share of financial challenges over the years, my kids know that their dad is always there, always around. And that is worth all the money in the world.

And I’m also thankful that God has used my experience with Jonah to help other women who have found themselves in the same place. Somehow, someway, it seems to help to see someone who has the same battle scars as you, still moving forward.

So today,  I remember you, my sweet baby boy, and am thankful for how beautifully you have touched our hearts and our lives.  I can’t wait to see you again.

“Though you were only with us a short time, you will be in our hearts forever.”

PS. Through everything with Jonah, as a musician, music was my husband’s one true comfort.  Several years later, he went into the studio and recorded all of that music and released it on CD – “After the Rain“.  If you know of anyone that has lost a child or is struggling for any reason, please contact me.  I would love to send you a free copy to share with them in the hope that it will provide them comfort, as it did for us.

A pie to remember

Who would have ever thought that you could get so attached to people that you don’t even know.  But I find myself in tears as I think about Jennifer Perillo of In Jennie’s Kitchen.

For those that don’t know, her husband passed away suddenly earlier this week of a heart attack.

I have lost my son, my father and my brother, all tragically. I cannot imagine adding my husband to that list.  My heart just breaks for her.

So in honor of her and her husband Mikey, I am making a peanut butter pie today.  Mikey’s favorite, as well as my husband’s. And saying a prayer for Jennie and her family.

I can’t remember exactly where I got this recipe. But of all the PB pies I’ve made, this is the one my husband likes the best.

*PEANUT BUTTER PIE*

Ingredients

  • 1 whole 8-inch Oreo (or Graham Cracker) Pie Crust
  • 8 ounces, weight Cream Cheese
  • 1 cup Peanut Butter
  • ½ cup Sugar
  • 1 teaspoon Vanilla
  • 8 ounces, Cool Whip

Directions

Beat the cream cheese and sugar until smooth. Add the peanut butter and vanilla. Gently fold in the Cool Whip.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared pie crust. Sprinkle with chocolate shavings.  Refrigerate for at least 4 hours, or until firm.

NOTE: You can also put the filling into individual sized crusts, as pictured above.

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.