Newsletter recommendation

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Girls Night In is “a newsletter for women who’d rater stay in tonight” which is frankly true of all the ladies in my life.

From product recommendations to articles “for the group text,” this newsletter delivers a well-curated list of self care tips and products straight to your inbox every Friday. Not only is the content intriguing, but the writing is inclusive and thoughtful – something which can only be said for a few online communities. I can’t recommend subscribing enough!


9 food Instagrams to follow

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Who are your favorite cooks and bakers to follow on Instagram? For the sake of brevity and self restraint, I’ve rounded up nine bakers whose work always makes me happy and inspired when I see them on Instagram…


Podcast recommendations

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I used to run first thing in the morning, but somewhere between procrastinating buying new running shoes and preferring to stay in bed during the cold months, I began walking instead.

New podcasts have made getting out of bed a little easier. I’ve never been much of a podcast person, but here’s what I’ve been enjoying lately.

I blazed through Slow Burn: A podcast about Watergate by Slate. Then I listened to Making Oprah. Produced by the team at WBEZ Chicago, Making Oprah is a three-part series exploring Oprah’s rise to one of the most celebrated moguls of all time.

The show is now Making Obama and they’re chronicling Barack Obama’s journey to becoming the country’s first African American president.

Between listening to this podcast and having just watched My next guest needs no introduction with Letterman and Obama on Netflix, I’m not sure if I find Obama or Obama finds me. Either way, I do not hate it.

Listen to any good podcasts lately I should check out? Let me know in the comments!


If my family was dessert: My dad

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(This poppy seed cake recipe is from The New York Times.

You can learn a lot about a person from stepping foot inside their car.

My dad, for example, has a car which smells of pipe tobacco and coffee. The console is usually littered with notepads covered in all caps handwriting, and never once have I gotten in the car without at least one book on tape falling out first. I can practically hear the plastic boxes hitting the driveway now.

As a locomotive engineer, my dad is always on the go. He’s incapable of sitting still for a board game unless it’s cribbage, he usually eats his dinner standing up, and that man has run more errands than anyone I know.

Some of my favorite memories are traveling places near and far with my dad when I was a little kid, because it shed light on the greatest mystery of all time: what your parents do when they’re not at home.

Mostly we dropped the mail at the post office or filled the car with gas. But on special occasions, I’d help grocery shop. And if I was grocery shopping, you know I’d turn it into a bargaining deal and ask for a treat. No matter what errands we ran or how many secret cream puffs we’d enjoy before we got home, you could always count on making a special stop at the library (don’t worry, dad, I’ll take your meager overdue library book fines with me to the grave).

These were the moments when I really got to know my Dad. I could talk his ear off with reckless abandon, and I still felt like there was no other place we should be than in that moment.

poppy seed cake ingredientsAnd because I remember being on the go so fondly, I was originally dead set on baking something transportable for If my Dad was a Dessert. A chocolate cherry pie sounded like a good option. I’ve only seen one person balance a cherry garcia waffle cone in one hand and maneuver a steering wheel with the other. Plus it would be a fitting dessert for the man who turned us all on to those insanely caloric but oh-so good mini pies in the crunchy wax paper wrappers by Hostess.

But my dad is a working man who makes meat and potato stews, smokes a pipe in the rain and can chop a block of wood with one ax swing. I couldn’t make a pie! I needed to find a recipe that was hearty. A workin man’s dessert!

So then I was thinking I’d make rosemary thyme crackers. A sensible snack. Not to mention it was hard to keep Ritz crackers in our house for long. I was always jealous of the mini travel cooler my dad packed for lunch every day not only because it looked bottomless, but you could always count on finding was a sleeve of crackers. An entire sleeve! My dad made adulthood look downright delightful.

But nothing captures the feelings I have for my old man quite like poppy seed cake.

poppy seed slice and tea.jpgTo know my family is to know our poppy seed cake. We make this cake for funerals and birthdays and every occasion and sometimes non-occasions in between. There have been poppy seed cakes with top halves precariously balanced because they stuck to the bundt pan. Some poppy seed cakes have needed more chopping on the walnuts. Others set the fire alarm off.

There have also been poppy seed cakes which are nothing short of perfection. And no one in my family makes a poppy seed cake as good as John Grdina. Sorry, Mom! (Though I’d like to think you too would agree.)

The story goes that my grandma shared her poppy seed cake with my mom when my parents got married almost forty years ago. I used to joke that you had to marry or kill a Grdina for the recipe, but I once told that to a friend and my mom replied, “Oh! You want the poppy seed cake recipe? Yeah, let me write you a copy!” I had no idea we had such little regard for our family secrets. (My Dad once owed the library fifteen cents. If he owes more than this, I won’t believe you.)

Peeking inside the poppy seed loaf.jpgMy dad is a dependable, trustworthy, kind man who is the hardest working person I know. And as much as I wanted to roll out the chocolate cherry red carpet, there are no flavors more fitting to represent him than the cake which has seen our family through it all.

You can grab a slice on the go, with a little bit of butter or cream cheese on top, while listening to The Greatest Speeches of All Time audiobook. Poppy seed cake can be enjoyed on a paper napkin while you pick cards to discard during cribbage. It is most definitely never enjoyed with a fork.

But most of all poppy seed cake tastes the best when my whole family is together – exactly the way any parent would have it. Making it at our respective homes is the next best thing to sitting down with a cup of tea and our Winston Churchill quoting, tea party loving, book fanatic cool dad.

We love you, pops! Happy birthday!

If my family was dessert series

My mom

My sister Genevieve

My sister Madeline

p.s. I used the New York Times poppy seed cake recipe because I didn’t want to spoil this surprise. I thought about making an east coast elite joke here, but the truth is this recipe is scary similar to the Grdina family recipe with the exception that ours calls for milnot and walnuts. And maybe sweetened condensed milk? I can’t remember. I’ll have to ask my parents. Heavens knows we have no secrets. 



Sugar cookie decorating tips


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I will probably never create a sugar cookie as picture perfect as Kim Kardashian, and I am totally ok with that.

Recently I got so caught up dreaming of designs for the world’s best cookies that my stress levels shot through the roof. I sweat through my shirt. I overcooked a batch of cookies. I quite literally poured icing all over my hand in the process of  transferring it to a squeezable condiment bottle. I was a mess!

icing tubes

I finally began having fun when I gave myself permission to make mistakes and just move on.

I didn’t create this blog to spend hours worrying about designing sugar cookies for a picture on Instagram so I could sit back and watch the Likes roll in. I created this blog with the intention of learning how to use my camera and to share my adventures in the kitchen.

Since then, my number one goal has become sharing my baking experiences as honestly and empathetically as possible. Curated social feeds shouldn’t prevent any of us from having fun and making mistakes in the kitchen.

Put another way: I’m not here for the ‘gram. Baking is messy, and I’ve learned something from every one of my projects – including the time I dropped a four-layer Fourth of July flag cake.

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So if you’re intimidated as hell by royal icing, and your cookies don’t yet look like the ones around every digital corner, girl, you are not alone. We’re all just doing the best we can, and done is better than perfect.

Below are some tips I’ve learned during my quest for the perfect sugar cookie and pictures that illustrate my process. I hope that by sharing what baking  in my house actually looks like, we can break down the lofty ideals of perfection one imperfect cookie at a time.

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Cookie: Can you believe I almost threw out the cookies pictured above? Sure they’re pretty ugly, and I bet the cracked surface means I did something wrong, but they’re tasty and that’s what matters most. Plus they make for excellent practice cookies (as you can see in the heart in the bottom right above). There are a million and one sugar cookie recipes online, but I used Sally’s snowman sugar cookie recipe from Sally’s Baking Addiction.

Icing: Sugar cookies usually require two kinds of icing: royal icing and flood icing. Royal icing icing is thicker and dries faster, so you can create borders and other designs on your cookies. Flood icing is royal icing thinned with water and you use it to fill in the shape of your outlines. You only need one recipe for both, and if you only use one, stick with royal icing.


icing tools.jpgPiping bags: Piping bags are ideal for royal icing. You can cut the exact size hole you want in the bag which will determine the width of your icing lines. Bigger opening = thicker border. I cut about 1/4 inch from each bag’s end and propped the bags up in a glass cup while working. Royal icing is usually thick enough that it won’t ooze out the bottom.

Thanks to my one of my best friends, I have a box of disposable piping bags that I can’t recommend enough! I also have washable, reusable bags, but I usually make so much of a mess (or forget about the icing in the fridge until it expires – oops!) that it’s nice to purge bags after using. One less thing to clean.

Piping bag alternative: If you don’t have piping bags, use a sandwich baggie! Just make sure you don’t zip it closed. This will cause the pressure to build inside the bag and the icing will spill out the top when it finally breaks open. Yes, I learned this the hard way.

Condiment bottles: Squeezable condiment bottles are great for flood icing. I use these from Amazon. They stand upright so you don’t have to worry about the icing leaking everywhere, and most have openings which are the perfect size for cookie decoration.

Condiment bottle alternative: If you don’t have condiment bottles, I recommend adding flood icing and then using something smaller like a toothpick or butter knife to spread it.

Decoration tips

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Always start with royal icing. It creates the barrier which will contain your flood icing.

While moving slowly in most decoration processes tends to yield the best results, I find the less precious you treat a cookie, the less shaky your icing will turn out. Hold your royal icing tip slightly above the cookie as you draw your desired border, and watch the icing fall into place. Floating the icing will help maintain clean lines.

I like to outline every cookie and let them set before moving on to flood icing. Royal icing should be hard to the touch when it’s done drying.

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Use flood icing to fill your cookie. There is no wrong way to fill in the empty space. I like to flood the outline first and then fill in the middle of the cookie. Just do whatever your heart moves you to do!

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You know those Instagram videos where someone uses a small gray needle-like tool on the flood icing? I always thought they were spreading the icing. During my icing class this past spring at Biscuiteers, I learned they’re actually popping air bubbles in the icing.

Do you see the four bubbles on the flood icing in the picture above? To remove them, gently poke them with a toothpick or pick up the cookie an inch or two from a surface and drop it. The pressure is usually enough to pop the bubbles as seen below.

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My biggest tip (and yes I feel like a big cheese ball saying this) is to be kind to yourself and just have fun. Your first, second, and third batches will be far from perfect, but don’t let that stop you!

Once I threw perfection out the window, I had way more fun piping and throwing sprinkles around with reckless abandon (there may or may not have been several Jackson Pollock shoutouts).

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So your lines are crooked and they’re giving you an eye twitch? Just add more lines! Your royal icing broke and now flood icing is pouring out the side of the cookie which is most definitely happening in the picture above? Move that cookie to a plate and pop it in the fridge so the icing can harden. I guarantee no one will care. At the end of the day, you’ve got cookies in your house and that’s all that really matters.

Happy Valentine’s Day, friends! And an especially Happy Valentine’s Day to Kevin, who has eaten his fair share of imperfect cookies and doesn’t make me feel any less because of it!


Cookie recipes for shipping to friends

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After the 2016 election, I wanted to do something for friends to brighten their day. I posted a callout on social media asking for eight people who would like homemade desserts shipped straight to their door.

There were no rules aside from 1. The desserts would come on a surprise date anytime within the calendar year and 2. The recipients had no say in their desserts (aside from allergies taken into consideration).

Throughout 2017, cookies of all varieties traveled to eight friends in Bloomington, IN; Austin, TX; San Francisco, CA; Saint John, IN; Richmond, VA and Carbondale, IL. I finally sent the last box just this past December – more than a year after the original callout. Thankfully surprise baked goods taste just as delicious in the summer as they do in the winter.

Stack of olive oil shortbread with rosemary and chocolate chips

The research

I had never shipped baked goods before this challenge. But the best part of existing in the twenty-first century is that if you’re interested in doing something, you can always find advice from someone on the internet who has done it before.

My go-to baking mavens Molly Yeh and Joy the Baker each had advice in their cookbooks of all places:

  1. Wrap each treat individually to ensure freshness
  2. Bake something sturdy enough to endure transit
  3. Pick something which will last several days

Close-up of a stack of vanilla rainbow sprinkle cookies

Three stacks of vanilla rainbow sprinkle cookies

Here’s extra criteria I considered while picking recipes. Sadly, keeping these things in mind eliminated many options except shortbread and cookies:

  1. No icing
  2. Nothing dipped in chocolate – in case it melts in transit
  3. No cupcakes – because an un-iced cupcake is just a muffin*
  4. Nothing fruity or prone to spoil – “Happy baked goods! Enjoy the mold!” No, thank you.
  5. Include at least two kinds so if one doesn’t hold up, there’s always another option

*Muffins are delightful, and I don’t make them as much as I should. But the best muffins are soft muffins. And if I was going to ship something soft, I figured I might as well ship a Nature Valley granola bar since I feared anything soft would just turn to crumbs.

olive oil shortbread with rosemary and chocolate chips

The very scientific methodology

I baked the cookies on a Saturday or Sunday evening and individually wrapped them after cooling on these delightful space savers. Then I packed a gallon-sized ziploc bag (or two) with 12-18 cookies total. I then tucked the bags in boxes as big as shoe boxes so they would jostle as little as possible while in transit. Finally, I shipped the cookies first thing Monday morning, and they usually arrived no later than Friday depending on the destination.

The results

It should come as no surprise that the best part of sending cookies to my friends were the messages they sent after the cookies arrived. I assume hearing the cookies were nearly gone made me just as happy as my friends were when they found cookies on their doorstep (I did have to test the batches too after all!). 2017 was a long year, but knowing I made someone’s day made me even more excited than usual to get in the kitchen!

If you’re interested in sending cookies to your friends, here are the treats I shipped on several occasions with no complaints from the recipients:

Smitten Kitchen’s olive oil shortbread with rosemary and chocolate chips

Joy the Baker’s Vanilla bean confetti cookies

American Girl doll’s chocolate chip cookies – My family and I usually tell anyone we don’t know very well this recipe is Grandma’s secret recipe 😉

Gluten free

Gluten free almond flour chocolate chip cookies

Erin Jeanne McDowell’s flourless cocoa cookies

the bottom of a stack of rainbow sprinkle vanilla cookies

If you have any questions about shipping your own desserts, email me at emmagrdina(at)gmail(dot)com!



Holiday baking recommendations

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The first snowfall has landed in D.C. and the rest of the country too judging by all of the Instagram Stories I just watched. Is there anything as magical as living in a snow globe?

I’m torn between baking up a storm and watching holiday movies all day. Alas, I used up all the eggs in a frittata this morning (a rare activity reserved for weekend mornings when I can pull myself out of bed early enough), and I’m not about to leave the house anytime soon for said eggs. Holiday movies it is!

I thought it might be helpful to wrap up the (semi-holiday, always delicious) recipes I recommend to friends in one neat list. I’ve tried and loved most of the recipes listed below with the exception of the chai cookies, Italian wedding cookies and the peanut butter blossoms. But I’m including them here a. because they look delicious and b. because I’ve made recipes from these bakers before, and everything has turned out wonderfully. I’m sure these will be no different!

The recipes are separated into categories based on how I tend to categorize treats this time of year: Sharing, Shipping, Last-minute baking, and Lazy weekend recipes.


Sharing – Treats which are too decadent to keep to yourself and deserve to be shared

Shortbread cookies with royal icing

Smitten Kitchen’s Chocolate peanut butter tart – Tarts always sound intimidating to me, but this one is a lot less scary if you think of it like a giant Reese’s cup.

Small batch cookie dough dip

Shipping – Snacks to send to friends in all corners of the world

Criteria for shippable cookies includes, but is not limited to: must hold up to being jostled around, nothing dipped lest it melt en route and nothing iced with soft buttercream.

Joy the Baker’s vanilla bean confetti cookies

Masala-Chai chocolate chip cookies

Gluten-free Italian wedding cookies

Last-minute baking – Recipes to make when you remember you’ve got a cookie swap in less than 24 hours

Shortbread cookies – Skip the icing, and just bring shortbread! No one will know anything’s missing.

Classic peanut butter blossoms

Gluten-free almond flour chocolate chip cookies

Lazy weekend recipes – For when you’ve got extra time on your hands

Molly Yeh’s basil marscarpone buttercream frosted chocolate cake

Joy the Baker’s cream cheese cinnamon rolls

Hi-hat chocolate cupcakes with peanut butter frosting

Is this round-up helpful? Is there a recipe you think I should add to the list? Let me know in the comments!