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…
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.
And 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.
To 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.)
My 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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Piping 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.
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.
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!
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.
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).
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!
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.
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.
- Wrap each treat individually to ensure freshness
- Bake something sturdy enough to endure transit
- Pick something which will last several days
Here’s extra criteria I considered while picking recipes. Sadly, keeping these things in mind eliminated many options except shortbread and cookies:
- No icing
- Nothing dipped in chocolate – in case it melts in transit
- No cupcakes – because an un-iced cupcake is just a muffin*
- Nothing fruity or prone to spoil – “Happy baked goods! Enjoy the mold!” No, thank you.
- 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.
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.
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:
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 😉
If you have any questions about shipping your own desserts, email me at emmagrdina(at)gmail(dot)com!
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
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.
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.
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.
Lazy weekend recipes – For when you’ve got extra time on your hands
Is this round-up helpful? Is there a recipe you think I should add to the list? Let me know in the comments!
(These cupcakes are the peanut butter hi-hat cupcakes from Sally’s Baking Addiction.)
I will never forget that I was the first Grdina in my family to get a C on her report card.
I was finishing my math homework (for the class I might as well have been failing by my family’s standards) while waiting for a Jonathan Safran Foer reading at a Borders in downtown Chicago when my mom snapped, “The reason you got that C is because I wasn’t home when you were younger.”
My mom returned to teaching full-time a few years after I was born. Her going back to school meant many things for our family. But for me, it meant more time with my dad helping him around the house and running errands around town just he and I.
I remember our days full of activities: running errands around town but always making time for the candy store, handing my dad paint brushes while he was on the ladder, and making chocolate chip cookies together while anxiously waiting for my sisters to return from school and rejoin our fun.
While my mom might chock up my first C to her not being home to encourage studying, what I hope she has now come to realize – after a very full, very fun sixty years on earth – is that by returning to work and later pursuing her Master’s all while raising the three of us, my mom modeled for all of us exactly the kind of woman we hope we will become.
It is because of her that my sisters and I stumbled through dance classes, played volleyball and soccer, tried out for nearly every school play, participated in Speech and Debate, wrote for the college paper, studied abroad and more. She is the one to thank (or blame? 😉 ) for our stubborn personalities and thinking we can conquer anything, obstacles and the patriarchy be damned!
She and my dad both encouraged us to try everything and to never stop learning. To always carry a book on your person and to be kind to everyone because you never know what someone else is going through.
By going after her own dreams both big and small, my mom showed us how to do everything with big love – to embrace the lows for we will overcome them stronger in the end and to cherish the highs for you never know how long they will last.
Anyone who has spent just five minutes with her has seen this for themselves and can attest to how fun she is. I was scolded at a Jonathan Safran Foer lecture, for heaven’s sake!
At the last wedding we attended, the table mates we hardly knew at the evening’s beginning told me as they left that she made the whole party more fun! And they said this despite the fact we toasted our deceased aunt not once but three times, which is most definitely a blog post for another time.
Many years before D.C. and I.U. and Munster High School but always sitting at our big round kitchen table, I remember answering a worksheet which asked many things, one of which was, “what do you want to be when you grow up?”
When I asked my mom (see, I remember you helping me with homework!) she replied, “A strong, independent woman who contributes to society.”
I panicked after seeing there wasn’t nearly enough room for such a long-winded answer (which comes as no surprise to anyone who has seen firsthand how chatty our family is). I suspected everyone else would write something tangible like “teacher” or “artist.” And yet I squeezed “a strong, independent woman who contributes to society” in between the lines and placed my worksheet in my folder for the next day.
To the most fearless and fun woman I know whose mottos include, “Glitterize it” and “What’s yours is mine and what’s mine is mine,” you are, without a doubt, peanut butter hi-hat cupcakes: chocolate cupcakes with peanut butter frosting dipped in chocolate. Chocolate cupcakes are the great equalizer. They’re fitting for every event and always the life of the party.
And if the whipped peanut butter frosting wasn’t enough, these cupcakes have a hard chocolate shell on top. Which sums up my mom’s third life motto: “More is more.”
My only regret is that I didn’t order edible glitter. Alas, there’s always your sixty-first.
I have no idea what happened to that worksheet or how my classmates responded, but the lesson has stuck with me: I can go after anything I want no matter where it will take me.
By simply being, my mother encourages me everyday to cultivate my relationship with myself, to never underestimate the healing power of a good manicure, and that I can do more than I believe is possible.
This post is late by logistical birthday standards, but its publishing the last day of birthday month is a fitting end to an amazing start to her sixtieth year! Birthdays always last the full month, anyways. For these lessons and a million more, we will never come close to repaying you, Mom. You’re the best in the world. Happy belated birthday!
(These cupcakes are the peanut butter hi-hat cupcakes from Sally’s Baking Addiction.)
My oldest sister is five years older than me to the day. Happy birthday, Genevieve!
I put off Part Two of the series If My Family was Dessert for a long time. What dessert could possibly represent the beautiful, smart young woman who has blown out more than twenty years worth of birthday candles with me?
What flavors capture crying at every Christmas movie we watch no matter how many times we’ve seen it? Is Promptly Replies to Emails No Matter How Bizarre My Request Is a boxed cake mix? And in what aisle can I find the seasoning that personifies the sister who would wake us up for school by saying Mac and cheese was on the breakfast menu?
To the sister who is equal parts kindness, humility and fun, you are without a doubt champagne cake! This golden butter cake with champagne ganache nestled between each layer and topped with a chocolate glaze is the definition of sophistication with a side of whimsy. As are many older sisters, the directions are somehow both sensitive and demanding in a way that makes complete sense by the end.
The ganache combines champagne, vanilla and brandy with melted bittersweet and semi-sweet chocolate chips. After spreading the layers and sides with ganache, a chocolate glaze coats the top and sides. You can see your face in the glaze’s reflection! (Certainly there’s a metaphor here.)
By time I got to try this rich layer cake (three days after I started making it), I realized the directions were right all along and as is almost always the case with Big Sister Advice, I’m glad I listened to the directions yadda yadda you were right all along there I said it.
Genevieve is the rare kind of person who brings out the best in people simply by being in the room. She never settles for less than the best and she challenges those around her to do the same with grace and compassion.
I admire her ability to navigate change and look to her when I need anything from words of encouragement to a make-up recommendation, because chances are, she’s been there before or already bought that lipstick and is about to save me some moolah.
When I was younger and less gracious than I’d like to admit I am now, I didn’t like sharing a birthday. As the youngest sister, I often feel like I’m playing catch up to my older two sisters. When I finally reached teenagehood at 13, my sister became an adult. (It doesn’t help that my sisters always move up the qualifying age for being an “official teenager.” Now that I’ve reached twenty-six, I think you’re not truly a teenager until you’re twenty-seven.) When I turned sweet 16, my sister turned 21, so on and so forth.
But now that I’m nearly a real teenager, I no longer look at the five years between us as space to catch-up. Having sisters is all sorts of wonderful, and I’m incredibly fortunate to have two of the best to look up to as incredible models who have navigated several paces ahead of me and regularly reassure me everything will turn out fine.
There are many joys of sharing a birthday, but the number one by far is that we never celebrate alone. Happy birthday, birthday buddy! I’m raising a glass of champagne to you from D.C. and toasting to everything the upcoming year has in store for us – champagne cakes included!