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Newsletter recommendation

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Girls Night In is “a newsletter for women who’d rather 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!

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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…

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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!

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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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Recipes

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.

Tools

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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Voila!

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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!

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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!

xo

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If my family was dessert: My mom

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(These cupcakes are the peanut butter hi-hat cupcakes from Sally’s Baking Addiction.)

Chocolate muffins

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.

Iced peanut butter cupcakes from the side

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.

Open cupcake

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.

Iced peanut butter cupcakes

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.

Sliced hi hat cupcake

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.

Sixtieth cake topper on a cupcake

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.)

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Fourth of July flag cake (and that time I dropped a four layer cake)

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Have you ever started a project with a bad feeling? I know it sounds so corny, but from the moment I started this cake on Friday night, I had a bad feeling about it. I can’t describe it exactly, but I just knew things were not going to end well.

I usually get nervous at some point during the baking process (Will it rise ok? Did I mix it too much? Is this thing even going to taste good?), so I chocked up my nerves to a weird week and tried to move on.

When I set out to make this flag cake, I wasn’t sure how it would turn out, but I didn’t think I’d go so far as accidentally dropping it.

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Let me set the scene for you: I made the layers Friday night, so I woke up early Saturday to ice the cake and shoot photos so I’d have time to enjoy the weekend (aka I was rushing. Which I should know by now never ends well).

In order to get my favorite light, I shoot photos on a very small end table near our windows which you can see in these pictures. I’m able to move the table around and take pictures around it without there ever being an issue.

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As I was assembling this bad boy, it was as easy as I remembered it being when I made this cake last year. The flag makes it look 10x more difficult than it is, I swear. The design is made by cutting out the middle of the blue layer(s) and doing the same to the red and white, but keeping the middles and discarding the edges as shown above. I used a spaceship mug because why buy a circular cookie cutter when drinking glasses work so well? 😉 Then the red and white replace the inside blue layers. Like Russian nesting dolls! That’s it. Easy peasy.

So here I was cutting the pieces, sneaking bites of frosting and icing, when after I finished icing and cut a slice, the sun shifted and cast a nasty shadow. I set the slice aside (but not the cake what was I thinking?!) and moved the cake and end table to the other side of the living room to check out the lighting there. It was even worse. And this! This, my friends, is when things got ugly. I decided to move the cake back. Should’ve been easy enough right?

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I lifted the tiny end table with the cake on top when halfway through carrying it back to its original spot (mind you, our apartment is small so this is not the hoof it might sound like it is. Although I would like to lie and tell you I had to jump through fiery hoops down the hallway and a flight of moving stairs to make this whole thing sound more impressive.) when the end table leg caught on our leather loveseat. The cake stand nudged a little toward the edge. It sounded like the world’s most ominous game piece moving across a game board and in that moment I knew.

I knew I could not salvage what had already begun. Instead, I remember my gasps growing increasingly louder and faster as my mind raced and I tried to back out of the situation. Do I keep moving forward? Put the thing down? Scoot to the side? All logical ideas! Yet all I did was tilt the table further. And thud.

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Have you ever heard a cake drop? I can’t think of a single time before now where I witnessed an entire cake fall to the floor. (Is it too late to add this to my bucket list just so I can cross it off?) The best analogy I can think of is that a cake falling straight onto carpet (carpet. Ugh, kill me now.) sounds a lot like the thump of a human body meeting a hotel bed.

For a hot second, you expect yourself to bounce back. Surely this can’t be that anti-climactic, I always think to myself when I throw myself on top of the sheets. But then you realize you’re face down on a hotel bed going nowhere. Much like a dropped cake.

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The whole premise of my original blog post was going to be, “See! This cake’s presentation looks intimidating, but it’s so easy to make!” Now, the whole premise is, “If you make this cake, don’t drop it and you’ll already one up me!”

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I was also planning on outing myself that this particular Fourth of July-themed cake is from a box mix and pre-made frosting! When the first step of a recipe is, “Make six layers” I’m all for allowing ourselves some leeway and doing what we can to skip a few steps.

Fool me once, Betty Crocker! Although as much as I’d like to blame this tumble on the cake’s sticky consistency or the thin frosting which is less than ideal for decorating, I’ve got nothing to blame but myself. This might be the first time I dropped a cake, but I’m certain it won’t be my last.

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I hope my Great Cake Fall of 2017 hasn’t scared you away from trying this cake at home. The time spent decorating and assembling are so worth it to see everyone’s face when you cut into it!

As for me, I’m planning on serving these cake balls this holiday weekend instead.

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p.s. Follow the directions on the box, and you’ll be just fine! For each of the six cakes, I used 3/4 cup of mix and added food coloring until I reached the desired colors. The grocery store only had gel food dye, so don’t fret if you can’t find liquid: the gel works just fine. 

Here are the cake pans I used and highly recommend.

And one last thing: I recommend mixing the dye into the cake mix in a glass mixing cup. That way you can more easily make sure your color is consistently mixed. Good luck!

Have you ever dropped food or a dessert you were cooking all day? I would love to know I’m not alone, so tell me more in the comments!