Monday, October 31, 2011

How to Ship Cookies

I was so excited to help with the Fund for Jennie project that I didn't really put too much thought into the logistics.  I have baked and decorated about one hundred sugar cookies, so I knew that part wouldn't be difficult.  But once someone bid on my cookies and won, I realized I had neglected to plan one of the most important components of this whole project: getting the cookies to the winner.

I went to the cookie queen herself, Bridget from Bake at 350, to figure out how she ships her cookies to her fans.  As if she was reading my thoughts, I found a video on her University of Cookie site that laid out exactly how to ship cookies.  Well, it wasn't simply shipping cookies, it's packaging them in a way to make sure they arrive looking as beautifully as they did when you sent them off.  Her post was so helpful that I wanted to share my own experience with shipping cookies and provide the best tips possible to make sure your cookies arrive in one piece.

The first thing you must do is protect the individual cookie.  Each cookie should be individually wrapped in cellophane bags.  Not only does this protect the cookie, but it makes for a really beautiful presentation.  If your cookies are simply flooded and do not have any detail on them, you may be able to fit two cookies in one bag.  But because I was making these cookies for someone else, I wanted to make sure each cookie was protected.

Box #1: 8-1/2 in x 11 in document box.  I picked up this box (along with all of my other shipping materials) at my local Staples.  It's a clean, neat box that can fit a good number of cookies.  Assemble your 8-1/2 x 11 in box and line it with a sheet of bubble wrap.  Lay your bags of cookies in a single layer along the bottom of the box.  Cover with a second sheet of bubble wrap.  Lay another layer of cookies on top of the bubble wrap and cover with a third piece of bubble wrap.  I was able to fit 1 dozen cookies in this one document box, but you may be able to fit more or less depending on the size of your cookie and whether or not you wrapped them individually.

Box #2: 12 in x 12 in x 12 in shipping box.  The dimensions of your shipping box may be different from the one I used.  To determine what size shipping box you'll need, first figure out how many cookies you can fit into your document box.  I knew I could fit 12 cookies into each document box, therefore I would need 2 document boxes to ship my 24 cookies.  Assemble your shipping box and line the bottom with packing peanuts or (if you're trying to be environmentally conscious) crumpled up newspaper.  Place the first document box in the shipping box, add another layer of padding, then place the second document box in the shipping box, followed by another layer of padding.  Repeat this process until all of your cookies are packed up.

Quadruple check the address of the recipient, cover it with packing tape, tape up all of the sides and corners of the shipping box, and stamp it with a "FRAGILE" stamp.  And there you go!  The whole packaging process took me less than an hour; the most time consuming part was packaging each individual cookie and tying them off with a ribbon.  You put a lot of time and effort into these cookies, you should put the same amount of time and effort into making sure they get to their destination safely.  Good luck!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Fall Leaf and Pumpkin Cookies

Remember back over the summer when I hosted an auction on my site to raise funds for Jennie and her two girls?  Well one woman, Jill, graciously bid on my cookies, and it's time for me to send them out!  I wanted to take a minute to share the cookies I made for her, but first I wanted to talk about #afundforJennie.

It seems like ages ago that everyone rallied together to raise funds for Jennie and her girls after her husband died from a sudden and unexpected heart attack.  The women at Bloggers Without Borders really rallied everyone together and collected donations for Jennie's family as well as urge other bloggers to host auctions on their sites in order to raise additional funds.  When I was telling a friend the story behind the cookies, I couldn't remember how much was actually raised for Jennie.  I went to the BWOB website and brought up the last post on #afundforJennie and almost fell out of my seat.  Do you know how much we raised?  I don't think you'd believe me if I told you, so visit the post to check it out for yourself.

How amazing is that!! I will forever be floored by what an amazing community the blogging world is.  I am looking forward to seeing what other causes BWOB will take up; I believe this organization has the potential to do some pretty incredible things.

So back to the cookies, Jill asked if I could make her some fall themed cookies and we decided on fall leaves and pumpkins.  I found my cookie cutters, made some of my vanilla bean sugar cookies and royal icing, and got to decorating.

A few weeks ago, I had stumbled across this post by SugarBelle about fall leaf sugar cookies.  They didn't look like normal decorated sugar cookies - they had a texture to them and the icing looked as if it was marbled.  She used food coloring spray paint - who knew something like that even existed!

I decided to make orange leaves, red leaves, and orange pumpkins with brown stems, leaving my color palette to a manageable 3 colors.  I bought red and orange food color spray to give the leaves some depth and figured i'd use the red on the orange cookies and the orange on the red cookies.  Well, the orange didn't come out on the red cookies (seriously, what was I thinking?), but the red on the orange cookies looked amazing!  They actually look like fall leaves, and the spray paint added some texture as well.  I hope to find some more uses for these spray cans...

Before spraying - still pretty, but the leaves are lacking something...

Enter Color Mist Food Color Spray by Wilton!  

How cool is that!  The red on the orange adds such depth to the color, and what real fall leaves are just 1 color?

The finished cookies!  Next week I'll show you how to make sure they arrive to their destinations safely...

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Sugar Cookies and Royal Icing

Hello there!  Sorry for the long absence, but to be completely honest September was not my best month.  However, we are well into October (which happens to be my favorite month) and I am excited to enjoy all it has to offer.  Even though people have been posting fall recipes since the day after Labor Day, we are still well into this beautiful season and I have plenty of things to share with all of you :)

So let's start off with a holiday favorite: decorated sugar cookies

If you remember, I was having some trouble finding the perfect sugar cookie.  Some of the ones I tried were too hard and dry (like a shortbread), while others just did not have the right flavor combination.  I was also having issues with my royal icing, and I could not understand how something with such simple ingredients could taste so....blegh.  I tweaked both recipes and it's safe to say I have found a recipe for each that I am very happy with.

Sugar cookies

After finding vanilla beans at Fairway Market for $2-3 each, I really couldn't pass up incorporating them into my cookies.  If you cannot find vanilla beans for this cheap near you, you can certainly omit them and add a little more vanilla extract.  Also, this recipe would work well with many types of flavorings (such as lemon, cinnamon, etc), just make sure that you're adding something that doesn't change the consistency too much or else they may not cook or roll out properly.

This dough lends itself very nicely to being rolled out, and if you remember some of my first posts that was something I really struggled with.  Make sure you keep your surface and your rolling pin lightly floured and if you find your dough to be too soft or flaky, stick it in the fridge for a couple minutes and start again.  Also, cut the dough in half or even into thirds - it makes it much easier to work with.

Cooking time will vary depending on the shape of your cookie.  If your cookie has thin parts, it will cook faster.  If it has more of a circle shape, it'll take longer (you'll be able to see this in my next post).

The amount of cookies you get from this recipe will also vary depending on what size cookie cutter you use.  I would think that unless you're making cookies with 6 in diameters, this recipe should make at least 2 dozen cookies.

Also, some cookie recipes do not contain baking powder, but I wanted to put baking powder in mine to make my cookies puff up a little so they'd be chewy in the middle.  That being said, these cookies will expand, so make sure you space them out...

Vanilla Bean Sugar Cookies

-       2 ½ c flour
-       2 tsp baking powder
-       1 tsp salt
-       1 c unsalted butter
-       1 c sugar
-       1 egg
-       1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and seeds removed
-       2 tsp vanilla extract

Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt and set aside.

In a separate bowl, cream together the butter and the sugar.  Add the egg, seeds from the vanilla bean, and vanilla extract and blend.  Begin adding the dry ingredients about 1 c at a time and blend together completely after each addition.   You may need to knead it with your hands. 

Preheat oven to 350F.  Line a baking sheet with a silicone mat or parchment paper. 

Flour a work surface and a rolling pin and roll dough until it’s about ¼ in. thickness.   Cut with cookie cutters as desired and bake for about 7 - 10 minutes, depending on the size of your cookie.  Let sit on pan for about 5 minutes and then transfer to a wire rack to cool.  Decorate as desired. 

Royal icing

When I first learned about royal icing, I was terrified to work with it.  My Wilton cake decorating instructor had us all believing that if the icing came in contact with anything greasy, such as a rubber spatula or a plastic container, the icing would be ruined and would not dry properly.  So I kept my icing out of tupperware and scooped it into piping bags with a metal spatula, obsessing over the fact it could not touch plastic.

Well over the past few months I've become a little more lax in my practices.  I still store my royal icing in pyrex containers or metal/ceramic bowls with tin foil for lids, but I've started using these wonderful squeeze bottles to flood my cookies and I haven't had any problems to date.  Royal icing is still terribly finicky, so here are a few tips to help you get the perfect consistency.

First, add your water about 1 tbsp at a time.  You might not need all 6 tbsp (you might even need more), so I'd recommend starting with 3 tbsp and then adding water 1 tbsp at a time until you get the perfect consistency (it shouldn't be runny).  If you do add too much water, no worries, just add more confectioner's sugar.  Also, make sure you sift the sugar, it'll keep clumps out of your icing.

See those glossy peaks?  That's how you know
the royal icing is the perfect consistency.
You really need to let the icing beat for about 10 minutes, which is SUCH A PAIN if you only have a handheld mixer.  But don't fret, it can be done (and has been dozens of times by yours truly).  You know your icing is ready when it forms glossy peaks when you pull the beater away.  Also, you should be able to scrape a knife through the middle of the frosting and it'll stay in place.

Now what about the taste?  Ok, I have to be honest here, I use Wilton for everything, except for things I'm going to eat.  If you want a meringue powder that doesn't have this overly sweet and unidentifiable taste, you have to go for something a little more expensive like Ateco or AmeriColor.  I heard Williams and Sonoma makes meringue powder too, but good luck finding it.  Believe me, paying a little extra for better meringue powder will make a huge difference in the taste.  Plus, you can always add a drop or two of vanilla or almond extract to your royal icing to cut into the sweetness of the sugar (I use vanilla).

I already posted a tutorial on how to make color flow icing.  This is the icing you use to flood your cookies.  When you're decorating your cookies, always make sure the icing you're not using is covered!  It can dry out relatively quickly.

I'd recommend storing the undecorated cookies in airtight containers, but once they're decorated with royal icing they need to be left out for at least 24 hours so the icing can dry properly.  After the icing is dried, feel free to store them any way you'd like, just be careful not to ruin your decorations!!

Royal Icing
Makes about 4 cups

-       4 c confectioner’s sugar
-       3 tbsp meringue powder
-       6 tbsp water (may not use all 6)

Sift the confectioner’s sugar into a bowl and add the meringue powder.  Add 3 tbsp of the water, combine, and then add the remaining amount of water 1 tbsp at a time until you reach the desired consistency.  The icing should not be runny. 

Beat on high speed for about 10 minutes, or until the frosting forms stiff, glossy peaks. 

Dye and cover immediately to prevent from drying out. 

The best part about making and decorating cookies is you can do the process all at the same time or in many steps.  Because I have been so crunched for time between school, homework, regular work, and field work, I pretty much had about 2 hour time windows to work on these cookies.  After you make the dough, you could chill it for about 1 or 2 days or freeze it.  Or, you could roll out the dough and freeze the cutouts before baking them.  Taking breaks while baking and decorating cookies makes the whole process much easier, trust me :)

So what brought about this tutorial?  You'll just have to wait a few more days to find out ;)

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Strength Training - Arm Workout

Hello my friends!  Last week, I gave you a little pep talk to get you past those big beefy boys in the gym and promised you a really good workout to follow.  Here's a pretty basic workout I use for my arms and my back.  When doing these workouts, remember to always keep your core engaged (contract your ab muscles as if someone was about to punch you in the stomach - if you get the feeling like you're trying to go to the bathroom, you're doing it wrong).  Keep your back straight and shoulders slightly back.  If you slouch, you could throw off your balance and hurt your back.  Workout both sides of your body and opposing muscles (shoulders/chest, biceps/triceps) and always use the same weight for each arm, even if one is stronger than the other (no brainer, right?  But I've seen it happen).  Use a slow, controlled motion - don't speed through these workouts.

- Bicep curls: stand with your feet shoulder width apart, core engaged, back straight, shoulders relaxed. Hold a free weight in each hand.  Starting with your right hand, bring the weight up to your shoulder and then lower, careful not to lock your elbow.  This was one rep.  Do 8 reps in a row to complete the set.  Repeat on the left side.
- Tricep extension: place your left knee and left hand on a bench, leaving your right foot on the ground.  Pick up a free weight with your right hand and bring your elbow to a 90 degree angle.  Extend your arm behind you, making sure the weight doesn't go any higher than 2 inches above your back.  Bring your elbow back to a 90 degree angle.  That was one rep.  Do 8 reps in a row to complete the set.  Repeat on the left side. *When doing this workout, make sure that your back is straight and flat, use a mirror to check*
- Rows: using the same position as the tricep extension, grab a free weight with your right hand and bring your elbow to a 90 degree angle.  Lower the weight, being careful to not lock your elbow.  This was one rep.  Do 8 reps in a row to complete the set.  Repeat on the left side.
- Chest press: lie on the bench with your feet on the floor, a free weight in each hand.  Keep your elbows at a 90 degree angle and bring your arms out to your sides, keeping them perpendicular to your body.  Extend your arms straight up, being careful to not lock your elbows, and bring the weights so they're almost touching.  This is one rep, do 8 reps in a row to complete the set.
- Shoulder raise: stand with your feet shoulder width apart, holding a free weight in each arm.  Bring your arm up in front of you until it is parallel with the ground, then lower back to your side. Then bring your arm up to your side until it is parallel with the ground, then lower back to your side.  This is one rep.  Do 4 reps in a row to complete the set.  Repeat on the left side.

If you've ever worked out with a machine before, you will immediately feel a difference after using free weights.  Free weights engage all of your muscles, resulting in a better workout.  When you're ready to use heavier weights, you can either increase the weight but not the number of sets to build muscle or keep the weight the same and increase the total number of sets to 3 to tone your muscles and improve your muscle endurance (which is what I do).

I hope you found this post useful and informative, also don't be afraid to print out the workout and bring it with you!  Remember, be confident, polite, and focus on you!  Happy exercising!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

It's My Gym Too!

So I know I've been a little negligent of the blog ever since school started (my posts went from 14 per month to 5!).  Since school started up again, I've been insanely busy during the week working part time, going to school full time, tutoring, and doing field work in a local school.  I also feel like since I don't have time to bake and exercise as much any more I don't really have too many things to talk about.  October is my favorite month so hopefully I will have many things to post about apples, pumpkins, changing leaves, and baseball.  October also means colder weather and usually rain, so towards the end of the month I end up spending more time in the gym working on my conditioning than running outside.  So I thought that maybe a good way to kick off the month would be to do a series on conditioning workouts.  I got this idea from my mother, actually, when she asked me to take her to the gym to show her how to use the free weights.

I feel like the set up is the same in every gym - the free weights are always in the back, lined up against a wall that is just one giant mirror.  There are a few benches, but they're usually occupied by boys about twice your size, wearing shirts without sleeves that show way too much of their armpit (I mean seriously, did you rip off the sides of your shirt with your sleeves?).  I can understand where my mom was coming from - for women, it can be a very intimidating place, especially for people who have never used the free weights before.

My mom, like many women, chooses to use the machines that guide your workouts for you using pulleys rather than brave the free weights in the back of the gym.  However, you get a better workout with free weights because it engages not just the muscle you are targeting, but all of the muscles around it that help you lift or pull the weight.  Think about it, when you're at a machine doing bicep curls, your arms are resting on cushions, you're sitting on your butt, and the only thing you have to concentrate on is keeping your wrists straight.  However, imagine standing with a 5 lb free weight in each hand, keeping your core tight to support the weight in your hands and your forearms and triceps engaged to help your bicep bring the free weight up close to your shoulder.  So instead of just working out your biceps, you're also improving your posture by creating a stronger core and getting a slight workout in all of the other muscles of your arms as well.

If you go to a gym like mine, the free weight section is primarily geared towards men.  The free weights on the bench go up to 225 lbs, and the 5, 10, and 12.5 lb free weights are usually on the floor in a corner.  The boys are usually there in packs, with each of them taking up a bench even if they're not working out.  It's frustrating and intimidating and hard to get past but I want you to because believe me once you get past those boys in the back of the room and start focusing on you and your workout, you'll instantly fall in love with working out with free weights and never go back to those machines again.  My mom has barely used the machines since I showed her an arm circuit.

So when you go to the back of the room here are a few things I want you to remember.
- Be confident - you have a right to use the free weights too.
- Be polite - if the boys are in your way, just say "excuse me," especially if they're just hanging out and talking.  Make your presence known and don't be afraid to ask for a bench if they're just using it to hold their protein shake.
- Focus on you - believe me, that's what the other boys in the gym are doing too.  You're here for your workout, so don't even think about the workouts the other people are doing.  And everyone started somewhere.  Who cares if you're using 3 lb weights?  This is your workout tailored to fit your needs, you'll get stronger with practice.

Next time when I post an arm circuit, I want you all to remember this post when heading to the back of the gym.  Until then!