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Look Who’s Cooking: Mastering cookies all about trial and error

  • A variety of holiday cookies made by Caitlin von Schmidt of Greenfield. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Caitlin von Schmidt, cookie artist and current co-owner of Minglewood Arts with her husband, Justin Twaddell, creates a penguin cookie. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Caitlin mixes up colored icing for her holiday cookies. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Caitlin von Schmidt fills in a polar bear cookie with royal icing. She offers some tips for creating your own icing in today’s column. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Caitlin von Schmidt of Greenfield decorates her holiday cookies. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Caitlin von Schmidt of Greenfield puts a carrot nose on a snowman cookie. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • WEDEGARTNER



For the Recorder
Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Editor’s Note:In this first column, Roxann Wedegartner spends time in the kitchen with Greenfield resident and business owner, Caitlin von Schmidt, who has continued her childhood passion for baking and decorating cookies well into her adulthood.

Caitlin von Schmidt has worn a lot of hats, from cookie artist and current co-owner with her husband, Justin Twaddell, of Minglewood Arts — a personalized pet memorial and crockery manufacturer in Greenfield, former Coordinator of the Greenfield Business Association, and head of the Greenfield Cultural Council.

On the bright, crisp early December day I visited with Caitlin, she had baked a batch of her favorite gingerbread molasses cookies in holiday and winter shapes and was filling small squeeze bottles and icing bags with colorful icing. As we sat down to talk, she began decorating a polar bear. It was not her specialty polar bear however. The “ugly sweater polar bear” came later. The following is our conversation:

Roxann: Why cookies?

Caitlin: I’ve been baking cookies and cakes since I was 6 years old. In sixth grade, I did my first real decorated project, which was a cake of the Bruins logo. We were doing some kind of hockey thing in class and had teams. For my project, I did the cake. I’ve been doing cookies for fun for a long time. I’ve done them for local fundraisers; for holidays like Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving; for friend’s special occasions like weddings or baby showers; and I’ve had them in the Brass Buckle on Main Street (in Greenfield). The word is that the animal shapes with faces sell better than shapes without faces, like trees or snowflakes. It’s fun. I love it and it’s not a real expensive hobby.

R: Where did you learn the ins and outs of cookie artistry?

C: I’m self-taught. The internet is a wealth of information and I watch hours and hours of YouTube videos. You don’t have to have an art background to do this, but it does help to be able to draw. I just happen to have an MFA from UMass Dartmouth.

R: What does the well-stocked cookie decorator pantry hold?

C: Mountains of confectioner’s sugar. Lots of cookie cutters of all shapes and sizes. Good food coloring; not the grocery store coloring. I use Americolor, which you have to buy online as it’s not sold around here. However, Wilton’s is fine, too, and you can get that at Michael’s. Rolling pins and dowels or rolling pin with guides. Icing bags and/or bottles. Icing tips for different types of decorating. Hand mixers work, but a stand mixer is a good investment.

R: Dowels or rolling pin with guides? You can tell I’m not a baker.

C: You want your dough to be consistent in thickness from batch to batch, especially if you’re making in large quantities for an event. Some cookies can be fat or paper thin. Cookies for decorating have to be a certain size to hold their shape while cooking. This is somewhat trial and error, but ¼- to ⅜-inch is good. So to do that consistently, it helps to have guides. You can buy a rolling pin that comes with different rings to place along the ends of the pin, based on the thickness you want, and the dough rolls out to their edges. I saw a video where someone used dowels of a certain thickness and the rolling pin sits on it and rolls the dough out to the thickness of the dowel. So, I bought dowels.

R: That sounds like a trade trick. Are there any other special tricks to the trade that you can share?

C: I’d say one of the biggest tricks to the trade is in the icing. Using it requires a lot of patience. It has to be a certain consistency to flow well, and that’s again learned by trial and error. I used to use butter cream icing and love it. It tastes better than royal icing, which tastes fine, just not as good. Royal icing is much better for decorating. It dries faster and harder so your designs stay put, and it flows easier for piping from the bags or bottles. Speaking of bags or bottles, I use both, but I find bottles make it a lot easier to draw the design, especially if you’re using multiple colors. Another trick if you want the cookies to really make an impression, you can let the different colors dry in between applications. Also, there’s a lot of planning that goes into making the cookies. You don’t just decide in the morning to make decorated cookies for a party that afternoon. The finished cookies should sit for 24 hours before you pack them up or put them out.

R: Sugar cookie or gingerbread cookie?

C: That’s personal preference. I prefer gingerbread cookies because they’re not as sweet. Sugar cookies with icing are just sweet on top of sweet. Too much.

R: What have been your colossal fails or colossal successes?

C: Well, I’ve had icing fail. They say you can keep it around for a couple of days, but I find it just breaks apart and it’s hard to reconstitute it. Use it or lose it. I also once baked about five dozen cookies for some event, left them out on the table and the dog, a little rat terrier, ate all of them. A version of the dog ate my homework. As for successes, I won a Blue Ribbon this year at the Franklin County Fair in the specialty cookie category. And, I’ve won the cookie contest at the Greenfield Winter Carnival.

R: So, you’re going to continue to keep cookie maker/decorator on your resume?

C: It’s fun! You can do whatever you want with it. And kids love to do it. My son loves to make and decorate cookies with me.

Baking tips

There are many recipe versions available for royal icing. If this is your first experience making it, you may want to follow Caitlin’s lead and view a couple of videos online before getting started. Caitlin uses a recipe with meringue powder as noted here. Cookie decorators seem to use the color gels versus oil-based coloring, which are used most often for coloring white chocolate. If you want to make several different colors of icing, you can make one big batch of plain royal icing, then divide it up into smaller portions for adding a different color for each. When making this icing, make sure you add the water a small amount at a time while mixing to achieve proper flow consistency. If you’re making just one specific color of icing, you can add the color before the water, although most royal icing recipes suggest adding the color later.

Remember to plan ahead. The cookie dough needs to chill for 24 hours.

Spicy molasses cutouts (aka gingerbread cookie)

From “The Women’s Day Encyclopedia of Cookery, Vol. 3”

Ingredients:

1 cup soft butter or margarine

1 cup sugar

1 cup light molasses

6 cups sifted all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 to 3 teaspoons ground ginger

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup cold, strong tea

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar until light. Beat in molasses. Sift dry ingredients alternately with tea; mix well. Add vanilla. Chill for at least 24 hours.

Roll out to desired thickness and cut into shapes. Arrange on well greased cookie sheets. Bake in preheated oven for 8 to 10 minutes.

Makes 8 to 10 dozen cookies.

Royal icing

From Sweet Sugarbelle blog (http://bit.ly/1JOGWea)

Ingredients:

4 lbs (two bags) of confectioners sugar

¾ cup meringue powder

1⅓ to 1½ cup warm water

2 to 4 tablespoons of oil-free extract (commonly vanilla) Note: Oil-containing extracts keep the icing from setting up.

Instructions:

Add the dry ingredients first. Use your mixer’s whisk attachment to incorporate the sugar and meringue powder.

Add the extract to the water and slowly add it to the dry ingredients while mixing. At first, the icing will be very liquid-like.

Continue to mix it at medium-high speed until it is fluffy and stiff peaks form, about 7 to 10 minutes. Mixing times are approximate; keep your eye on the icing and stop mixing as soon as it becomes stiff. Over mixing can keep the icing from setting up, so keep this in mind as you work.

“Look Who’s Cooking!” is a monthly column by Roxann Wedegartner where she interviews and shares the recipes of people from around Franklin County who may be well-known in their professional or political lives, but not necessarily for their lives as passionate cooks, bakers or all-around foodies.