Wednesday, July 8, 2009

on learning

"where'd you learn how to do that?"
i've been decorating christmas cookies with my mom since i was 4. the standard technique was always to push the frosting to the edge with a butter knife, strategically shake the sprinkles, add details with gel. plates of cookies--chocolate chip, pecan fingers, even one made with potato chips, were assembled for gifts and each was topped with a selection of decorated sugar cookies. rudolph, santa, frosty, wreaths, bells, stars, trees, then later candy canes, and some trial shapes that didnt stick around like the little house, the gift box, santa's boot, all magically appeared in royal icing, all done in our "sloppiest best."
we have our own styles. mom likes making rudolph with solid pastel icing, a splash of nonpariels, and a cinnamon red-hot nose. they're like pop-art. i like making the reindeer white with a harness of dragee jingle bells.
we always had the problem of our icing only reaching a certain level of color. food coloring in drop form will never achieve red, for instance, only a deep pink. the pastel frosting only served as a background to a layer of sugar in the saturated color--red on pink, forest green on minty green. wilton food coloring solved it. a layer of red icing, followed by a layer of red sugar makes a seriously red cookie.
the tubes of decorating gel were my favorite thing when i was 4. i'd paint a whole cookie with it. when it dries though, it's like those gummy blobs that hold index card ads and order forms to the inside of magazines. you'd remove the plastic wrap from the plate of cookies and it would rip frosty's black coal eyes and orange carrot nose right out of his hardened white frosted face. the evolving cookie artist in me needed to make details, but was limited with the standard butter knife. i switched to piping. eventually i could be found with 3 or 4 cookies in front of me in various stages of drying, so a new wet line of piping wouldnt sink into it's background color.
3 or 4 cookies turned into several dozen once i was commissioned to decorate in bulk. then i had to coordinate which layer to do when so that one color icing wouldnt mix with its neighbor, or so i could have a sugar-coated field up against a smooth one without the sugar wandering and sticking. on top of that, i had to decide how to mix my colors so i wasnt wasting frosting. red and yellow, once done, can be added to the orange. do the orange first, and you have leftover red and yellow. even more complicated is trying to do this in august with no air conditioning. been there, it was messy. the air is fixed, but it's still a ballet of temperature, drying time, and gravity.
probably the hardest is figuring out where those lines go. unless its the plastic stamp kind, the cutter only gives you the outline. you have to decide where the eyes go, how many toes the bird has, how the daisy's petals should join to the center. my art teachers would be pleased; i now make sketches. i trace the cutter, outline it to allow for the cookie shape puffing up, then i draw in the parts and plan the successive color making. with cookie in hand i switch from pencil to icing, and the magic begins. or more correctly, it continues.

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