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Cut it out!

photo
[Times photos: Jill Sager]
Brenda Garcia, 8, of Clearwater, left, puts icing on her brush while Hailey Bostain, also 8, of Tampa, takes a taste. The girls were some of the campers at the Dunedin Fine Art Center who the Times asked to decorate cookies from Family Circle.

By JANET K. KEELER

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 27, 2000


Those picture-perfect cookies on magazine covers are, of course, made by professionals. We set out to see if a group of kids could make something just as wonderful. They turned it into a fun and tasty experiment.

You've seen them in magazines: those darling decorated cookies in all manner of shapes and sizes. Uncle Sam standing tall for the Fourth. Impish ghosts haunting Halloween. Fall leaves. Thanksgiving pilgrims. Christmas angels. New Year's babies. Spring flowers. Birthday balloons.

They are so, so cute. Is that Scottie dog actually wearing a plaid vest made of icing? How on Earth did someone get all those confectionary seeds on such a small strawberry-shaped cookie? Clever detailing transforms blank cut-outs into works of art. Which raises the question, do you need an art degree to decorate a cookie?

The answer is yes, or a culinary education, if you want them to look like those you've fawned over in magazines. No, if you lower your expectations and heck no, if you're a kid who just wants to have fun.

palm tree cookie
Palm tree courtesy of Connor Pedretty, 7, Dunedin.
The Times asked six children in a summer camp program at Dunedin Fine Art Center to re-create the beach-themed cookies that appeared on the cover of Family Circle magazine earlier this month. The cookie that especially caught our attention was a pair of red sunglasses with sea and sky reflected in the lenses. A sailboat floated under a bright yellow sun. Birds and waves completed the scene. Dragees served as the screws that attach the temples.

Diana Butts, owner of the Sugarbakers bakery in Medford, Ore., decorated the cookies for Family Circle, food director Peggy Katalinich said. The magazine commissions Butts to design cookie cutters, on sale through the magazine, and make the cookies for several issues each year. She carefully packs each cookie in bubble wrap and ships them to the magazine's offices in New York City for photo shoots.

The cookies' placement on the cover of the 5-million circulation magazine has prompted heavy sales of the cutters at Sugarbakers, Katalinich said.

Though the fanciful "beach-y keen" cookies seem childlike, the feature was aimed at adults, she explained. "A lot of people see food and crafts merging. This is one area where they can satisfy the interest in both."

Lobster cookie
Melissa Milburn, 12, of Crystal Beach, put her lobster in a snappy shirt.
Our mission was to find out if kids could come close to the magazine cookies and if they couldn't, would they have fun trying? We supplied the tools, 10 shades of icing and cookies in the shapes of palm trees, lobsters, sunglasses, the sun and sunbathers.

Rima Day, Art Center teacher and artist, helped supervise, giving tips about color usage and decorating techniques. Our decorators were Brenda Garcia, 8, Clearwater; Melissa Milburn, 12, and Shannon Healy, 10, both of Crystal Beach; Hailey Bostain, 8, Tampa; Connor Pedretty, 7, and Montel Lawson, 7, both of Dunedin.

After listening to a brief explanation of the project, the campers studied the magazine examples, then eagerly started. It quickly became apparent that they didn't much care if their cookies looked like the ones in Family Circle.

photo
Shannon Healy, 10, of Crystal Beach, decorated these beauties.
Hailey's sunglasses were adorned with baby blue polka-dots. Montel's sunbather wore long, bright yellow pants; Shannon's had white lips and eyes. No one attempted the little sailboat on the sunglass lens.

Lesson No. 1: When it comes to cookie decorating, children march to a drummer who doesn't sound anything like Martha Stewart.

Lesson No. 2: Lesson No. 1 doesn't matter. Cookie decorating is a fun activity for kids. They love to create, they love to make a mess, and, most of all, they love to eat the cookies. Even the broken ones.

"The good thing is if they break, you get to eat them sooner," Brenda said. (Brenda would have gotten a belly full of cookies at the Family Circle photo shoot, because many were broken in the process, Katalinich said.)

swimmer cookie
This cookie man is stylin’ thanks to Connor Pedretty.
At 8 years old, Brenda was one of the younger participants. She had enough energy and ideas to decorate 100 cookies. She worked quickly and enthusiastically, if not neatly, typical of children her age. Melissa, 12, and Shannon, 10, worked quietly, with purpose. These are characteristics you would expect of children this age. When decorating cookies at home with children, be mindful that their abilities vary with age, interest and temperament. Nevertheless, each child's creativity should be respected. This is the key to having a good time for both adults and children.

Melissa, we later found out, was an experienced cookie decorator. Her parents, Marlene and John Milburn, own two restaurants in Tampa named after her, Sweet Melissa's and Sweet Melissa's, Too! Last Christmas, Melissa said, she helped decorate 500 cut-out cookies for the restaurants.

"She's probably low-balling that number," Marlene Milburn said. "It was probably more."

Melissa's experience showed on her lobster cookie, which wore a white shirt with black cross-hatching.

Based on the kids' experiences and comments, here are some tips for cookie decorating. (See story for tips on baking the cookies.)

  • Thin, soft royal icing, made from meringue powder to the consistency of sour cream, is easy to spread. (See recipe for icing recipe.) If the icing is too thick, water it down one drop at a time. But "Don't put too much water in," Melissa advised, "or the icing will bleed." Her red polk-dots did just that over white icing on her sunglass cookie.
  • Resist the urge to buy prepared tubes of icing, even though they seem more convenient. "It's hard to get the icing out of the squeeze bottles," Montel said. His sentiments were echoed by all the kids. If you want a similar effect, use disposable pastry bags or sturdy baggies and fill with royal icing. You can push fancy decorating tips into the cut corner of the bags.
  • Brushes made specifically for cake/cookie decorating are easy to handle, but they do require practice. "It's not like painting on paper," Shannon said. Make sure there are plenty of cookies to practice on.
  • Besides icing, sprinkles and other nonpareils are good for decorating. Connor, a first-time cookie decorator, was sorry we didn't have any.
  • Don't go crazy coloring icing. In hindsight, we should have known children were probably not going to use teal or burgundy. Some of the kids even thought the brown icing (meant for the palm tree trunk) smelled bad. It was the same as the others, just an unappetizing color.
  • If you're coloring a small amount of icing, use the drops stocked by grocery stores. In large amounts of icing the liquid may thin the icing too much. You'll get more range of colors and less liquid from gel or paste dyes that can be purchased at stores that carry cake/cookie decorating supplies such as Michael's or Party City. Meringue powder for the icing can also be bought at these stores.

Buying cookie cutters

beach-themed cookie cutters
Most kitchenware specialty shops and some grocery stores stock cookie cutters. Williams-Sonoma stores carry sets of miniature cutters in shapes such as hearts, leaves and circles, and other kinds are available from catalogs.

You can buy the beach-themed cookie cutters featured in Family Circle by sending a check or money order for $10.95, including shipping, to Family Circle Cookie Cutter Offer, P.O. Box 38, Medford, OR 97501. Write "Beach Party" on the envelope. Delivery takes two to four weeks. If you want to buy them online, or get information about other sets of cookie cutters, log on to http://www.thesugarbakers.com.

Other online sources for cookie cutters include http://www.cookiecutters.com or http://www.marthastewart.com

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