Feb 282014
A cookie to celebrate black history month.

A cookie to celebrate black history month.

Our dance performance tonight is part of a black history month celebration. My volunteer assignment was to bring cookies for the performers. To celebrate all the hard work that has been put into this performance, I wanted to try to make my cookies a little special but without putting in too much work.

My first idea was to make chocolate cut-out cookies in the shape of dancers. There is a surprising lack of dancer cookie cutters out there. There are many wonderful dancer silhouette shapes, however. I printed out several and cut them out. I used this recipe and read some tips online about freezing the dough before cutting out the shapes as well as just before baking to keep the crispness of the shapes.

Cutting out the dancer silhouettes.

Cutting out the dancer silhouettes.

Freezing the cutouts before baking.

Freezing the cutouts before baking.

Dancer cookies before baking.

Dancer cookies before baking.

Dancer cookies after baking.  They held their shape!  The heartbreaking part after this, however, was that most of them broke when I took them off the baking sheet!  next time, I would bake them on parchment paper.

Dancer cookies after baking. They held their shape! The heartbreaking part after this, however, was that most of them broke when I took them off the baking sheet! next time, I would bake them on parchment paper.

This idea was working but was going to take way too much time for all the cookies. So, I decided at this point to just use a few of the dancer cookies for the display and using one of my no-fail drop cookie recipes for the rest.

With all the other things we had to keep track of during the performance, I didn’t want to have to remember to take home my cookie display. So, I had my husband pick up a tray from the dollar store on his way home from work. I knew I needed the cutout cookies to be able to stand up on this tray. After some thought, here is the method I came up with.

The display supplies needed: plastic tray from the dollar store, candle and matches, plastic spoons.

The display supplies needed: plastic tray from the dollar store, candle and matches, plastic spoons.

I carefully held each spoon over the flame until the plastic began to soften.  I then bent the spoon handle to a 90 degree angle and then melted the base of the spoon just enough so that it would adhere to the plastic tray. Be careful handling the hot spoons!

I carefully held each spoon over the flame until the plastic began to soften. I then bent the spoon handle to a 90 degree angle and then melted the base of the spoon just enough so that it would adhere to the plastic tray. Be careful handling the hot spoons!

Shaping the melted spoons.

Shaping the melted spoons.

The finished tray with built-in cookie stands.

The finished tray with built-in cookie stands.

Decorating the cookies with melted chocolate and sprinkles.

Decorating the cookies with melted chocolate and sprinkles.

After decorating the cookies, I painted each spoon stand with melted chocolate and attached the cookies to them.

After decorating the cookies, I painted each spoon stand with melted chocolate and attached the cookies to them.

The last step was to layer on the cookies!  Yum!

The last step was to layer on the cookies! Yum!

You could obviously adapt this display technique for a number of different occasions. The next time I am at the dollar store, I will stock up on a few of these disposable trays to have on hand for potlucks, summer cookouts or future cookie-making assignments!

 Posted by on February 28, 2014 General Tagged with: , , ,
Oct 252011

Every once in a while we all have to learn something the hard way—by making a million mistakes and suffering a big fail—but in the process gaining invaluable insight. For me, this fall’s learning experience has been the “fall festival bake sale.” It has taught me lessons not only about bake sales but about work, committees and life in general.

If you are a woman, if you have children in school, or if you are involved with a charity that needs to raise money from time to time, you are at increased risk of being asked to participate in a bake sale. Now, if you are an excellent cook, you may rub your hands with excitement at the prospect or perhaps hang your head in grief knowing exactly how much effort this will require. If, like me, you are not much of a cook, the bake sale causes confusion along with a grand but unrealistic plan.

To make a long story short, my “simple” and “easy” project turned into a ridiculously lengthy project that turned out “cute” but not necessarily successful. It might be a keeper of an idea for my limited cooking ability but it definitely needs some refinement in the execution.

The original plan:

Last year’s festival offered lots of small, individually wrapped treats that sold for about $1 each. I remember moms last year bringing in lots of elegantly wrapped candy apples and the like. My plan was to take this “Monster Paws” idea from Family Fun but make it even easier (and healthy to boot) by using plain popcorn and raisins. No real cooking, just cute packaging. Cater to the health or weight-conscious crowd. Easy. Done.

The reality.

Discover that popcorn will be offered for free at the fall festival so I need to use something else. Discover that the ingredients for trail mix (yogurt-covered almonds, pumpkin seeds, etc.) are not cheap (go heavy on the less expensive organic banana chips). Discover that washing and drying disposable plastic gloves as recommended in the project instructions, is a lot more difficult than it sounds and that the drying process could take days. Discover that people have varying opinions about whether disposable plastic gloves are safe to use with food. Discover that the gloves I had were not the clear plastic type in the picture and looked unappetizing when filled with food. Discover that trying to sew your own gloves out of two layers of plastic wrap does not work. Discover that sewing one layer of plastic wrap to a sheet of paper to create gloves works but takes time. Discover that, once sewn, stuffing food down the fingertips of the “gloves” is difficult and takes time. Discover that plastic wrap breaks more easily than you imagine. Discover that this project was neither quick nor easy.

The bright side of this whole experience, however, was that it provided a good reminder of how to handle an unfamiliar situation. With lots of baking experiences ahead for me this holiday season (Thanksgiving, Christmas cookie exchange, etc.), I hope to use these lessons to improve my cooking and reduce my stress level.

5 Tips for Organizing Yourself in an Unfamiliar Situation (and Bake Sale!)

1) Ask the organizer to clarify the end goals of the project. In my case, it turned out that the organizers were intending to offer a variety of items and prices, from individual treats to more expensive whole pies and big plates of cookies and cupcakes. There was no need to organize my project around the most time consuming option–individually wrapped treats.

2) Clarify exactly what you are expected to do (and not do). The bake sale organizers were willing to wrap up the final products for you and seemed to prefer this so that they could maximize revenue from the sale by grouping items into more expensive sets, coordinate all the packaging to present a unified bake shop and improve the appearance of the less-well-made treats. Now, it would have been enormously helpful if this information was specified on the initial request for baked goods, but I can see how it might be difficult to word some of this on the general notice that was also going to prospective bake sale buyers.

3) Estimate your time commitment to participate and budget your time appropriately. For some reason, it never occurred to me to do a simple calculation like the following:

Minutes per treat * Quantity needed = Total time commitment

For example, if you were intending to do an elaborate decorated cookie or cupcake that would take say “just 5 minutes” per item to decorate and package and you wanted to provide 2 dozen of these, you are looking at 2 hours. Add in shopping time, baking time, interruptions due to other responsibilities, etc. and this could easily escalate to 4 or 5 hours. If you are an experienced cook, you already know this. If you are still learning, it is best to double all of your time estimates to be safe.

4) Estimate your expenses and shop early. Had I started earlier on this project, I could have shopped online and bought in bulk for my pricey trail mix ingredients. I might have also been able to find food safe gloves.

5) Do a quick test run or sample–especially if you are running behind on time. Since, in my mind, I assumed this was a super-easy project, I did not test it ahead of time. Had I taken a second just to wash and dry one of the gloves right when I decided on this project, I might have changed my mind and pursued a different packaging option. As I was working, I wasted a lot of time sewing bad prototypes instead of stopping periodically to test to make sure I was still on track. Any time you see a cute, “easy” project whether on Family Fun, Martha Stewart or someone’s blog, assume that there could have been a lot of false starts and a lot of work to create the finished product.

With regard to this bake sale specifically, here are the takeaways I should remember:

1) Contribute something flexible. Make something that can be sold individually or grouped. Cookies or cupcakes are natural candidates.

2) Don’t spend time on packaging that can’t be changed easily by someone else. Time and time again when I am participating in group situations, I find that the issues people care the very most about are issues of appearance. There is always someone who wants to dictate the final appearance. If you are not the person in charge, assume your packaging will be changed in some way.

3) Whenever possible, emphasize unique, high quality goods. The organizer of this bake sale seems to be subtly pushing people to up their cooking skills. They offered prizes for the best contributions, for example (which went to a chocolate ganache cake made by someone’s grandma and cupcakes made by a mom who is also a professional baker). Despite this, there were numerous contributions that appeared to be Pillsbury slice and bake cookies or cake mix cupcakes. Realistically, moms of school-age children may not be the prime candidates to make elaborate baked goods, particularly since they are short on time and their children may not eat them anyway. Nonetheless, there might be easy alternatives for the non-cooks among us. I could up the wow factor in my trail mix, for example by adding some unusual ingredients or flavors.

What are your bake sale tips? How would you improve on my trail mix idea? Do you see any lessons from the bake sale that translate into other areas of your life? Please share in the comments.

P.S.  In the spirit of planning ahead for Thanksgiving, you may be interested in Apartment Therapy’s 20/20 home cure – 20 days, 20 minutes per day to change your home.

 Posted by on October 25, 2011 General, Ruly Food Tagged with: , , ,
Dec 232010

Today, I will continue my quick, lighthearted holiday posts so that those who are already overtaxed by holiday responsibilities can relax and be entertained for a bit.

Last weekend, I attended a neighborhood holiday cookie and ornament party.  As I was rushing about last-minute trying to figure out what to make, I remembered a silly recipe I first heard about in junior high.

I was on a committee with two other girls to plan a class potluck holiday party.  We went around asking everyone in the class what they were going to bring.  One girl (a sweet friend) indicated that she would bring a dessert consisting of cornflakes, marshmallows and red hot candies.  As we raised our eyebrows at this interesting confection, she assured us, “It’s really good.”  As we did the planning we snickered as we wrote down “cornflake thing”  for one of the desserts.  In the end, the girl brought something else so we never got to taste the cornflake dessert.

I was reminded of this interesting dessert when someone on Twitter (unfortunately, can’t remember who) recently posted a similar recipe.  “I have to bring this.” I thought.  If nothing else, it will be good for a laugh.

There are a ton of recipes out there for this luscious dessert.  Here is one from Kellogg’s, the makers of Corn Flakes cereal.  The basic ingredients are simple, butter, marshmallows, vanilla extract, green food coloring, Corn Flakes and red hot candies.  You melt the butter, melt the marshmallows and add green food coloring and vanilla extract.  You then add Corn Flakes to make a Rice Krispie treat like dessert.

The cornflake treats in progress. Yum?

The hard part is getting the hot, sticky mix out of the pan and forming it into circular wreaths before it hardens.  If you are really good (or have an extra pair of hands to help you) you can manage to form the wreaths and stick the red hots on the molten mix so that they will stay put as the wreath cools.  If you are more of a novice (like me) you will barely be able to get the wreaths formed before the mixture cools and you will need to stick on the red hots either by remelting the butter/marshmallow remnants in the pan, dipping the red hots in and sticking them to each wreath or you can also use vanilla icing (suggested in the Kellogg’s recipe).

They come together quickly and I let them harden up a bit in the fridge before putting them on a plate for the party.   They were bright and cheery looking!  The cornflake texture and shape made them look like holly wreaths.

The finished cornflake holly wreaths.

At the party, all the neighbors brought wonderful, elegant, homemade cookies, mostly in chocolate.  I set down my bright green and red cookies among the other dishes and thought they were already having the desired hilarity effect.

Later on in the party, the cookie judging commenced.  There were several categories of judging for the cookies.  To our amazement, we won in the “best decorated” category.

As we were leaving the party, we filled up a little treat box taking home one of each cookie.  When it came time to take ours home, I discovered that these wreath cookies are a little heat sensitive.  Sitting out for an hour or so, they had started to melt just a bit so that the stacked cookies were becoming one big sticky blob!  I have no idea how everyone else managed to taste one (or if they even did!).  If you are going to make these yourself, definitely don’t stack them or put them in individual plastic treat bags.

When we got home, we finally tasted one ourselves.  It tastes an awful lot like a Rice Krispie treat.  The red hots were a bit crunchy and would have been better if they were more like a jelly bean in texture.

But overall, it was cute and it was (literally) a winner!

 Posted by on December 23, 2010 General, Ruly Food Tagged with: ,