I started Sprinkle & Dot back in March 2016, so with March approaching I thought it would be fun to look back at how my baking and decorating skills have improved, and to share some of the lessons and tips that I’ve picked up over this year.
Being a huge nerd, I always like to have a numerical breakdown of things. So here is my year in review (with some rough estimates where I don’t have a good number written down):
400+ sugar cookies with royal icing
150+ nut-free macarons
140+ cupcakes and mini cupcakes
82 assorted cookies (strawberry chocolate, shortbread)
54 cake pops
Basically, that’s a lot of baking! I’ve definitely had a few stumbles along the way, but I’m overall really happy with every finished product this year.
I thought it would be fun to do some comparisons, between my baking near the start of the year, and what I’ve done most recently. A good direct comparison comes from my sugar cookie kilts, which really kicked everything off back in March:
On the left, that’s one of my very first kilts made in March of last year, and on the right are some kilts I made during the last week of January this year. I’ve definitely figured out my icing consistency and I’ve improved my ability to pipe straight lines. Smaller piping tips also really help to keep the black lines nice and thin. In the middle of the process, I also experimented with painting on the colours and plaid to a white flooded cookie, using food colouring and a brush, but I found this to be fairly time consuming (and the colours had a tendency to bleed), so I’m glad I’ve been able to improve on my previous wet-on-wet piping here.
Second, we can take a look at my Valentine’s day cookies last year, compared to the ones I made this year.
I honestly remember being impressed by the top picture when I first made them, but WOW I have come a long way in my piping skills. Learning how to properly outline a cookie before filling goes a long way to making a cookie look professional. And can we talk about the brush embroidery on that big red heart from 2016? I definitely used a royal icing that was far too wet. Even just the even thickness and doneness of my more recent cookies is a big improvement.
Now let’s talk about macarons. As you know, I’ve been chasing the perfect macaron, and I’ve definitely had some that came close, but no perfect macarons yet. Starting from the top left and moving clockwise, here’s a progression of my macarons in order, from white chocolate (the first two images, top left), to ground pumpkin seeds (top right), and finally to brown and white rice flour (bottom three images). I’ve finally reached a point where my macarons consistently have feet, and where I can make an entire batch without any macarons spreading or becoming misshapen. I can still remember the excitement when I first got feet on my macarons (the blue ones, top middle), and that hasn’t gone away yet with each successive batch of macarons.
I find cakes a little harder to compare, because I have been making cakes a lot longer (I’ve been making custom cakes for friends’ birthdays since I was around 17 or 18). I’ve noticed a huge improvement since I learned how to make better buttercream and since I bought all the right tools, but that all happened fairly quickly after starting Sprinkle & Dot, so there was a huge improvement right at the start, but I haven’t seen as much of a difference throughout the year. I have also made a lot of custom cakes, when makes it difficult to directly compare. The only cake I’ve duplicated is my chocolate dream cake, and it’s pretty easy to see that the second cake (on the right) was done much better than the first. I learned from my mistakes, and let the ganache dry before piping any buttercream on top of it.
The biggest difference is definitely found when looking at cakes that I made before getting really serious about decorating. Clockwise from the top left, these were made for a friend’s birthday (2009 or 2010); my dad’s birthday (2015); my mother’s birthday (2015); and my brother’s birthday (2015).
These are the cakes I made (for the same people) in 2016:
I think in the case of cakes, my biggest jump was from 2015 to 2016. As I get the opportunity to redo certain styles of cake, I’m sure I’ll see those skills improve over the next year as well, but as it stands to date I really haven’t had many opportunities to reuse the same skills in the same way for any two cakes.
The only other thing I want to look at is food photography, which I’ll illustrate using three photos, one taken in February 2016, and two taken in January 2017. Obviously the right hand photo was aided by the use of my parent’s DSLR camera, but the general staging and lighting has also improved. Still, I think this photo perfectly illustrates why I would like to purchase a better camera sometime this year:
From left to right, these were taken with my cell phone (no additional lighting or staging); with my boyfriend’s digital camera, a simple point-and-shoot (with a backing and in natural light); and with my parent’s DSLR camera (with a backing and room lights). The staging and lighting alone make the middle picture better than the one on the left, but you really can’t beat the DSLR for quality, or for how absolutely delicious it makes my cupcakes look.
To finish off, I want to share some observations / hints / tips I’ve picked up over the past year. I’m going to split these into two categories: general baking, and allergy-friendly baking.
- Rice milk is not a good substitute for other dairy. Sure, it will work in a pinch if you aren’t able to consume other milk substitutes, but it’s so low fat that it really takes something away from the baked goods. I’ve mostly stuck with coconut milk, which is amazing and fatty. It does overpower some other flavours, however, so I’ve found it works better in baked goods with stronger flavours. Which brings me to point 2.
- Chocolate is so much easier to make gluten-free or dairy-free. I don’t know what it is, but especially for gluten-free baked goods, I always have better luck with chocolate. My cakes are more delicious, and the textures turn out better. I think cocoa powder hides things that vanilla just can’t.
- Almond flour is not essential to macarons. Sure, it’s probably not really a macaron anymore if you want to get really technical, since you are removing a main ingredient. But for how much macarons are finicky little cookies, they seem to handle replacements for almond flour quite well. I’ve had some successes with white chocolate, ground pumpkin seeds, brown rice flour, and white rice flour. So far brown rice flour has yielded the best results, but I was still able to get feet with every other nut-free option.
- If you are baking dairy-free, and you use coconut oil to grease your springform pans, you really really really have to wrap those pans in tinfoil, cheesecake style. That stuff will drip out of your pan in an instant.
- Some gluten-free flours are gooey and give your baked goods a sticky, spongy texture. Others leave you feeling like you are chewing on sand. There is definitely a process to making a good gluten-free flour mix (I modified mine to be potato-free, as described in the comments, from the Sarah Bakes Gluten-Free Flour ratios, and I’ve found this works better than some store-bought gluten-free flour mixes), but you may still need to tweak to your own preferences. It’s basically a big game of mix and match to find what you like, and what works well in your baking.
- I only saw this tip recently, but it’s saved me a lot of grief in the past two weeks alone. When putting something runny into a piping bag, first twist the bag, just above the piping tip, then push that twisted bit down into the tip. This seals the bag at the bottom and stops anything from dripping out the bottom while you seal the bag. I’ve found this especially helpful for macarons, which use a fairly wide tip, and for my looser consistency royal icing.
- Always level your cakes. A few years ago, I didn’t do this for a friend’s cake, and the thing slid apart before we had a chance to serve it. The cake was still delicious, but it was not my proudest moment. I’ve found the easiest way to level, for me, is to hold a bread knife level and rotate my cake on a cake stand, cutting in a little more with each rotation. If I cut straight across, I find the level ends up uneven and I have to cut away too much cake to get it back to a nice straight line. If you don’t have a cake stand, I’ve also done this by just sitting my cake on a piece of aluminum foil or plastic wrap, placing one hand on top of the cake, and rotating it on my counter top as I cut.
- Good buttercream is all about the beating. I’ve never spent so long making icing (it now takes something like 10-15 minutes, though not all of that is active – most of it is done by my KitchenAid), but it’s well worth the time. I never fully beat my butter before, but now I wait until it’s fluffy and almost white, and I beat in each addition of my powdered sugar really well. It makes for a lovely, smooth buttercream, and it’s super white in colour. I never reached that point with my buttercream before this year, because I’d never really given it much thought. But good buttercream is essential for cake and cupcake decorating.
- Almost any failed recipe can be saved somehow. I once cut a cake into brownies, because the cake didn’t turn out (see Allergy-Friendly Baking lesson #4), and I turned failed coconut flour macarons into some type of round macaroon-like cookie. I’ve saved cracked macarons by making shortbread bars with macaron crumbled on top, I’ve scraped layers of icing off of cakes and started again, and I’ve used tough gluten-free pie crusts like pudding cups. Every failure is a chance to learn, but it doesn’t have to mean wasted food as well. I’ve always tried to come up with some new or creative way of using up my leftover cake, or a failed experiment. It’s always fun to try something different, and who knows? Maybe I’ll come up with a new favourite treat along the way.
- Most importantly, there is no substitute for practice. You can watch something 20 times on youtube, but until you’ve tried that technique yourself, you probably won’t be great at it. But that’s ok. What would be the fun in doing all this baking if it was always perfect on the first try?