Christmas Cookie Decorating Tips

I haven’t written a baking post in forever! Baking is pretty much my life right now and I’m ok with it. Since I lost my job I have been trying to keep busy any way I can without actually spending money, and I got the idea to try and sell some baking during the Christmas season- I love to bake so it’s something I would be doing anyway, I can just scale it up as necessary! It’s not a lucrative career but I do have a lot of time on my hands at the moment, and it sure beats the last season of Gilmore Girls on Netflix (ugh Lorelai, Chris or Luke? Make up your damn mind). I’ve been really lucky to have a lot of support from a great network of family and friends.

cookies in boxes

One order I received was for sugar cookie cutouts and I was a bit nervous about it, because in the past when I’ve made them they have not exactly been photo-worthy. They taste great, but the icing is always a bit too runny or a bit too thick, and I can never get the rich red and green colours that you want to see on a Christmas cookie. But I spoke to a friend who also bakes, and did a bit of research, and with some practice I managed to make them look quite presentable!

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I thought I’d share some of the tips I learned, because I’m not kidding, these are LEAGUES nicer than anything I’ve made before. The proportions I used for the icing was as follows: 1 cup icing sugar, 1 tablespoon milk, 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract (or almond extract for pure white); adjust consistency as necessary.

Use gel food colouring for richer colours.

This really makes a difference! I could never get the liquid food colouring to the right red/green colour. You still have to use a somewhat obscene amount of dye and it will thin out the icing a bit, so you might have to adjust the consistency again. But I’ve never been able to get this colour intensity with liquid dyes.

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Use a piping bag and a piping tip (#4 worked well).

Maybe a bit obvious, but in the past I’ve tried to get away with a ziploc bag and a hole cut in the corner. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t measure up! I bought a reusable piping bag (Wilton) and rinsed it out between colours; it’s very durable and I can minimize my consumer guilt by avoiding disposable bags. I just pop the tip in the bottom of the bag, push it towards the end, and fill the bag with icing; I found it works to use a glass to hold the bag and fold the edges over the rim so that you can get the icing right in the bottom; then I tie off the top of the bag with a rubber band.

piping bag and glass

Follow the 10 second rule for icing consistency.

This was really important! My icing usually falls off the cookie in a big messy puddle or is too thick to pipe. Here is a helpful video that shows you how to do this; basically the icing should settle into a smooth surface at about 10 seconds after disturbing the surface.

 

Allow icing to harden and set before packing.

It’s really hard to be patient and wait when it FEELS like the icing is set, but giving the cookies more time won’t hurt, and no one wants to spend hours and hours decorating cookies only for them to crush each other in the container. I laid them out in a single layer on baking pans, and covered the pans with a layer of plastic wrap (more as a cat prevention technique than anything- the icing forms a protective layer that will prevent the cookies from getting stale if they are left out for under 24 hours). When packing in containers, place in a single layer with parchment paper in between multiple layers.

cookies drying

And that’s it! They take some time for sure but the end result is both tasty and pretty. I really liked substituting the almond extract in the white icing instead of vanilla- vanilla darkens the colour too much, plus I love the almond flavour. The stars and snowflakes were my favourite!

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Happy baking and Merry Christmas if I don’t post again before then!
-C

DIY Foundation Waterproofing (in Canada)

As you may have noticed, the past few months have been pretty scantly blogged about, because we’ve been super busy with the world’s least sexy blogging topic of all time: waterproofing our foundation. I can’t imagine anything you could spend more time or money on that has as little visual reward- we spent months on something that we just covered in tons of dirt and gravel! But we can finally celebrate being done this massive project, and I want to share what we did and how we did it.

excavator cake

DISCLAIMER: We are not professional foundation experts. My husband is an electrical apprentice and I am a (currently unemployed) scientist. We researched this extensively online and talked to other people who have done it before, either for a living or for their own houses. Nothing I say here should be taken as being accurate or appropriate for anyone else; what we did was unique to our geography, foundation type, budget, and skill level, so please adjust accordingly.

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Before I get into the nitty gritty of it, let me remind you that we live in Canada. A lot of what we did is specific to our foundation structure, which has to be deep because the ground freezes during the winter. Basically, this project involved these steps in sequence: we dug down to the footing of our foundation around the perimeter of our house, repaired any cracks and damaged parging, covered the entire surface of the foundation as well as the footing with tar paint, attached platon membrane and ran O-pipe around the perimeter, jackhammered under the footing to feed the O-pipe into our sump well, covered the O-pipe and the bottom of the trench with 3/4 clear gravel, and then backfilled it all.

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Now, a lot of people expressed surprise that we would even attempt this. It is a very messy job that could go very badly if you don’t know what you’re doing- you could potentially destroy your foundation if you don’t do it properly, and have to dig it up all over again if you miss one crack or detail. There is a reason that there are professionals who do this for a living. But when we looked at the cost savings (we spent about 10-20% of what you could reasonably expect to pay a company), and thought honestly about our skill level and the resources we had available, we decided to go for it.

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Here’s why we were able to do this large scale DIY and what you’ll need if you want to do the same:

  1. Opportunity and sheer luck. We have access through my husband’s job to plumbers, excavators, and friends willing to work for a case of beer and a meal on their weekends. Not everyone is as fortunate and we appreciate that.
  2. A lot of patience. If you haven’t done this before, it’s going to take a while. Companies can charge what they do because people will pay it to avoid having their lives in upheaval. When we first started planning for this, my husband told me that he thought the lion’s share of the work could be done in a weekend or two. It has taken us over 5 months. Moving on…
  3. Flexibility. Things never go as planned; the guy you had booked to help suddenly can’t make it, the home reno store is out of the supplies you need, the soil around your house is entirely clay based and you have to invest in rubber boots for everyone helping, you need the parging to dry but the weather forecast is nothing but rain, the list goes on and on. Plus, spending your weeknights and weekends working in a mud pit when you have a full time job and a social life sucks. We had to give ourselves a break every now and then, or else we would have gone crazy(er).
  4. Preparing for the unexpected. We had a very experienced guy working the excavator but he accidentally took out our cable and phone lines, so we didn’t have internet for 2 months (the technicians would not come on site to repair it due to the unsafe work environment that a giant trench imposes). Occasionally we had to do some emergency repair work that we weren’t counting on, and made plenty of last minute trips to the hardware store. Shit happens!
  5. Tolerance for mess and dirt. The aforementioned clay soil meant that we had to put a lot of tarps down inside the house to avoid tracking it all over the place, and had to sweep/mop more frequently. We also spent a lot of time covered in dirt and tar paint, which meant more laundry. We should have bought stocks in GoJo Orange hand soap and paint thinner!

I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have, by which I mean reading your questions aloud to my husband and then typing his response 😉

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Speaking of my husband, he deserves almost all of the credit. He is camera shy so it only looks like I was doing a lot of work… a few weeks into this we found out I was pregnant, so I had to stop helping with much of the physical labour. I tried to make up for it by supplying food and beer when he came inside, exhausted and covered in mud. He figures that he moved about 30,000 lbs of sand and gravel, and most of that was him and a wheelbarrow. He didn’t want me to share that because it sounded like bragging, but I am bragging on his behalf. I have a very hardworking guy, who mostly tolerated my hormone-fueled neurotic outbursts.

Al and O pipe

I have to shout out to the company he works for too; they loaned us most of the equipment we needed, trusted us to use it, and spent hours of their time loading and unloading the excavator in between the times it was needed at the shop. A lot of people there also gave us invaluable advice and help, which we honestly could not have done without. Last but not least, we are forever indebted to the family and friends that helped us out with meals, general support, physical labour, and wheelbarrow loads of gravel (some with a newborn baby at home)- we owe you big time!

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Now, please join me in crossing fingers that we don’t find the leaks we missed during the Spring thaw.

-C