Amy is a three-time CookieCon veteran, who's amassed numerous Sugar Show awards, including one for an amazingly lifelike frog, shown here! At this year's CookieCon, the subject of her lessons was adding texture to cookies using stenciling, piping, and other cool techniques. In this chat, we'll learn more about Amy's teaching experience, the specifics of her favorite texturing techniques, and anything else you'd like to ask. (I'm dying to know how she created the skin on that frog! ) In the meantime, start gathering your questions for her by checking out her site and reading her brief bio below.
Amy Clough started decorating cookies in the fall of 2011, and quickly fell in love with all things cookie. She left her teaching career after 15 years to create cookies full time, as Clough’D 9 Cookies. She works from her commercial kitchen studio that her husband built in their backyard. Between her cookie orders, Amy is mom to two boys on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
If you can't make the chat, no worries! You can log your advance questions now by following the instructions at the top of this chat page. (As always, it's super helpful for questions to be logged early, so our guests are able to prepare answers beforehand and to field more questions during the live chat time.)
Please note that any advance questions will reveal one at a time, in the order received, only after the chat goes live. Do not expect questions or answers to appear immediately.
Also, as with all of these chats, you have a special opportunity to see inside the minds of some extremely talented decorators. I challenge you to do your homework and push our guests with unexpected - maybe even tough - questions!
Though . . . before we dive into Q&A, just a few housekeeping notes for newbies to our chats: questions are answered in the order received, but they will not post to the public/viewable area of the chat until Amy reads and answers them. We'll work through questions that were logged in advance first; then start working on questions asked live during the chat. That said, please be patient and do not re-post the same question. It may take some time to answer your question, depending on where it sits in the queue. But I will personally make sure every question gets answered before we're through.
My blossoms and filigree hearts! Oh, I loved these! I studied so many images of filigree - and it's something I hope to work on more in the future in my "playtime". There's definitely a learning curve to filigree - no pun intended - to get flow of a filigree pattern.
Just to provide a little context for the chat . . . your bio says you've been decorating cookies since fall 2011, and that you subsequently opened a cookie business that you operate from a studio in your backyard. How long have you had your cookie business, and what's the typical volume of cookies you produce in any given week?
On paper, my cookie business started in 2013 when my studio was finished and inspected/licensed. I left my teaching career to do cookies full time, and to be more available for my family. Although my cookie volume isn't high per week compared to others (>15 dozen per week), I put in more hours doing cookies than I ever did teaching middle school science. But I am home and accessible for my family.
Have you been successful in making the business profitable? I ask, because profitability is a challenge for most designers of custom-baked and decorated goods. What are the keys to profitability in a cookies-only business?
Well, I joke that my cookie business is a "hobby that pays for itself". There is no way that I could sustain my family on just cookies alone. I don't produce the volume needed, and my rural area couldn't tolerate the prices that one could charge in a metropolitan area. However, one aspect that is financially beneficial for me is that the loan for my studio will be paid off this year. Unlike other cookiers who have to deal with a forever-monthly rent for a commercial space, I will flat-out own my cookie space very soon. Maybe this extra money will be put towards my kids' college fund - or a new car for me!
Hi Amy, not sure yet if I will be able to participate. Thanks to this chat I got to know more about you. I like your work, your blog and I also enjoyed the "Reflections of a Cookie Widower" http://www.cloughd9cookies.com...-of-a-cookie-widower It is nice to read the point of view of a husband. The "Just Cookies" article, just to pick one, was great and very supportive.
Hi, Manu! I am so lucky to have a supportive cookie husband. That particular "Just Cookies" post is near and dear to my heart. He took a negative situation and made me think about all the GOOD that has come from my creating cookies.
The post was in response to a customer that balked at Amy's pricing. Ironically, the post was written about a year after the interaction. It rubbed me the wrong way, so I wrote it to express that what my wife, and all cookiers, do with this medium goes way beyond just cookies.
Just a point on Amy's business name, primarily for those non-native English speakers here who aren't familiar with some of our expressions. Amy's business name, a play on her last name, is pronounced "cloud nine". "Sitting on cloud nine" is a common expression, here in the US at least, that means one is sitting in a "perfect state of happiness"(http://www.dictionary.com/browse/cloud-nine)! So, naturally, if you see or eat Amy's cookies, you will be perfectly happy too!
My CookieCon presentation was all about texture. I wanted to teach different techniques that were simple/easy to do, didn't require expensive tools, and were applicable to attendees of all different skill levels. Some of the the techniques I demonstrated were a hammered surface (like on the bunny), a rough fabric texture, wood grain, and sponged texture. I think my favorite texture might be the sponged texture, because of it's versatility. You can use it on so many different cookie designs (i.e., rocks, ice cream, sand, etc.).
I loved to read your blog. I liked the trick to get rid of the air bubbles by "breaking the surface tension" of the icing and I want to try it soon. I recognized the former science teacher. Did your science background help you in cookie decorating? Was it hard to make the decision to leave your teaching career for cookies? Talking about teaching, do you offer cookie classes?
Manu - It actually wasn't that hard to leave my teaching career. Obviously, my cookie career is no where near a teacher's salary. But I am home for my kids. I have been able to attend field trips and special events at my kids' schools. All things that I would have had to leave to substitute plans in order to attend - and subsequently piece things back together in my classroom upon my return. Right now, I don't offer cookie classes. But after teaching at CookieCon, and realizing that "once a teacher, always a teacher", I am definitely entertaining it!
Sorry, I seem to have lost track of a question and answer, so I am reposting an answer from Amy to a question from Manu: "Manu - Unfortunately, my science background didn't prepare me that much for my cookie career. I was a biology major, and taught middle school life science. Maybe the overall scientific eye/appreciation for small details has helped me in my designs, though!"
Manu - All of my cookies are custom-ordered. The client is involved in the design process, and provides the theme, color scheme, and sometimes the actual design of the cookie. I love those clients who say "just do your thing" or "just make them pretty". I am able to make something that I want to make - and still get compensated for it. Although most of my time is spent with client orders, I try to squeeze in some "playtime" when I can - those times in which I try a new technique or am just inspired to cookie something. The inspiration for those cookies can come from anywhere - a fabric print, a picture in a magazine, something in my garden. Lots of places.
The rough fabric texture was made with a toothbrush! I used about a 15 second icing consistency. I loaded the brush with the icing and just swiped it across the cookie surface (over a dried icing base).
Washi- For the sponge texture- I used a foam sponge that was in a Wilton fondant petal kit. I dipped the sponge in thinned icing and dabbed it on the cookie surface. Think about stenciling walls back in the 1990's- same concept, but on a cookie.
All of the techniques that I demonstrated at CookieCon were meant to be approachable and attainable. They are imperfect, which is part of the appeal! It's hard to mess them up. And if you do, just scrape off the icing and try again. No worries!
I find you can get a nice crackled effect with a variation on that dimpled technique. Just take the full palm of your hand and gently press it into large areas of the cookie. The look is different but the concept is very similar.
Julia- As I mentioned earlier, camo print is very popular in my rural area. So I had many opportunities to study the print. I realized that I needed to airbrush the trees white before adding in other colors. That made all the difference!
Its a free standing building in our backyard. its 16'X16'. Built to the latest codes, and inspected by the health department. All appliances are commercial grade as it is treated as a commercial kitchen.
So, Mike (The Cookie Widower), what were the biggest challenges in getting the same designed and built to code and ultimately approved by bureaucracy? What tips would you give to people here to streamline the process if they're considering doing the same thing?
The challenges were simply learning the codes themselves. Those things are not written for the average Mike. But, I'm not afraid to ask questions so I made A LOT of visits to the building and health departments. They were extremely friendly to deal with.
Thecakequeen- I use BRP boxes quite often too! I'll still individually bag the cookies, but then I arrange them on top of paper shred in the BRP box. I'll tie the box closed with a ribbon. It makes a nice presentation! I have a standing order with a local realtor who uses these cookie boxes as client gifts during home closings.
When I had my shop, I bought a preexisting catering kitchen, but still had so many Department of Health and licensing hoops to go through. It was not an easy process. Floors also had to be seamless and lap up onto the walls (there's a word for that which evades me) to allow for easy cleanup; eggs could not be stored above finished goods; strength of sanitizing solutions and refrigerator temps were routinely spot-checked by inspectors . . . the list goes on.
I met Amy and her funny husband at CookieCon and have to say Amy was so down to earth and shared so many great tips and has been so helpful in my cookie journey. Amy....you really should teach, so easy to listen to and informative. Cookie Widower is a great security guard!!!
Okay, I just added a little time to the chat to make sure we can get through the 4 or 5 question that are currently in the queue waiting to get posted and answered. We'll try to go faster, but typing takes a bit of time. Hope that's okay for everyone.
Thecakequeen- I always keep the baked cookies at room temperature. I tell my clients that they're good for 2+ weeks in their bags. Of course, my kids will eat them months later. In fact, my mom just ate one of my Thanksgiving ones a week ago and she said it tasted fine! Not that I am making cookies months in advance for clients. All of my client's cookies are fresh
Nana's Cookie Shoppe- I do 6 cookies in that set: a house, house key, "congrats" plaque, "sold" sign, and some other design that changes seasonally (i.e.: a leaf for fall, snowflake for winter, etc). I can change things up at my discretion- my client is awesome!
The CookieCon hosts, Karen and Mike Summers, are closing down their online shop to focus more on CookieCon event production, and doing them with greater frequency. I've heard the next one will be in September 2018 and that they will then become annual, though this could be hearsay.
Manu- I have to thank my mom for the cookie beginnings. She kept giving me cookie cutters that were still attached to the "suggested design" card. I was already doing some cakes, and thought that spending that time on cookies would be just silly because they're so small. But then I tried it one time- and that was it. Hooked.
Oh that's great to hear..Julia.....oh by the way..I want to learn, and I am practicing using the parchment cones..I have switched to tipless bags but so far the parchment cones are still a challenge for me...haha
Lorie- I just have one tabletop convection oven that holds 3 regular sized trays. And I hate it. I hate how convection can bake cookies unevenly. But it's what was required by the health department, so I deal with it.
I much prefer cones to tipless bags, so if you can get the hang of cones, that would be a plus. The parchment is less flexible and provides more pressure on the "bag" and thus more control. Plus, depending on the tipless bag, the can sometime have side pleats or seams that interfere with the opening you cut in the end. But, if something works well for you, then oftentimes it's wise just to stick with that approach . . .
Clairebrit- I try to bake in one day, and decorate the next. I like giving the baked cookie time to sit before adding icing. I try to re-use colors between sets, since I'm usually working on multiple sets at one time.
Nana- I store my icing in airtight containers on the counter. I typically make 3 batches at one time, and go through it in just a few days. Since I use meringue powder, it's stable. I may have to re-mix in case of separation.
SherriL - We have a few great blog topics on pricing here on Cookie Connection that you might want to check out. In addition to knowing what your market is currently willing to bear, I think it's crucial to understand your cost structure so you set a price that gives you a decent wage and allows you to make money to reinvest in the business. There is some math involved here, but it's really important to do it if you want a truly viable business.
I did too! Thanks so much to both Amy and Mike (The Cookie Widower) for joining us this morn. It was REALLY fun to have TWO featured guests - loved the different viewpoints, and having you both here kept the conversation more lively! THANK YOU!
We'll have a follow-up in-depth Cookier Close-up interview with Amy in May too - so if you didn't get questions answered here, I'll be asking some different ones there to take this chat even further. Stay tuned!
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