Live Chat with Christine Dutcher (aka Sweet Prodigy)
Hi, all! I'm pleased to announce that, on November 12, 2016, we're continuing our Rising Star Series with a live chat with @Sweet Prodigy (aka Christine Dutcher)! Christine has been a member of Cookie Connection for only a year and a few months, but her precision-piping has already caused many jaws to hit the floor! In this chat, we'll learn more about how she very quickly acquired her skills, and tricks for creating some of her intricately piped optical illusions!
When her daughter received a cupcake maker for Christmas 2012, Sweet Prodigy (aka Christine Dutcher) decided to search online for “amazing cupcake decorating” ideas. That search led to some amazing cookie photos too, and, like many cookiers, Christine instantly became obsessed. After spending countless hours online learning all that she could about decorated cookies, Christine decorated her first set in October 2013.
Prior to January 2016, Christine decorated cookies only sporadically, but since then she’s been focusing her spare time on perfecting her skills and building a cookie portfolio. In the process, she’s awed Cookie Connection members with her precision-piping of needlepoint grids, kaleidoscopic designs, and other mesmerizing interwoven patterns that often play tricks on the eyes!
Married with two school-age kids, Christine is a stay-at-home mom in the greater Toronto, Canada area. Art has always been one of Christine’s favorite subjects, so the fact that she can now create art that tastes delicious makes her cookie passion that much sweeter. Other passions include interior design and renovating her home, so when not holding a pastry bag and mixing colors, Christine is usually wielding a power drill or painting walls.
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!
Hi, Julia, thank you so much for having me here. The honor is all mine to be featured in such an amazing live chat series! I'm looking forward to chatting with everyone about my cookies and anything else that people might like to know about me!
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 Christine 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!
Thank you so much, Julia! Yes, I have a question for Christine. I'm a old Torontonian myself. I would love to know, Christine, if you have ever thought of teaching classes on your art of cookie decorating (you have your own style), because I would love to be your first student? Your thoughts on this please, and thank you!
Hi, Anne Marie. It's so nice to chat with someone from this part of the world! Yes, I would love to teach cookie decorating. I know around here there are really only beginner classes so I think an advanced class would certainly be welcome. I have found the perfect teaching classroom (in Mississauga for anyone local) and when I do start teaching, I will make sure to post any class information here on Cookie Connection.
Hi, Christine! First, congratulations for being invited to be part of this marvelous chat and, in second place, congratulations for your lovely work. I wanted to ask you, what are your tips for achieving such perfect lines?
Hi, Sil! Thank you for your kind words. That's an excellent question! First, let me say that I couldn't always pipe straight lines. Here is a picture of my first set of cookies that I piped three years ago - very wobbly lines, indeed! Nowadays, there are many techniques that I use to help me pipe lines that are much straighter. First, I use a PME piping tip, usually a #1. Second, I make sure my breathing is very shallow. Third, I try to make sure that I have no distractions - not even music. All of my focus is on the lines that I am piping. And finally, what is very important is how I pipe my lines. I pipe in a vertical direction, not side-to-side. And I pipe from bottom to top (away from me). I rest my elbow on the table and very slowly pipe the line so that the only movement is in my elbow. By piping this way, I am able to have the greatest control over the movement in my arm.
Sil, When I was piping my rainbow colored cookies (like the one shown in the "Live Chat" banner), I had to focus on following a faint black line (that was drawn on black icing, no less) and also keep an eye on the point where I was to end my line. Because my eyes were going back and forth so quickly, I actually went cross-eyed a couple of times! But mostly, I'm just focused on the line that I am piping and the line beside it or the point where I want to end my line, and not the whole pattern. It's really when I stop piping and step back to look at my work that I can see the whole dizzying effect!
Christine, you definitely have a wide range of creativity from detailed abstract line work to soft flowers. Also you have a very humorous side that likes to give us something to giggle at now and then. Where do you get your inspiration?
Anne Marie, I get my inspiration from everywhere. And I think my diversity just stems from my desire to cookie-fy everything! For my big pumpkin cookie with the resident spider on its face, I drew inspiration from the carved pumpkins that line our driveway every Halloween. For those, I think about how I can bring the pumpkins to life (or put them to death) in a way that the kids will think is super cool. Part of my inspiration for my flower cookies comes from my love for flowers and from the beautiful floral buttercream cakes that are out there, but many times I'll just dry-lay flowers on a cookie until I find a layout that looks halfway decent. I'm also inspired by classic patterns and geometrical shapes. I will sometimes modify a pattern that I see or use color to make these designs unique. And, of course, I'm inspired by all of the talented cookie artists who create such amazing designs, especially Marian from Sweetopia whose "Piping Lines" tutorial got me started on my line craze!
Congrats again, Christine! I am so excited to learn more about you! The choosing of your screen name suggests that you must have already known, when you signed up on Cookie Connection, that you have these exceptional skills and would reach the level of awesomeness you have today . . . Are you a prodigy in other areas of your life?
Thank you, Sonja (swissophie)! Let me say that I literally spent months trying to think of a name for myself. In the end, I picked "Sweet Prodigy" knowing that it was a name that I would have to live up to! In college, I was pretty good at perspective drawings and architectural renderings. They were and still are my favorite things to illustrate. I'm also really good at space planning and layout. I can pack countless odd-shaped items perfectly into a box or the trunk of a car with almost no unused space leftover!
Your passion for interior design, your renovating of a house, and the look of your cookies lead me to think that you have a passion for geometry (grin)! Where does this come from? When did it start? And how did it express itself over the years?
Sonja (swissophie), geometry was one of my favorite subjects in school! I think I have an inherent desire for things to be orderly, organized, and aesthetically pleasing, and geometry certainly fits the bill. I've always had mini art projects on the go but it wasn't until I started decorating cookies that I have been able to really express my passion for geometry.
As far as design and renovations go, I remember as a kid always asking my mom if I could rearrange the furniture (to better suit the layout of the room). I've always thought that our homes are like giant blank canvases. For me, using a mitre saw or paint roller is no different than the tools that a sculptor or painter would use. And just as a beautiful piece of art can evoke emotion in the viewer so can a well designed home.
Christine, some of your designs seem so complicated! You must be the polar opposite of an ADD-afflicted person for sure! I cannot imagine the concentration it must take to not make mistakes with such intricate patterns! Surely not a work for when the kids are at home . Do you sometimes have to start again, because you counted wrong? Or do you always catch mistakes in time?
Sonja (swissophie), oh, I make plenty of mistakes. I just don't post them! (Aren't mistakes the best way to learn though?) Sometimes I can correct my mistakes, like a white dot incorrectly placed on a white needlepoint grid. And I can easily lift a piece of stringwork off the cookie if the icing is relatively stiff enough. But there are many things that cannot be corrected, such as a dark colored dot on a white needlepoint grid and some of my stringwork when the icing isn't as stiff. I love doing things that require concentration but I have learned that if I don't want to make a mistake, it's best to work when my kids (and husband ) are out of the house!
Hi, Noriko (mintlemonade)! My fireworks cookie is 5 inches (12cm) in diameter, so it's big enough that I have enough room to pipe many lines. Aside from what I have already mentioned, I would say that it is also important to focus on where the line that I am piping is landing. In particular, I focus on the string of icing that is coming out of the tube - I want to make sure that the string of icing is touching down right where I want it to be. If I see that it is not lining up, I am able to move the string over to where I want it to be before it touches the cookie. This is probably something that is easier to demonstrate, so I hope I have explained it correctly.
Hi, Christine, your work is amazing, as I told you so many times in the comments to your entries.
Looking at your work, I noticed from your first set of cookies posted on Cookie Connection that you started immediately with intricate handpiping. I am thinking of the flowers and roses in the the "Elegant Wedding Cookies" set and the "Wedding Cake Cookies" set. And also, in your first Halloween set, there was already the stringwork that has now become your trademark. Were you particularly drawn to this aspect of cookie decorating when you started? I mean, usually beginners start with the wet-on-wet technique . . .
Hi, Manu! Thank you for your kind words. I have definitely done my fair share of marbled cookies! You can see this in my "Christmas Cookies" set that was made three years ago. I think I started with intricate cookies because I had already read or watched so many blogs and video tutorials on piping that I felt relatively comfortable trying them. I was actually drawn to piping flowers first because I love real flowers. I practiced plenty of times before I ever placed the royal icing version on a cookie. Also, I'm one of those people who will pick the most difficult thing that I can do. I don't like things that are "easy." I prefer to challenge myself.
I assume you had no problem learning about royal icing consistencies. What kind of royal icing do you use? Do you prepare it with egg whites or do you use meringue powder? Did you try both, and why did you choose one or another? (Maybe too many questions in one . . . If so, I do apologise).
Manu, Not too many questions. In the beginning, I read all about royal icing consistencies and watched videos on royal icing, but I mainly learned about consistencies through trial and error. There have been many times where I've had to empty the icing out of my piping bag to thicken it up - or water it down. I remember the experts always saying that consistency is just something you learn and get the hang of over time, and this is so true. As far as making the royal icing, I use meringue powder not egg whites. This is only because I'm not really a baker (sorry), so I use the packaged version because it's easier.
Your needlepoint is different than the traditional needlepoint. I am thinking of the "White Tiger", or the carpet ("Traditional Cross Stitch Pattern"), or the latest geometric patterns in "Black and White Needlepoint", which are different than the "easy" patterns or the floral patterns that we are used to seeing. I was wondering how you get inspired . . . Could it be your art studies?
Manu, I think it's really my personality coming through in my cookies. I love art that is contemporary and edgy - and unique. I chose the image for the "White Tiger" cookie because I wanted to challenge myself with a really complex pattern. The "Black and White Needlepoint" set started with some basketweave patterns that I sketched on graph paper. I chose black and white because I thought that would be the best way to emphasise the pattern and also because I've only ever seen a white needlepoint grid, so I thought it would be interesting to try a black one. I've seen some amazing traditional needlepoint cookies out there that truly are works of art, but I like to create "contemporary" needlepoint cookies because that is what I am drawn to and because they are unique.
I really appreciate that in the comments to your entries you always share tips that go from the correct position to handpipe needlepoint ("Traditional Cross Stitch Pattern") to the study of the sequence behind your stringwork ("Fireworks" and "Endless Rainbow").
How many hours does it takes to make those kind of cookies (needlepoint/stringwork)?
Manu, I like explaining my techniques and thought process, so I'm glad that you appreciate my comments. The needlepoint cookies usually all seem to take around 3 1/2 hours and my larger stringwork cookies can take one or two hours. My smaller stringwork cookies, like my "Mosaic Tiles" set can take from 7 - 15 minutes each. And the more often I have to switch up piping bags (to change colors) the longer it will take to pipe a cookie.
Another question about your last post on Cookie Connection: the parallel strings. They are piped on acetate. Do you usually pipe your mesmerizing stringworks directly on the cookie or you do pipe on the acetate and then transfer them to the cookie?
Manu, Sometimes I wish I could make transfers of the larger pieces (that would be SO easy) but the icing is too fragile and there is not enough support for them not to crumble. All of my stringwork is piped directly on the cookie. If you look closely, you can see that the lines follow the curvature of the icing at the outer edges. For the larger cookies, I use acetate only to practice piping the pattern first. Before I pipe a design on a cookie I will, however, lightly draw the pattern to trace - except for my "Creative Spider" cookie - all but the bottom black layer was done by eye!
Hi, Christine, I have just seen your video of piping lines. Your RI (royal icing) looks different than mine. It looks soft enough but holds its shape. How do you know you've made the right consistency every time? What are your ingredients to make RI? Do you use lukewarm water? Why doesn't your tip clog? Do you use RI right after you make it? I think others ask the same questions, but I am dying to know the tricks and I am actually sleeping like the dead at live chat time. Please be my lifesaver! ~ Ryoko Cookie Ave.
Hi Ryoko - Cookie Avenue! The icing for the video was a lot softer than I normally use, it's just what I had on hand. Normally, I will use different consistencies depending on what I'm doing. For my "Fireworks" cookie, I wanted the icing to hold its shape and not settle into the other lines so I used an icing that forms a stiff peak but bends ever so slightly at the tip of the peak. For other ones like my "Mosaic Tiles," the icing is just slightly softer. I remember years ago my sister (who can bake) telling me that icing sugar should be mixed with warm water so that is what I use. Yes, my tips do get clogged. Fresh royal icing does help, as well as being careful not to scoop dried icing from around the edges of the bowl. But I've also noticed that it's sometimes a tiny granule of sugar that will clog the tip, which leads me to believe that one of the problems with clogged tips is that only 99.99 percent of the sugar gets ground properly. Just my speculation, but maybe worth investigating?
To add to Ryoko's question: Every bag and grade of powdered sugar contains a distribution of sugar particle sizes (a mean size with a standard deviation around that mean), so it's quite possible when piping fine detail work to hit a slightly larger particle and get a clog. Some powdered sugar is processed a lot more finely than others (I recommend 10X grade, or the equivalent, if you can find it), and that helps a lot. I get virtually no plugging with it (C&H brand) even with very fine work, if I keep the icing moving in my cone and don't let it harden in the tip. Liesbet just did an incredibly thorough investigation of powdered sugar and particle size distributions (by grade and country) in her most recent Toolbox Talk. It's definitely worth checking out, here: http://cookieconnection.juliau...box-talk-icing-sugar
Julia, Thanks. Liesbet's Toolbox Talk was excellent at pointing out particle sizes. I do like my brand (Redpath) and the clogs are infrequent. I guess I just didn't expect random granules that were so large. But if they are few and far between, then that's fine with me.
Hi, Sugarbear Baking Co.! Good question! Much of the time I just experiment. Here's a picture of the first stringwork (I call them cross-piping) cookies that I experimented with. I liked the one in the center but I couldn't remember how I piped it, except that I piped vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines.
Hello, Christine! A big hug to Julia and all the other amazing cookiers online! I admire your works so much, they are like Manu said before, mesmerizing! I often play with a spirograph tool with my child Ale, have you ever seen it? It can be a great font of inspiration to create new designs!!!
Hi Evelin (Evelindecora)! Glad to see you could make it! I love spirograph and I'm actually working on some patterns now. I made a bunch of royal icing transfers so hopefully I will post some cookies soon.
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Christine! I just discovered this beautiful tool only one month ago, I have to practice a lot. Many congrats again for your skills and amazing designs. My fav cookie of yours is 'Fireworks', can't wait to see your next projects!
Reading the first part of this chat, I absolutely agree with your method about piping lines - I use the same! Please think about starting to teach because I think it is the most beautiful and satisfying part of a cookier's life. I wish you the best; you are really amazing!
Hello from Mexico. It's my first time here in live chat. I just want to congratulate Julia and Sweet Prodigy for this marvelous work you have been doing. I'm relatively new to this, so I'm just learning here from you. Thanks a lot.
Julia, what I love best is the diversity of designs that are out there. What I like least is the geographical distance between cookiers. For example, it would be hard for me to take one of Evilindecora's classes
Julia, I would love to be teaching - maybe a Craftsy class or a CookieCon class, and maybe an award nomination (a cookie can dream!), but mostly, I would love to be teaching and share my skill with others!
Julia, I know and use them sometimes! I was asking for these ones, but I understand it is not possible! Thank you!!! If I come to Canada, I'll let you know for sure Christine . . . Tina and Manu will come with me too, aren't you sweet ladies?
Thank you Christine for sharing this hour with us. I wish you all the best, from awards to teaching. Yes, distance is a problem but I think that CC helps a lot to reduce it, there are lot of tips and tricks shared and many cookie friendships are born. Of course taking class from the favourite cookier that lives thousand of miles away is still not possible. Julia thank you so much for this chat. Have a nice day , ladies.
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