You won't want to miss this chat! It's with none other than @Sweet Prodigy, aka Christine Dutcher, precision-piper extraordinaire and new host of our Practice Bakes Perfect Challenges! Her first challenge about food look-alikes was a resounding success, and her second one, which pushes the boundaries of brush embroidery, is underway! (Check it out if you haven't already, and get creating! It closes on July 5, so there's still tons of time!)
In this chat, you'll have a rare opportunity to explore the work process and techniques of a piping master, as well as provide feedback for future challenges, discuss past challenges, and generally learn more about our wonderful site contributor.
As a warm-up to the chat, please review Christine's bio and key links below. Please also review these important chat housekeeping notes . . .
(1) Feel free to enter 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 live chat time.)
(2) 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.
(3) Last but not least, as with all of these chats, you have a special opportunity to see inside the minds of some extremely talented decorators, so I encourage you to do your homework before jumping on the chat. Again, please review Christine's bio and other information below.
We can't wait to hear from you on chat day!
Christine Dutcherdecided to search online for "amazing cupcake decorating" ideas when her daughter received a cupcake maker for Christmas 2012. That search led to some amazing cookie photos, 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. For the first few years, Christine decorated cookies just for fun and only sporadically, however, in January 2016 she decided that she would begin to focus on perfecting her skills, challenging herself each time to create more detailed and progressively complex pieces. In 2019, Christine became one of the very first sugar artists from around the world (and the only "cookier") to be named as an "Honourary PME Five Star Sugar Artist" by Knightsbridge PME, with her work being featured in their Five Star Sugar Artist course book. It is through the Practice Bakes Perfect challenges that Christine hopes to motivate and inspire her fellow cookiers to think outside of the box, and to challenge themselves both creatively and technically in order to reach their full potential as cookie artists. You can learn more about her work here on Cookie Connection, and by following her Facebook and Instagram pages.
As a bit of history, we first chatted with Sweet Prodigy back in 2016 when she was singled out as a "Rising Cookie Star" because of her mind-boggling intricately piped work that often leaves you wondering, "How on earth did she do that?" Christine recently assumed the role of our challenge host, so she's got that feather in her cap too. Today, we'll be talking precision- and micro-piping, challenges, and just about anything else you want to ask Christine.
BUT . . . before we jump into your questions, I have a few housekeeping notes.
First, 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.
So, if you're not familiar with Christine's work, you soon will be! Prepare to be mind-blown. I'm kicking off the chat with some of her intricate stringwork pieces, which are bound to stimulate lots of technique questions. Here's the first beauty . . .
JULIA: I hadn't started out creating intricate stringwork and needlepoint. For the first few years, I was making very mediocre "regular" cookies, and my first passion was actually for royal icing flowers. It was Sweetopia's video on piping lines that got me interested in stringwork designs. At first, my lines were quite wobbly but then I learned about PME piping tips, and that made all the difference in the world. Armed with nothing more than a few piping tips, some food color, and a batch of royal icing, I began to experiment. This is a picture of my first experiment using some leftover icing from my Valentine's Day cookies.
JULIA: I first discovered cookie decorating by accident, back in early 2013, while searching online for cupcake recipes. At the time, I really didn't know much about cookie decorating, but I saw these stunning pieces of edible art and I knew I just had to try making them for myself. I also came across some amazing cookiers. I was most inspired by Sweet Sugarbelle and Lila Loa, who are masters of color, SweetAmbs, with her elegant designs, and Sweetopia who offered invaluable tutorials. And, of course, I was just in awe of the attention to detail you showed with your work. From there, I spent countless hours reading blogs, watching video tutorials, and learning all that I could. I decorated my first set of cookies in October of 2013.
JULIA: How did I perfect my stringwork and needlepoint? By piping thousands of lines and tens of thousands of dots! And by making a lot of mistakes and doing a lot of things wrong, and learning tremendously from it all, which, I think, is the best way to learn.
JULIA: I remember wanting to recreate the design of the cookie in the center, but I couldn't remember how I made it. When I did try to recreate it, this is how it turned out. (To this day, I still can't figure out how I made the original one!) Once I made this design, however, I fell in love with it, and my obsession only grew from there.
CHRISTINE: I think perhaps the best way to understand your technique is to have you dissect one of your cookie photos that I just posted. Let's take the spider web as an example, okay? Tell us first about the planning process. How do you figure out which line(s) to pipe first, and how to successively layer them to build up into this contoured shape? Did you start with a template or drawing?
JULIA: I did in fact, start with a drawing for my spider web design. I started with an image of a 12-point star, inside of which I drew another star. I then transferred that second star pattern onto my cookie. Next, I piped over the star pattern and continued piping my lines outward until I completed the spider web. Most of my designs are based on common geometric patterns like the one you see here.
JULIA: The spider web cookie is about 5 inches (12 cm) in diameter, which is about the same size as most of my geometric cookies. It rises about 1" (2.5 cm) above the surface. I used a tip no. 1 to pipe the web. This is my favorite tip that I use for most of my designs
JULIA: I wish I could say that I am able to create complete sketches that allow me to see what the final design will look like but it is next to impossible to plan out this type of three-dimensional stringwork on a two-dimensional surface. And it is much easier and more productive for me to "sketch" and experiment with actual royal icing since something as simple as changing the piping sequence or the order in which the colors are piped can end up yielding completely different results. Here is an example of where I piped the same design but reversed the order in which I piped the colors, so you can see what I mean.
HOME BAKED CAKES - it is a text based chat. Not sure why you can't see it. The posts show up to the left of this window. The only sound will be a "bling" when I post something. But the sound on your device must be turned on and also turned on at the bottom of the chat window. Hope that helps.
CHRISTINE: Your piping on the web is immaculate (as on all of your work)! What tips can you provide regarding prepping the icing for stringwork? Do you "spatula" (or spread it) first, the way Eddie Spence suggests, to eliminate air bubbles? Do you use a special recipe? How do you ensure clean starts and stops to your lines without any bigger blobs at those points?
JULIA: Thank you so much for your nice words! I prefer to use fresh icing, to start with, and I use just a basic royal icing recipe (powdered sugar, meringue powder, water). I had only recently learned about the "spatula" technique, but I have always done something similar to help eliminate air bubbles. I also want to add that I still get air bubbles and broken lines. Those, however, get carefully removed with my scribe, so you never end up seeing them. Additionally, I have very specific icing consistencies that I use for both my two-dimensional and three-dimensional work.
JULIA: When it comes to clean starts and stops, I find that using thicker icing helps to result in a much less smaller blob at the start of line. I also prefer a metal tip over a tipless bag because I feel like I have a bit more control in that sense. When I get to the end of a line I will use my piping tip to "cut" the icing in order to get a clean break. If you zoom in on my work you should be able to see this.
MINTLEMONADE (COOKIE CRUMBS) Hi! I'm glad you like my work. I'm a big fan of your work too. I do not put anything special in my icing to make it stronger although I have been thinking about trying powdered egg whites as this gives the icing strength. I also find that there is a difference between fresh icing and icing that has been sitting for a few days or has been previously frozen, particularly when it's a darker color. Equally important, would be to have a design where many lines cross each other since this can help to make the entire piece more structurally sound and less susceptible to breakage.
I do not put anything in my icing to make it stretchy. I tried using corn syrup once, but I didn't like how it affected the royal icing stringwork. So, in this case, I would say that using proper technique (a combination of just the right amount of both pressure and pulling) is the best way to "stretch" the icing.
THE SOPHISTIBAKER: Hi Patricia! There are a few consistencies that I use depending on what I am creating, but generally, I use a medium-stiff consistency. And as you have already read, I do in fact still get breakage. I have noticed that the two main reasons for breakage are air bubbles, and moving my hand too quickly relative to the amount of icing coming out of the tip.
THE SOPHOSTIBAKER: I think a lot of people have problems with curling. Using a tip that doesn't have a seam can help. Also, touching down on the cookie first, so that there's contact right away, can also make a difference. More importantly, you want to make sure that there are no bits of dried icing, either inside or outside of your tip, and to make sure your tip is not damaged. I have heard some people say that too thick icing can cause curling, but I have used very thick icing and never had a problem - even with a 00 tip.
Hi Christine! I'm a big fan of your work and have a couple of questions so I hope you don't mind. The first one is how do you pipe such perfect lines? I've watched a bunch of tutorials on piping lines but just can't get them to be as straight or perfectly aligned as yours. What's your secret?
KarenBakes: I've watched a lot of these videos too, and for starters, I pipe my lines a lot differently that most everyone else. I also take into consideration things like posture and breathing, and the way I hold my piping bag. There are so many little tips and tricks that if I taught, I could probably dedicate an entire class to piping the perfect line.
I imagine it's an issue with your powdered sugar, Tina. Lots of variability in coarseness of it across the globe. Domino and C&H here in the US are quite fine, and pose no clogging issues for me at all.
Christine, congrats again for your accomplishment, especially for being the first cookier to be named as an "Honourary PME Five Star Sugar Artist"! Can you tell us more about this accomplishment? Did you take a special course?
Manu: Hi Manu! Thank you. PME approached me and said that they were putting together a new Five Star course, and wanted to have my work in their course book. I was extremely honoured since I am always trying to challenge myself both technically and creatively.
Karenbakes: I did take a lot of art classes in school, and it's always been my favorite subject. When it comes to my stringwork, I usually like to start with a basic geometric shape, and just experiment with different ways to pipe the lines based on that shape. I also love experimenting with different color patterns because that is something that can also have a great effect on the outcome. Beyond that, most of my inspiration comes from artwork found outside of the cookie world.
Another question from me: You mentioned that PME tips were game-changers for you. But what's so special about PME tips? I understand how seams on tips can be problematic when piping straight lines, but there are plenty of other seamless brands of tips out there, like Ateco and Wilton to name just two.
JULIA: I started off using Wilton tips to pipe my lines, and my lines were okay. But once I started using PME tips, my lines became incredibly straight. I absolutely love how the icing flows out as well as the amount of control that I get. I cannot speak for the equivalent Ateco tip (No. 1), I have not used it. But I am very happy with my PME tips. That said, I do have other tips that are Ateco and Wilton, and I like them as well.
I've used both PME and Ateco, and find them comparable in performance, but I still do most of my straight lines with a parchment cone anyway! The Ateco tips just run larger - a #1 PME is a fair bit smaller than an Ateco #1.
Karenbakes: Thank you. Yes, of course. I have been wanting to try working with isomalt for a while now. I used to paint with watercolors, so I would love to try experimenting with different painting techniques. And I would love to try creating grander royal icing designs on cakes.
The Sophistibaker: That's a good question. I'm always thinking about what I can create that's even more complex than what I've already done (hence my cube experiment). Right now, I am obsessed with creating three-dimensional stringwork pieces, and I think there's so much more that I can do with them. My goal is to create incredibly complex three-dimensional pieces that no one can figure out. I would love to be able to showcase my work so that others can see it because they really look pretty cool in real life.
I had this same question about your dot consistency. I use a really loose consistency for dots, but it's nowhere close to what I would call "piping" consistency. I use "piping" consistency for line work. Can you clarify? Maybe describe what the icing does (how it behaves) for each task, lines vs. dots?
Home Baked Cakes: I really depends on what I am creating. For two-dimensional work, I will use a softer consistency. For three-dimensional work, I use a stiffer consistency - anything from just thicker than "toothpaste" consistency right up to a consistency that holds a peak.
Julia: I have been thinking about teaching for a long time. I had actually started planning things around the beginning of the year but unfortunately, everything in the world changed and so that got put on hold. I would love to be able to hold classes where I could teach how to create both two and three-dimensional stringwork designs - and, of course, how to pipe a straight line. But I think, more realistically, I would be teaching basic and advanced classes. The only thing I really need is a place to hold classes (and students lol). So, hopefully, I will be able to find that once things go back to normal.
Some possible news about these chats . . . my tech support team looks like they're considering developing video chats (finally - I've been asking for that functionality for years), so, hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, we can be talking instead of typing, and I won't have to go offsite to use Zoom for video calls.
This chat has been very informative, I'm glad I joined Julia's Cookie Connection because there are a lot of guests with great knowledge to share. Thank you again for you time and energy and I'm still a newbie learning the best I can.
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