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Baking has always been a favorite pastime for Amber Spiegel, but it wasn’t until she earned a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from Ithaca College that she decided to switch gears and pursue a career. in its artfully decorated cookies and cakes. In this interview, Spiegel talks about how her time in the Culinary Institute of America’s baking and pastry program helped her hone her skills and gave her the confidence to grow her part-time cookie business, SweetAmbs, into a full time job. She showcases her creations and cookie decorating video tutorials on her website and travels the world teaching others how to create their own edible works of art.
What inspired you to enroll in the Culinary Institute of America’s Baking and Pastry program, and how did your culinary training unlock your passion for decorating cookies and cakes?
I’ve always loved baking, but only became interested in a career as a baker during my freshman year of college. I started cooking for my roommates and watching cooking shows, that’s when I started thinking maybe I could cook for a living. After earning a degree in business administration, I worked for my dad in his carpentry business while I figured out what to do next. He was a student at the Culinary Institute of America in the 70s, so when I expressed his interest in cooking for a living, he was all for it. In 2005 I enrolled in the Baking and Pastry program and then worked at a local bakery to gain the required 6 months experience before my CIA start date in February 2006.
A few months after the start of my studies, when I entered [former CIA instructor chef Dieter] Schorner’s class was when I started to focus my career on cake and cookie decorating. We were doing a cake decorating project in class and when he saw my cake he said, “Have you ever done this? and that was the best compliment I could have hoped for! This reinforced my decision to become a decorator.
The following year, I learned even more cake decorating techniques from the chef [Kate] Cavotti and I really honed my skills. All of my classes at the CIA have inspired me to create beautifully decorated cakes and cookies!
Your cookies are so creative and cover so many different styles and techniques. Where do you draw inspiration for your creations?
I find inspiration for my cookies everywhere! One of my first cookie designs was inspired by a Wedgwood dish. I have a collection of trinkets, teacups and fabrics that I turn to when creating cookie designs. I also have an album on my phone called “Cookie Inspiration” so if I see something when I go out I take a picture and add it to the album.
Which tool do you think is essential for beginner bakers looking to get started decorating cookies and cakes?
If you’re just starting out, you really don’t need any special tools, but you do need good recipes. Royal icing can be very delicate and some cookie recipes spread too much to create a smooth surface for decorating. It might take some trial and error to find the recipes that work best for you, so don’t give up if it doesn’t work the first time!
What about more advanced techniques – what is a tool or technique that takes more skill to master but produces dramatic results?
A good quality stand mixer makes such a difference when making royal icing and cookie dough. They last for years and you can use it to do so many different things, so it’s a great tool to have around even if you decide cake and cookie decorating isn’t for you.
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