Q&A: The pastry chef talks about the techniques, the inspiration behind her edible works of art

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This interview is part of a partnership between SweetAmbs and The Friday Feed SmartBrief. To receive the latest cooking news and recipes curated by SmartBrief editors and Culinary Institute of America experts for free to your inbox every Friday, subscribe to The Friday Feed. Check out the SweetAmbs website, Instagram, and Facebook for cookie decorating tips and inspiration.

Baking has always been a favorite pastime for Amber Spiegel, but it wasn’t until after graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from Ithaca College that she decided to change course and pursue a career with her cookies and cakes decorated with art. In this interview, Spiegel discusses how her transition to the Culinary Institute of America’s baking and pastry program helped her hone her skills and give her the confidence to turn her part-time cookie business, SweetAmbs, into a full time job. She showcases her designs and cookie decorating video tutorials on her website and travels the world teaching others how to create their own edible artwork.

Spiegel

What inspired you to enroll in the Culinary Institute of America’s baking and pastry program, and how did your culinary education reveal your passion for cookie and cake decorating?

I’ve always loved baking, but I only became interested in a career as a baker during my first year of college. I started cooking for my roommates and watching cooking shows, that’s when I started to think maybe I could make a living. After graduating with a business administration degree, I worked for my dad in his carpentry business while I wondered what to do next. He was a student at the Culinary Institute of America in the 1970s, so when I expressed my interest in baking for a living, he totally agreed. In 2005, I enrolled in the baking and pastry making program and then worked at a local bakery to gain the required experience 6 months before my CIA start date in February 2006.

A few months after starting my studies when I entered [former CIA instructor chef Dieter] Schorner’s class took place when I started to focus on decorating cakes and cookies. We were doing a cake decorating project in class and when he saw my cake he said, “Have you done this before?” And that was the best compliment I could have hoped for! It 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 CIA classes made me want to create beautifully decorated cakes and cookies!

Your cookies are so creative and span so many different styles and techniques. Where do you find 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 knickknacks, tea cups, and fabrics that I look at when I create 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 photo and add it to the album.

Which tool do you think is essential for novice bakers who want to get started in cookie and cake decorating?

If you are just starting out, you really don’t need any special tools, but you do need some good recipes. Royal icing can be very delicate, and some cookie recipes spread too much to create a smooth surface for decorating. It may 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 even if you decide cake and cookie decorating isn’t for you.

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