Mini Cookie Christmas Trees

These mini cookie Christmas Trees make a fabulous table gift.  I like to make the vanilla cookies with green icing and gingerbread cookies with white icing.

Cookie Dough

  • 225 g plain flour
  • 110 g caster sugar
  • 110 g butter
  • 1 medium egg
  • 5 ml vanilla extract
  • 6 or 7 concentric circle cutters (plain or fluted, it doesn’t matter)

Royal Icing

  • 1 kg icing sugar
  • 2 tbs meri-white meringue powder (or other powdered egg white)
  • 150 ml cooled, boiled water (plus more for thinning the icing later)
  • green food colouring (preferably a paste colour)

To Decorate

  • 3″ single thick cake boards – one per cookie Christmas tree
  • mini smarties
  • magic stars
  • dragées etc

First make the cookie dough.  Whizz the flour, butter and caster sugar in a food processor until it resembles fine breadcrumbs.  Add the egg and vanilla extract and blend until the mixture forms a ball of dough.  Wrap the dough in clingfilm and chill for at least an hour.

Once chilled, roll out the dough to 5mm thick and cut out your circles.  You’ll need about 6 different sized circles per tree, depending on how big you want them to be, but make sure you start with the smallest cutter size and gradually get bigger.

Bake the cookies at 160°C for about 8-10 minutes, turning half way.  Leave to cool on a wire rack whilst you make the royal icing.

Put the egg white powder into a mixing bowl and add a tablespoon of water.  Mix to a paste, then very gradually add the rest of the water, mixing carefully.  If you take a bit of time now and prevent any little lumps forming you’ll avoid blocked piping tubes later on.  Add the icing sugar and mix in thoroughly.  Now, carry on mixing (about 5 minutes if using stand mixer) until your icing is a really bright white colour and has reached stiff peak consistency.

Add a teaspoon or so of cooled boiled water until your icing reaches soft peak consistency.  Add enough green food colouring to get a nice, bright Christmas tree colour.

Spoon some icing into a piping bag fitted with a number 2 writing tube until it’s about one-third full.  If you don’t have any piping tubes then snip the very tip off the bag.  Carefully outline all the circles with icing and leave to dry for about 10 minutes whilst you thin the icing.  You can tell I was icing these well past midnight – when I came to take the photos they’re as wobbly as I think I’ve ever done!

Outlining the cookies

Outlining the cookies

Remove about half the icing and place in an airtight container.  You’ll need this later on.  GRADUALLY add more water to the remaining icing until it reaches flooding consistency.  I do this using a syringe, adding no more than 5 ml at a time.  To test the consistency, drizzle a teaspoon of the icing into a figure of 8 on the surface.

Count how long it takes for the shape of the 8 to disappear leaving a completely flat surface.  When this happens on the count of 10 you have the correct consistency.

If it takes longer than the count of 10 continue adding more water GRADUALLY.  If the figure of 8 disappears before you’ve counted 10 it’s not a disaster – the icing will just take a lot longer to dry.

Once you’ve got the correct flooding consistency half fill a piping bag fitted with a number 3 writing tube, or alternatively pour into a plastic squeeze bottle. Fill the outlined cookies with icing and leave to dry overnight.

Flooding the cookies

Flooding the cookies

If you’re short of time, you can dry the cookies off in a very low oven (50°C) for an hour or so.  Once the icing is dry and set you can stack the cookies.

ready to stack

Dried cookies ready to stack

Using the saved icing, fill a piping bag fitted with a number 2 writing tube to one-third full.  Pipe a dot of icing onto your cake card and place the largest cookie onto the icing dot.  Now, pipe lines up and down the edge of the cookie, to look like the branches of the tree.

Part finished cookie Christmas tree

Part finished cookie Christmas tree

Pipe a dot onto the top of the cookie, add the next sized cookie and pipe all around the edge again.  Continue stacking the cookies, finishing  with piping in a swirl to cover the top cookie.  Working quickly, dot mini smarties, dragées etc around the tree to look like lights and baubles and top with a chocolate star.

Mini Cookie Christmas Tree

Mini Cookie Christmas Tree

Leave to dry for a couple of hours.

You can also make bigger versions of the Cookie Christmas Tree.

Cookie Christmas Tree with dragees

Cookie Christmas Tree with dragées

If you’re happier baking than arranging flowers then I definitely recommend making one as a Christmas Day table centrepiece – great to look at and you get to eat it too!

Cookie Christmas Tree with smarties

Cookie Christmas Tree with smarties

Eat Your Heart Out

Last Thursday I was thrilled to deliver some cookies and a cake which I’d been planning for months.

Eat Your Heart Out took place over the weekend in the Pathology Museum at St Bartholomew’s hospital in London (part of Queen Mary’s University). This most unusual pop-up cake shop brought together my two passions: baking and science. As an interested non-scientist I am drawn to projects which use unusual ways to engage and educate me about scientific concepts.

I knew that it was going to be amazing from reading Miss Cakehead’s blog in the run up to the event, and have to admit to being somewhat in awe of the talent shown by my fellow cake decorators: in particular the work of Miss Insomnia Tulip, Nevie Pie Cakes and the Conjurer’s Kitchen really stand out.

I was completely thrilled then at the reaction to my Necrotizing Fasciitis cake.    Ben Stansall (AFP/Getty Images) took the most fabulous photo of my cake which was named on the Guardian newspaper’s website as one of the “Best News Pictures”  from around the world that day! (Scroll down the page to 17:24pm for my cake.)  That was just the start of a whirlwind couple of days in which we saw the photo of my cake appear on news websites from Spain, Greece, Bulgaria, Chicago USA, and various other European countries.  There was even some video footage of me finishing the cake by AFP (lots of shots of the other cakes too).

If you’ve never heard of Necrotizing  Fasciitis before (and many haven’t) then you can find out more about it here and on Wikipedia – but I would suggest only clicking the links if you’ve a strong stomach!

The cookies I made were inspired by the Wellcome Images competition.  I love the colours and shapes of individual cells and so the idea of producing some cookies based on deadly bacteria and viruses was bound to emerge.  I did some research on mortality statistics from across the world, then narrowed down my selection further based on what images were the most visually appealing.  Spanish ‘flu may have wiped out millions, but it wasn’t going to make a great looking cookie!

You can see more of the event on the Eat Your Heart Out  blog and Facebook page.   The following are just a few of my own pictures of the cake and cookies I made.  Apologies for the poor quality of the photos – we were working very late at night in order to get the cake and cookies finished, and so I didn’t have much time to set up the photos.

sponge carved and ready to cover

fondant cut away to form diseased section of the leg

Injured / Infected Leg Cake

The Finished Necrotizing Fasciitis cake

Infected Leg Cake

Necrotizing Fasciitis Cake Details

Petri Dish Cookies

Bacteria & Virus Cell Petri Dish Cookies

Top row left to right: Salmonella, Legionella, Smallpox.
Bottom row left to right: Bubonic Plague, MRSA, Ebola.

A huge thanks goes to Miss Cakehead and Carla Connolly at the Pathology Museum for organising such an inspiring event, and for asking me to contribute. This was definitely one of the highlights of my cake career so far.

Science Grrl

Regular readers will know that we like nothing better than to spend as much time as possible in the Quirky Kitchen baking geeky treats and boy, have we been geek baking this month.

This week saw the launch of the Science Grrl Calendar- a fabulous idea that emerged from the backlash against THAT video from the European Commission. It was a really inspiring evening, listening to fabulously glamorous scientists enthusing about their subject.  WID & I were delighted to be there along with quirky junior Hannah who was particularly inspired by some of the younger women there.

The cookies I designed for the launch party at the Science Museum took direct inspiration from the calendar photo shoots. I’ve been working on and off at developing a way to make my cookies glow in the dark for a while now but as soon as I saw the first pictures from Lia Han and Ceri Banner’s photo shoot I knew I had to make it work for the launch party. Well, I’m happy to say we did it!

Glow-in-the-Dark Laser Cookie

Some of the cookies depicted individual inspiring scientists.  These included Jill Tarter (of SETI), Jocelyn Bell Burnell (who discovered Pulsars), Rosalind Franklin (whose x-ray diffraction images helped Watson & Crick work out the double helix structure of DNA) and Hedy Lamarr (who along with being a famous Hollywood actress was a talented mathematician and inventor).

Jill Tarter & Jocelyn Bell Burnell Minifig Cookies

Rosalind Franklin & Hedy Lamarr Minifig Cookies

The other cookies were inspired by both the photo shoots themselves and the various scientific disciplines in which those featured work.

Earth, Sun, Stargazing & Exploding Supernova Cookies

Tsetse Fly & Neuron Cookies

PET Diagram & Magnet (with “Iron Filings” sprinkles) Cookies

Petri-dish & DNA Cookies

You might recognise the Babbage Difference Engine No. 2 and the circuit board cookie from my post about Ada Lovelace Day.

Babbage Difference Engine No. 2 & Circuit Board Cookies

What better than a glass of champagne to illustrate bubble physics?  I couldn’t resist adding popping candy to this one too.  The pump shown is the famous Broad Street Pump which had the handle removed when John Snow linked the water from the pump to an outbreak of cholera in 1854.

Broad Street Pump & Champagne Cookies

Of course, I had to make lots of the minifig scientists.

Minifig Scientist Cookies

We had so many lovely comments, but I think I was most thrilled with the reaction to the Glow-in-the-Dark Laser Cookies and my Rosalind Franklin Minifig Cookie.  It was also great to hear more from the scientists about how accurate I had (mostly) managed to be in icing them.  Thank you to all those who took the time to talk to me about the cookies and how I can improve them.
Do take some time to find out more about Science Grrl.  The calendar has already inspired both my girls.  You can buy yours here and help “inspire a generation” not just in sport but in science too.

Ada Lovelace Day

I’m continually inspired by science in producing the cookie designs for Quirky Cookies & Cakes.  So in honour of today being Ada Lovelace Day here’s a sneak preview of two of the cookie designs I’m making for the launch of the Science Grrl calendar at the Science Museum this Thursday.  Can you guess what the cookies are?

Do have a read about Ada and what she accomplished in her lifetime,  She really was an inspirational woman.  You can find out more about her on her Wikipedia page or there’s a Radio 4 programme about her here.  Why not join in with the celebrations and share a story about a woman scientist who has inspired you.

Skull Cake and Cookies

I had a really fun commission recently for a young man’s 11th birthday – just make it gruesome! After a brief chat about designs, the theme of skulls quickly emerged as the way forward.  We had a really, really tight deadline for this commission – just a few days instead of our usual 4 week plus lead time.  Luckily, Quirky Towers is full of books about science.  We even had a model skull!

I love making marshmallow, and have thought for a while that it would be great for brains.

Skull cookies with Marshmallow Brains

I’m not done with marshmallow brains yet though – there’ll be more to reveal later this month for Eat Your Heart Out.

The cake was really fun to make.  If you don’t have a skull shaped cake tin (and let’s face it, who does?) then don’t despair – you can carve the skull from a couple of square cakes.

From this start

I covered it roughly in fondant, allowing it to crack and dry out in places to make the texture more like a really ancient skull.

I then made a start on adding fondant muscle groups, as though the cake was a partially completed forensic facial reconstruction. The finished cake looked like this.

Skull Cake

October is officially science month at Quirky Towers. Keep your eye on the blog for more science and baking fun during the next few weeks.

Em’s Horrible Histories Party Part 2

Em’s parties are the stuff of legend at Quirky Towers.  This year’s theme was Horrible Histories. You may remember my attempts at making her a dress for the party. Well we had a great time, with lots of history inspired crafts from Yellow Moon, history games invented by Em and the usual themed baking from the Quirky Kitchen.

Here are some of my favourite photos from the day.  Apologies for the lack of quality – we were too busy having fun!

Roman Empress Hannah, WWII Mummy and Restoration Princess Emily

The wrap the mummy game – great for Halloween parties too.

What else could you possibly eat other than Pepys Pizza – pizza in the shape of Samuel Pepys face!

Personalised Horrible Histories Cookies

Horrible Histories Wax Seal Cookies

Of course there had to be cookies!

The cake had scenes from the Great Fire of London, topped with Charles II holding a bottle of champagne as a nod to the Mathew Baynton in the Horrible Histories Charles II song.

Great Fire of London / Charles II Cake

Party anyone?

Maths & Baking – Part One

I’ve been thinking about this blog for a while.  It all started when I did the Geek Calendar cookies last October.  Here’s some of my maths cookies from that night, ably modelled by Matt Parker & Alex Bellos.

above photo courtesy of Ben Thompson and Geek Calendar

By the way, please, please do go and read Alex’s book “Alex’s Adventures In Numberland“. Now.  It’s utterly absorbing.

Now, I want to start by admitting that maths was about as far from my favourite subject as was possible when I was at school.  In fact I always thought that I was pretty rubbish at maths.  Six hours of possible brain injury testing after the accident proved otherwise, but that’s a whole other story.  The point is, I THOUGHT I couldn’t do maths.

It’s only with the passing of time, (well that and listening to Matt Parker talk about the beauty of a Möbius Loop), that I’ve realised that I really like maths.  I’m relatively good at it too: cue competitive “discussion” with Mr Quirky as to who’s best at navigating & packing the freezer (although I have to admit, that time he navigated through London using only the sun was awesome!).

The reality is I use maths all of the time in my work. From simple multiplying and dividing ingredient quantities, through working out percentage profits to the more complicated geometry for some of the sculpted cakes.  Whilst leafing through Hannah’s GCSE Higher Maths book, I even came across an example of using maths to ensure the right number of trays of eggs is ordered, a “Real-Life problem” I calculate every Monday! Although Ed-Excel, I have to point out that a tray of eggs is 30 not 24!

So in honour of this being Pi Approximation Day, here’s  some fun maths cookies and cakes.

Quirky Junior’s fantastic maths teacher Mrs Boyd is leaving us for the USA, and to mark this sad day  Hannah made some fabulous maths based cookies this week.

They reminded me of some I helped her make 3 years ago, before I set up Quirky Cookies & Cakes.

You can see how her piping has improved from age 11 to now.

I’d been thinking about a Möbius loop cookie for quite some time, so Mrs Boyd’s departure seemed the obvious time to have a go.  My normal cookie recipe didn’t stand up to the cooking process so I decided to try a fortune cookie mix.  I’d never made them before but I just about managed to get it to work. Next time I’ll know to make the strips of fortune cookie at least 30cm long, as most of the ones I made simply weren’t long enough to fold back on themselves.

I’ve had some helpful suggestions as to possible improvements from BakeMe.Com and my good friend Jules of  Butcher, Baker I’ll be returning to that one as soon as I’ve got the energy!

I couldn’t let today go by without making at least one pi cake.  Having compared methods with @standupmaths following his pi cupcakes earlier this year I thought it should be possible to use the marbling method to make a cake which, when cut, showed the pi symbol.

Well, it clearly needs more work, and if I hadn’t been spending most of the day finishing these and a plethora of other things, I’d have made another one.

One final thought…we were honoured to welcome Matt Parker to Quirky Towers earlier this week when he was working in Derby.  Whilst we happily chatted about maths and baking, I suddenly had the idea of a Venn Diagram pie.  I’m working on it now…so watch this space for more maths baking fun soon.

The Geek Calendar

Here at Quirky Towers we are pretty geeky.  Mr Quirky is an analytical chemist, and in my former life as a wannabe academic researcher (although I started my PhD, the accident meant I didn’t finish it) my chief interest was in exploring how a teacher’s own knowledge of science impacted on their ability to communicate scientific ideas and knowledge to their pupils. I read physics books for fun, even though I didn’t even take physics ‘O’ Level, and have a not-quite-secret ambition of one day doing the physics degree I probably should have done all along.  Pretty geeky so far.

As a family, our main geeky obsessions are Harry Potter and Lego.  In fact, our very favourite even combines the two.  We’re currently wading though rebuilding all our Harry Potter Lego (and since we’ve got almost all the sets ever issued, you can guess what a tall order that is!)  And of course now we’re into advent, I’ve added my santa minifig keyring to my keys and put out the Lego Christmas decorations.  If you follow me on twitter, you’ll also have been hearing recently about my Lego baking obsession, but more of that another time……

Yes, we’re geeky and proud!

So when I heard recently about the Geek Calendar, I knew that it had to be the perfect addition to my study / office for the new year and ordered one straight away.

above photo courtesy of Ben Thompson and Geek Calendar 

And that was the beginning of one of the more surreal experiences of my life so far which ended with Mr Quirky and I attending the launch party in London recently, bringing with us my collection of geeky and quirky cookies.

Geek Calendar Cookies
Copyright Wendy Staples

The Geek Calendar has been produced to raise money for the Libel Reform campaign.  It features lots of my geeky heroes and heroines, including Imran Khan of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, Simon Singh, Dr Petra Boynton, Jonathan Ross, Ben Goldacre and Professor Brian Cox with fellow science tv presenter (& his wife), Gia Milinovitch.  You can still order one here until 15th December for UK orders (10th December for international).

We had the time of our lives, met some really interesting people (I learned lots about the ‘flu virus) and I drank what can only be described as probably far too much gin and tonic! You can just spot Mr Quirky on the right hand side here, in the appropriately geeky grey cardigan!

above photo courtesy of Ben Thompson and Geek Calendar 

And the highlights of the night?  Well, this photo is pretty special….

above photo courtesy of Ben Thompson and Geek Calendar 

It’s really hard to pick just one highlight, but I think what I shall always remember is being inspired to go back to my academic work.  Giving up my PhD was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.  Over the years I had reconciled myself to the idea that my life had taken a different direction, but I’ve vowed to myself that I’m going to at least start reading again, and the one lesson I have learned is that you never know where life might take you.  Now don’t all panic at once…..I’m not giving up the baking…..but maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to combine the two over the next few years.

 Science, libel reform and baking, all in one event. It doesn’t get much better than this!