New Year’s resolutions are all about self-improvement. For most people, that includes healthy changes, like new exercise and diet regimes. Others take up new hobbies. If you’re in that camp, and looking to swim against the nutritious current with a sugary side interest, veteran baker Patti Paige has recently released the book to get you started. You Can’t Judge a Cookie by Its Cutter features more than 100 stunning cookie designs, shaped by just 25 cutters, from “the high priestess of decorated cookies,” according to Ina Garten. Paige has made cookies and cake for major companies, politicians, and celebrities, ranging from Cartier, Disney, and the White House to Frank Zappa, Alicia Keys, and Martha Stewart. She is now offering her years of experience to help you create your own edible art.
The highly esteemed baker found her way to the trade in a roundabout way. She had a grandmother who frequently made cookies and a game-loving mom who hated cooking. (In the book, Paige notes that her mother’s favorite cookbook was called The I Hate to Cook Book.)
Paige was somewhere in between. From a young age, she was attracted to colors, shapes, and making up games. After dinner, the family would play Bridge, Scrabble, Sorry!, and others. Where many kids liked the competition, Paige developed an appreciation for the visual appeal and graphic design. Likewise, she was enthralled by colorful packages of commercial cookies, like Oreos, Mallomars, and Chips Ahoy!, but her grandmother’s made the greatest impact. “Using cream cheese dough and a cookie gun, she made dozens of shapes that, to an eight-year-old, were nothing short of magic,” she says in the book.
The renowned baker has always had a creative bent; the future artist would make all sorts of things, like her own brain puzzles, from-scratch potato chips, and homes for worms. But, like most students, she really found her calling at university. She started off studying English, but when she took a class on the work of Josef Albers, the father of modern color studies, she was hooked on fine arts. After graduating, she began working as an artist in New York City, making bold relief paintings with major dimensionality in her Soho studio.
When her grandmother left her longtime Brooklyn home for Florida, Paige inherited her pans and cookie gun. For years, she’d use the tools to make gifts for friends, honing her skills and experimenting with the same sort of color and technique she used in her paintings. They were always a hit. Reassured by the praise, she started selling to specialty stores to supplement her income as an artist. “I’ve always made things, so I had this mindset of ‘You start here and you then end up with a product that’s a sum of its parts,’ ” says Paige. “It doesn’t look like that stuff anymore, it’s transformed into something else. That’s what you do with cookies: You start with ingredients, and with decorating and technique, it’s transformed into a little object.”
When she starting filling orders for Dean & DeLuca, she knew she was really on to something. “A lot of people shopped at Dean & DeLuca,” says Paige. “I’d just be in there and I’d see people just pointing to them and picking out ten or twenty cookies that they’d want. It would be just fun to see how people would see them, and like them, and want them. We’re just here making them, but to see people responding in the way you’d hope, that made it feel like it was something that was really worthwhile.”
Paige’s sweet treats have since been featured on shows and in publications, such as The Barefoot Contessa, O, The Oprah Magazine, Martha Stewart Weddings, the New York Times, and Brides magazine.
Now Paige is offering her years of experimentation and knowledge to readers in her first book. You Can’t Judge a Cookie by Its Cuttter offers expert tips on how to create visually appealing treats, but to Paige the aim of the book is not about making the perfect cookie, it’s all about having fun. “I’m hoping that people who read it will just get other ideas about cookie decorating — not really cookie decorating as much as a way to turn cookie decorating into a little game with other people and yourself,” says Paige.
The artist and pastry chef makes her own cutters; however, for the book, she decided to use common cookie cutters to create numerous shapes and designs. Using seven different dough recipes (gingerbread, wheat, chocolate, sugar, vegan gingerbread, oatmeal, and gluten-free lemon lime sugar), the volume explores how to create a wide array of shapes and designs without spending a ton of money on materials. For example, a Texas-shaped tool can be used to create a birdhouse, a Chinese takeaway box, and a turtle through the power of icing and imagination. Likewise, a pear cutter can be transformed into a ham, a flower, and a hippo.
The designs look complex, but Paige asserts that it really comes down to practice. She wants to share her years of trial to help others learn the process. While Paige had to play with different recipes for icing when she started, in the tome, she’s offered her years of experience to make it easier for those looking to hone their artistic abilities. To her, the most important aspect of embellishing with icing is consistency. For the background, Paige uses a paintbrush to create a thin layer of color (she’s not a fan of thick, excessively sweet layers of icing). For delicate details and lettering, she creates a thicker blend, which is applied with a pastry bag tip. “It’s about being able to have control over what they’re doing, if they want to,” she says. “It’s like any tip about doing anything; it’s helpful; every step of the way, it’s about learning and having fun.”
Andrea’s Whole Wheat Cookies
Makes about 24 (3-inch) cookies
2 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons (340 grams) unbleached all-purpose white flour
1 1/3 cups plus 1 tablespoon (252 grams) stone-ground whole wheat flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks or 340 grams) unsalted butter, softened
1 3/4 cups (354 grams) granulated sugar
1 large egg
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 teaspoons hazelnut extract
Whisk together the all-purpose and whole-wheat flours, salt, and baking powder in a medium bowl and set aside.
In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the butter and sugar and mix on medium speed until thoroughly combined, 1 to 2 minutes.
Reduce the speed to low, add the egg and extracts, and beat for 1 minute.
Gradually add the flour mixture, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed and beating just until the dry ingredients are just incorporated.
If using the Pastry Cloth Method (page 34) to roll out the dough, divide the dough into two equal parts, flatten into discs, and double-wrap in plastic wrap.
Refrigerate for at least two hours.
If using the Parchment Paper Method, roll out the dough straight from the mixing bowl, working in three batches.
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Cut out shapes from the dough. Bake the cookies until they just begin to darken around the edges, 8 to 14 minutes, depending on the size.
Let the cookies rest on the baking sheet for 5 minutes, then transfer to a rack to
cool completely before decorating.