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

This interview is part of a partnership between SweetAmbs and The Friday Feed SmartBrief.  To get the latest food news and recipes selected by SmartBrief editors and experts from The Culinary Institute of America in your inbox every Friday for free, subscribe to The Friday Feed. Check out the SweetAmbs websiteInstagram and Facebook for cookie decorating tips and inspiration.

Baking was always a favorite hobby for Amber Spiegel, but it wasn’t until after she graduated from Ithaca College with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration that she decided to change gears and make a career out of her artfully decorated cookies and cakes. In this interview, Spiegel talks about how her time in the Baking and Pastry Program at The Culinary Institute of America helped her hone her skills and give 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 make their own edible artwork.

Amber Spiegel of SweetAmbs
Spiegel

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

I’ve always loved baking, but I didn’t become interested in having a career as a baker until I was in my junior year of college. I started baking for my roommates and watching cooking shows, which is when I started thinking that I might be able to bake for a living. After I graduated with a degree in Business Administration, I worked for my dad at his woodworking 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 interest in baking 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 get the required 6 months experience before my start date at the CIA in February 2006.  

A few months into my education when I went into [former CIA instructor chef Dieter] Schorner’s class was when I started narrowing my career focus to cake and cookie decorating. We were doing a cake decorating project in class and when he saw my cake he said, “You’ve done this before?” and it was the best compliment I could have hoped for! This reinforced my decision to become a decorator. 

The next year I learned even more cake decorating techniques from chef [Kate] Cavotti and really honed my skills. All of my classes at the CIA made me feel so inspired to create beautifully decorated cakes and cookies! 

Your cookies are so creative and span so many different styles and techniques. Where do you get 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 and tea cups and fabrics that I look to when I am coming up with cookie designs. I also have an album on my phone called “Cookie Inspiration” so if I see something when I’m out, I snap a picture and add it to the album. 

What tool would you say is essential for novice bakers who want to get into cookie and cake decorating? 

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 finicky and some cookie recipes spread too much to make 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 one tool or technique that takes more skill to master but produces spectacular 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 make 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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