Ladies and gentlemen! Allow me to introduce you to the Queen of Cookies, the Dutchess of Decorating, the Countess of Creativity, the Royalty of Icing — Ms. Betsy Delk.
Betsy — who probably gets more invitations to holiday cookie exchanges than anyone else, ever — has made a name for herself with her elaborately decorated cookies: soccer jerseys, “Ninjabreadmen,” swimmers, teacups, poodles, flip-flops, stars and moons, boxer dogs, ice skates, hats and mittens, a poop emoji, handbags and shoes, Gumby and Pokey, a pill bottle and snowmen with sparkly scarves. (Wait, did I just say poop emoji?) You name it, she can probably make it — except for soccer balls; she just can’t do a good soccer ball, she admits.
The 1960s kitchen in her 1927 house was made for baking … the kitchen cabinet has a built-in, old-school flour mill — although she doesn’t use it because it sifts today’s flour too fine — while a nearby pantry has cabinets perfect for her myriad containers of pearl sprinkles, sugar sprinkles, flower sprinkles, jimmies, bottles of icing coloring and cookie cutters, which number around 200. Her icing tips are housed in a tackle box.
Another corner of her kitchen — “the cookie corner” — is where she keeps her spatulas, her two favorite cookie sheets (she’s got about a half a dozen others, but she only uses her two favorites for baking), rolling pin, measuring cups and spoons, wire racks and pastry blender. This is where she works. This is where the cookie magic happens.
And, unfortunately for her three daughters and husband David, the snack cabinet is in the cookie corner. If Betsy’s baking, those snacks are out of reach for the duration. “Get out of the cookie corner! Get out of the cookie corner! Get out of the cookie corner!” is often heard during baking season.
Betsy’s kitchen, my friends, is one well-equipped baker’s paradise.
Not one who has had much success with baking myself — other than my world-famous Bundt cakes that hit a homerun practically every time — I was in awe of Betsy’s cookie world. (Ask me about the time my best friend and I attempted to make Christmas tree cookies years ago, proving that two Jewish girls should leave Christmas cookies to the Christians — it’s just not in our genes.)
BETSY’S BAKING BACKGROUND
Betsy’s mom, Mary Ann Abraham, made sugar cookies every Christmas season — with the recipe Betsy uses today.
Mary Ann would make the cookies and royal icing, and then turn the kids loose on the decorating. “‘Hey kids, here’s your pile of sugar cookies, here’s the icing,’ and we were just spreading the icing on with a knife and throwing some sprinkles on. It did not involve anything too complicated.”
Betsy really started baking when she was in college, in the early 1990s.
“I was really into cows, cow sheets, people would give me cow pictures, and I had cow gloves, and it was just one of those things, like now with owls. …
“Someone bought me a cow cookie cutter, and I was working at Bachman, Hess, Bachman and Garden as a summer law clerk, and at the end of the summer, I don’t know why, but I figured, I’ll make some cow cookies and give them to them as a thanks for the summer. And so, that was the first time I ever made a sugar cookie as an adult.”
After the cows, she “moooooved” onto new challenges.
“I started making Christmas cookies then, on a pretty rudimentary scale, and then I started making violin cookies for the [Wheeling Symphony Viennese Winter] ball.”
And it just grew from there.
‘TIS THE SEASON
You can always find a pound of butter on the countertop coming to room temperature, just in case the urge to bake hits her. And she always has a few batches of dough (sugar cookie and gingerbread) in the refrigerator and a few in the freezer, at the ready. “I always make a double batch.”
While Christmas is the busiest time for cookie production, she only makes a few different shapes for the holidays “… because I’m making so many, and I have it down to a science the way I decorate certain ones so that I can mass produce them.”
The favorites of Christmastime are the snowmen, trees …. [you can hear the clink, clink, clink, as she’s searching for cutters in her bin] … stars, hats, mittens, candy canes, reindeer and gingerbread men.
Along with the dough, she stockpiles cookies. She’ll bake them ahead of time and freeze them, then get them out of the freezer when she’s ready to “decorate, decorate, decorate.”
The whole dining room table is filled with trays and trays of cookies in various stages of creation during the Christmas cookie season. Snowmen without hats, snowman with hats, reindeer without antlers, reindeer with antlers. … you get the picture.
She makes about 30 to 40 dozen cookies each Christmas season — some for gifts, some for holiday events, some for a cookie exchange and some for her family. Along with sugar cookies, she makes snickerdoodles, gingerbread, pizzelles and peanut butter kisses — her brother’s favorite.
“This (referring to the rolling, cutting, baking and decorating she is deftly doing while we talk) is how I spend hours and hours and hours. …” She catches up on television shows or watches a movie while she’s baking. (“I watched the whole season of ‘This is Us.’”) She’s got the system so down pat, it seems she could bake in her sleep. But the investment in the tedious details not only takes time and creativity, but it takes patience.
About six dozen snowman may take a little more than four hours to complete: a half an hour to make the dough (then it must be refrigerated overnight); to pipe on the base coat of icing takes another couple of hours; then the detail work — half an hour to put all their hats on, 45 minutes to make all their scarves, another 20 minutes to put on eyes. There is waiting time between each step, too, to allow the icing to harden.
All told, she devotes around 100 hours during the holiday season to her cookie craft.
Betsy makes cookies for her kids to decorate, but they don’t decorate her cookies. No room for mistakes if she’s baking for someone else! She does make cookies for her niece and nephew to decorate when they come to visit. And, Betsy bakes gingerbread houses for the cousins to all make together.
TIPS AND SECRETS
- Betsy’s technique has evolved over the years, she says. She used to spread the icing with an offset spatula. But, now she pipes it on. (Watch the video below.) “It’s a little more controlled.” Piping allows for the base to have more than one color. For example, she made turkeys and pumpkin pie wedges for Thanksgiving. The piping worked well for these, she noted.
- Another secret to successful cookies is to be sure they are not overdone. “I usually set my kitchen timer at seven minutes, and they’re not anywhere near done, but then I keep my eye on them for the next couple of minutes.” Total bake time is usually 8-10 minutes.
- Betsy orders her cookie cutters from cheapcookiecutters.com. Some are tin and some are plastic, although she prefers the metal ones. The plastic ones are most likely printed on a 3D printer, she noted.
- She puts one cookie sheet at a time into the oven to bake, which works well with her timing. Cutting, placing, baking — the next tray is ready to go in as one comes out.
- Let the cookies cool a bit before removing from tray. If they’re too hot, they’ll fall apart. If they sit too long, they stick to the cookie sheet. It’s all about the timing, she said, as the cookies slide off perfectly from the tray to the rack.
- She uses meringue powder in her icing rather than raw egg whites, because of health issues with raw eggs. You can get it at Michael’s, Joann Fabrics or wherever cookie decorating supplies are sold.
- One 2-pound bag of confectioners sugar to six tablespoons of meringue powder and enough warm water to get just the right consistency is Betsy’s royal icing recipe. She keeps adding water until it’s just right — not too runny, but runny enough to flow through her pastry bag. A Figaretti’s sauce jar is the perfect receptacle for the pastry bag while she fills it with icing.
- She pipes the icing on the cookies using a metal or plastic tip — a number 4 tip is just the right size — and disposable pastry bags. She covers the icing with plastic wrap while she’s working so that it doesn’t dry out.
- There is special food coloring to use for icing. Gel-paste coloring is more concentrated and doesn’t need to be mixed to get the proper color. It comes in so many colors: warm brown, ivory, gold, lemon yellow, even “bright white,” which turns the icing a whiter white.
- A great trick that I learned (and if I ever make Christmas cookies again, I’ll use for sure) is she dips a little paintbrush into a bit of watered-down icing (or you could just use water) and swooshes a scarf shape onto her iced snowman. Then, she sprinkles colored sugar on the cookie, and voila! — a sparkly scarf comes to life on Frosty! She also uses tweezers to pluck just one orange sprinkle out of a mess of jimmies to use as the carrot nose.
- Betsy loves sweetsugarbelle.com for new cookie design ideas — for example, using an ice cream cone cookie cutter for a turkey or a crescent moon cut in half as a shark fin.
BAKING CHALLENGES, SWEET REWARDS
Her biggest challenge is working with dough in the warm weather, she said. Baking in winter is much easier, because of the cooler temperatures. Logos, specific characters and lettering are more difficult for her. And those dang soccer balls — she’ll make cleats, jerseys, numbers … anything to avoid having to make an actual soccer ball. (And all three daughters played soccer.)
But — after about 27 years — she says she’s getting better all the time, with new techniques and innovations, and she truly enjoys the process. She especially enjoys piping on the icing and decorating the cookies.
Baking for Betsy is like knitting to others; it’s relaxing.
“And it’s fun. When someone asks you to make something, and you figure out how to make it, and it’s cute — it’s rewarding if it works out.”
But, her favorite part of the whole process?
It’s eating the cookie dough!
Watch the precision with which Betsy painstakingly pipes icing onto the snowman. It’s quite mesmerizing.
• After nearly 38 years as reporter, bureau chief, lifestyles editor and managing editor at The Times Leader, and design editor at The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, Phyllis Sigal has joined Weelunk as managing editor. She lives in Wheeling with her husband Bruce Wheeler. Along with their two children, son-in-law and two grandchildren, food, wine, travel, theater and music are close to their hearts.