Holiday Cookie Decorating and Business Workshop

November 21st, 2015


On November 8, SweetAmbs and Baking Fix held a holiday cookie decorating and business workshop for twelve students. The day was split into two parts. In the morning, Amber taught some of her favorite cookie decorating techniques to make beautiful holiday designs. In the afternoon, we learned about the Home-Based Baking Business: an introduction and overview of the necessary steps to running a profitable business.



The holiday cookies!

Amber demonstrated each technique before students began practicing.





Cookies were left to dry on sheet trays. A fan promotes faster drying.


Amber's display table with many of her cookies.

The table was a wealth of ideas for new business owners.

Thank you cookies! A great new product idea.

Amber's demos continued all morning.

Notice how Amber holds the bag and positions her arm.

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    Every student received a box to take home cookies.


    We took a break and ate lunch provided by SweetAmbs. In the afternoon we talked about the business end of running a successful baking/decorating business.

    Keep an eye on Amber’s website for more upcoming classes. If you’re unable to attend classes at Amber’s studio in New York’s Hudson Valley, you can purchase video tutorials here.


    Amber has notebooks, calendars, jigsaw puzzles, and note cards available on Zazzle.

    And the latest news: Amber’s decorating cookbook will be published next fall.

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    Bakery Tour, Clear Flour Bread

    November 12th, 2015

    Yesterday was overcast and chilly, a harbinger of things to come. We bundled up and headed to Clear Flour Bread in Brookline, MA, a residential neighborhood near Boston. We hated the traffic, but had heard too many great things about this bakery to stay away.


    We bought the cute flower loaf, a cinnamon oat bread, and several pastries.

    Production area is directly behind the very small retail space.


    Customer service was exceptional.

    Home-Based Baking at it’s Best! Visit bakeries often. Market research is the best part of owning a baking business. You never know what can inspire you!

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    Guessing Production Amounts, FAQ

    November 5th, 2015

    Week to week, the number of market shoppers can vary greatly. But a covered shopping area when it rains may help keep visitation fairly steady.

    Question: How do you estimate how much to bake when selling at a farmers’ market or festival for the first time? What about when you have a seasonal booth at a farmers’ market? Does it vary week to week?

    Answer: This is not a problem unique to our baking businesses. All industries face this question. But when we’re working with perishables, especially for one-day events, it can be quite challenging. For special events such as a yearly festival, find out the expected turn-out and how many similar vendors will be there. Typically, only 10% of fair-goers purchase baked goods. Divide that number by how many vendors make similar products. For example, if 3,000 is the expected turn-out, 300 shoppers might buy baked goods. If there are two other baked goods vendors, you may sell 100 items. Speculating further, multiply your average product price by 100 and then deduct the vendor fee, cost of goods, travel expenses, and incidentals (are you buying drinks or lunch for yourself?) from the gross amount.

    It’s different when you have a regular booth at the market. You can build up a loyal following and have customers pre-order each week. But many things affect sales – the weather; holidays preceding or following the market day; if any crazy diets are a growing fad (remember the low-carb fad?); and the new products your competitors may bring to the market.

    Do the best you can, and keep track of sales. Eventually you’ll get better at guessing. But know when to cut your losses. Learn from your experiences. Don’t be stupid. Someone once posted on a forum asking for advice. She and her mom were making dozens of products to sell at a weekly flea market. They had no car and used public transportation to haul everything around. There were many weeks when they had no sales even though their prices were cheap. She asked for advice and received numerous responses from people who had no business experience, such as – stick with it you’re not a quitter, sample your products, hold a raffle, drop your prices.

    My response: you need to stop immediately. Every week you are losing money. Find another venue (flea markets are notorious for drawing bargain hunters) and re-evaluate both your products and your pricing. She got rather snippy with me.  Clearly, she was not looking for business advice, only looking for people to support her misguided attempts.

    Home-Based Baking at its Best! If you are in business to make money, please don’t be stupid. Do your market research and don’t take advice from well-meaning but non-business people.

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    Freezing Baked Goods, FAQ

    October 28th, 2015

    Cranberry loaves sell especially well and freeze well. They're perfect for advanced production.

    Now that holiday baking has started I often receive questions about using the freezer to jump start production. I always respond that freezers might be a good way to stock products for later sales.

    Most large commercial bakeries schedule their production so most of their products go directly into the freezer. Their display cases are then stocked daily, from the freezer. Smaller bakeries bake and sell some of their products fresh, but also utilize the freezer to help keep their cases full and ease the daily workload.

    The home baker can definitely utilize a freezer to manage production and sales. But it depends upon what type of freezer you own. In a refrigerator freezer, I wouldn’t keep baked goods longer than a couple of weeks. Frost-free (self-defrost) refrigerator freezers go through a thaw-freeze-thaw cycle. This removes the need for manual defrost, but it has a negative effect upon baked goods. In a manual defrost freezer, however, such as some upright or chest freezers, the temperature is constant so you can safely freeze baked goods for several months.


    Home-Based Baking at its Best! Most baked goods freeze well. But it’s important to do shelf life testing to determine if freezing is right for each of your products.

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    Bakery Tour: Importance of Customer Service

    October 22nd, 2015

    On a chilly fall morning, we set off for two bakeries in West Concord, MA.

    First stop, Nashoba Brook Bakery. There was a huge construction area in front of Nashoba so the shop and parking lot were not visible from the street. I parked several blocks away and had to ask directions; it surprised me there was no sign to direct customers to the front door. Although a good share of their business is wholesale, a sign would have been a nice gesture for their retail business.

    Hidden entrance to Nashoba Brook Bakery.

    Inside the entrance is a large window where customers can look down on the production area.

    I visited this bakery five years ago and loved it. There are several display cases, self-service displays, and numerous tables and chairs.

    During my last visit the counter clerk had been a bubbly gem who answered questions and dutifully promoted their products.

    This morning, however, although it wasn’t very busy, service was quite different. Three counter clerks were chatting with each other about personal issues and ignored customers. I stood in front of the cases for five minutes and none of the clerks acknowledged me. I stood under the sign for customer service, but still nothing. I made eye contact with two of them but they chose to ignore me.

    My granddaughter had picked out the family treats and still, no one came to greet us.

    Eventually, I interrupted their conversation to ask for service. We got a box for home, a loaf of bread, and a Morning Glory muffin to share.

    Our not-so-delicious muffin. It was very dry (either overbaked or day old) with a strong chemical taste from too much baking soda. We ate some, and threw away the rest.

    Next, we walked down the quaint and lovely main street to Concord Teacakes.

    Concord Teacakes

    It was fairly quiet inside, with only two customers at the tables. But business seemed good with a slow steady stream of customers, mostly moms with young kids.

    In the display cases there were only a few cakes that looked as if they’d been there a while.

    But we saw a lot of attractive, colorful cupcakes in different sizes.

    And many large decorated cookies throughout the store - on trays in the display cases and individually wrapped, set in baskets around the shop.

    This store clearly knew their customer: children! Concord Teacakes is located in a small neighborhood community and clearly understands that children have a central role in purchasing baked goods. My grandaughter picked out an Elmo cupcake for after lunch, and we split a bagel while sitting at a table.

    But the customer service was simply okay, nothing remarkable, no smiles, no friendliness. The clerks just moved on to the next customer.

    Elmo was a ring that kids could keep long after the cupcake was gone. Nice!

    Think about your own customer service. At both bakeries, the lack of good customer service really impacted our experience. Shoppers will remember how they were treated, long after they remember if they liked your products.

    And do your market research. Who are your target customers? Concord Teacakes, located in a small family-oriented community, clearly understands that children have a central role in purchasing baked goods.

    Home-Based Baking at its Best! We can learn a lot by visiting other bakeries. Do your market research and think about your customer service.

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    Do We Need Insurance?

    October 15th, 2015

    In our current world, most of us assume that insurance is a necessity. Motor vehicle laws require it, as do mortgages and other types of bank loans. Most farmers’ markets also require vendors to carry insurance.


    But for small legal home-based food businesses, there is no requirement, so you have some leeway. Think about your personal comfort level and the products you make. Only non-potentially hazardous baked goods (products that do not require refrigeration) are allowed for most home-processor permits. These types of baked goods are the lowest risk food category and have less risk (for food borne illness) than organic spinach.

    Assess your risk and think about your products. For example, if you make gluten-free or other allergy-related  items, your risk is greater than someone who only bakes plain breads and rolls.

    If I was legal (had a permit or license), did not make allergy-related products, and only made foods allowed under the cottage food law, I would not purchase insurance. I’m a rule-follower and not a risk taker, but I’m also a pragmatist. I would only purchase insurance if I was a farmers’ market vendor. My preference has always been to sell wholesale, which is allowed under some CFL permits. If your permit allows you to sell wholesale, any store you approach would already have insurance. Stores carry it to cover all their vendors’ products. If an owner or manager tells you that you must have insurance, either they do not carry insurance (red flag alert) or it’s their way of telling you good-bye.

    If you decide to purchase insurance, call around and ask local agents for quotes. And look at the Food Liability Insurance Program (FLIP). Be aware that insurance companies only insure legal businesses.

    I can’t tell you what to do, but I can tell you what I would do in your situation. I think, for the most part, the people who really benefit from home processors buying insurance, are the insurance companies. They might be the ones in a no-risk category.

    Home-Based Baking at its Best! Remember, assess your products. For small legal home-based food businesses, insurance is a matter of personal comfort.

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    Join SweetAmbs and Baking Fix

    October 7th, 2015



    How To Start A Home-Based Baking Business And Cookie Decorating Workshop! The day will be split up into two parts. In the morning, Amber of SweetAmbs will teach you some of her favorite cookie decorating techniques to make beautiful holiday designs.

    In the afternoon, we’ll learn about the Home-Based Baking Business: Do you love to bake, decorate, and give away holiday cookies? Have you ever thought about selling your cookies? More than forty states have a cottage food law that permits individuals to run a home-based baking business. This class is an introduction and overview of the necessary steps to running a profitable business; students will leave class with a checklist for getting started. For anyone interested in learning about the business of home baking, this class is for you.

    The decorating portion of the class is suitable for beginners as well as those with some experience in cookie decorating. We will provide all materials as well as lunch and refreshments. You don’t need to bring anything with you to class.

    To register, visit SweetAmbs Classes

    Home-Based Baking at its Best!

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    Apple Pie, FAQ

    September 30th, 2015

    This pie was the best ever - flaky and flavorful.

    Pile apples high with at least two varieties, use fresh spices, and taste filling before baking.

    Consumers love pie! But baking pie seems to be problematic for many people. I am totally sympathetic to the pie-challenged, since pie making was not always my favorite baking activity. But practice definitely results in better pies. Over the years I’ve learned a few tips for making wonderful tasty and flaky apple pie:

    About Apples
    Sadly, I’ve found that recommendations for best baking apples were not always accurate.  I learned early in my bakery career there was inconsistency in those lists. My biggest irritation was piling a mountain of apples into the crust for making a mile-high apple pie; but then occasionally the apples baked down to mush while the pie crust stayed nice and tall. I solved the problem by using a mixed variety of 3 kinds of apples and from then on my apple fillings were always excellent.

    Last week for home use, I bought two kinds of apples.  There are so many new varieties I wanted to try, I just picked ones that looked good to my hungry eyes. The pie was for family so I wasn’t concerned about customer complaints. It wasn’t until the next day when I was slicing those apples that I checked several internet lists and the two kinds I had purchased were both said to be “mush” in baking. Damn. I briefly considered making a strudel which would surely hide the problem, but I decided to make a pie and cut the slices thicker. Success! The “mush” prone thicker apples held up just fine. (I haven’t replicated this procedure but I would try it again the next few times I make apple pie. If you inadvertently buy apples that may not hold up in baking, and try this method, please email to let me know your results.)

    Apple Pie Tips: 1. Use at least two varieties of apples.  2. Cut apples into both slices and smaller chunks. The smaller pieces fill in the crevices. 3. Most recipes don’t have enough flavor. After mixing your filling, taste it and see how you like the taste. Older spices tend to lose flavor so feel free to add more spice (and more sugar).

    About Pie Dough
    Recently I’ve been involved with a pie crust project which means lots of pie baking. As I researched the subject, I came across foodie/scientists, foodie blogs, and their “science of cooking” which is a misnomer (here’s one of the many articles I found.) Proper scientific methods include repetition to achieve repeated similar results. Unfortunately, many foodie/scientists jump to conclusions, write with authority, and create ever more myths. I am not a food scientist. I can only share what I have learned from practical application and baking thousands of pies (sometimes grudgingly) throughout my career.

    Pie Dough Tips: 1. For many years I used ice cold water but on several occasions there was no ice water when it needed to be added to the mixer. My practical experience taught me that results for using ice water vs cold tap water were the same. Now I use cold tap water. (Warm water will soften the fat too much.) 2. I like a wetter dough which = softer dough, and easier to roll out. 3. I read all about the science of using vodka (actually any alcohol works, it depends upon the flavor and color you’re looking for) so I’ve been experimenting with using vodka for part of the water. To reduce the number of variables, my current pie project is only using vodka. 4. In family focus groups (taste and texture tests) I’ve learned that while butter is nice, an all-vegetable shortening and vodka makes for a flaky crust and a delicious taste.

    Not a scientific study: Three year olds don't always like weird pie foods, top left, but five year olds will eat their own piece plus their brother's.

    I still often use my part butter crust recipe, but below is a variation that results in consistently excellent pie.

    yield: enough for two double crust pies
    5 cups all-purpose flour (approx. 1¼#) plus extra for rolling
    ½ teaspoon salt
    2 cups vegetable shortening (1#)
    ¾ cup cold water (or use part vodka, part water)

    1. Have your filling ready, and set aside.
    2. Pan spray baking tins and preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
    3. In a large bowl, lightly mix flour and salt, then cut in shortening. When mixture looks fine-grained, drizzle in water/vodka and mix into a ball. Knead lightly, then separate into four pieces, two slightly larger. Use at once or wrap and chill for one hour or up to five days.
    4. Don’t worry about working fast – take the time you need. Roll out larger pieces of dough and place in lightly greased pie pans. Trim any dough hanging more than ¼” over the edge. Add filling, roll out top crust, and place over filling. Gently roll edge of top and bottom crust together and press down to seal. Flute edges, or not, in any way you want. Vent top of each pie. If you wish, pie tops can be brushed with water, milk, butter, or beaten egg. You can also sprinkle with sugar. Or just leave plain.
    5. Place pie pans on a cookie sheet with a large piece of parchment or aluminum foil under each pan. Bake in preheated 375° oven 45-60 minutes. Pies are done when juice has bubbled out for a few minutes.
    6. Let pies cool at least two hours before cutting. To freeze, cool to room temperature then wrap well and place in freezer.

    Home-Based Baking at its Best! If you have a home-based food business and do not make pies, consider adding this product line to your offerings. With the trend toward home-made, seasonal, and local, your customers would appreciate purchasing fresh pies any time of year.

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    Bakery Tour, La Cascia’s Bakery & Deli

    September 23rd, 2015

    Congratulations, 35 years in business! Wonderful products, terrific customer service. I can see why they are still thriving.

    I’m in love!! I visited La Cascia’s Bakery & Deli in Burlington, MA. This excellent bakery, located in a small shopping strip off a neighborhood road, has a deceptively unawesome storefront. But wow! A real Italian bakery with high standards for their products and their customer service.


    La Cascia's has a long refrigerated case

    and a shorter dry case for butter cookies.

    The display trays were clean, neat, and beckoning. Everything looked delicious.

    Fresh breads and rolls are on shelves behind the counter.

    Clockwise from bottom left: carrot cake, walnut sweetbun, blueberry pocket, lemon mini-pocket, almond paste cookies.

    My only disappointment was not finding product signs or prices. But the sales clerks were cheerful, friendly, and knowledgable – the best customer service I’ve had in a long time.

    If you live anywhere near this old-fashioned scratch bakery, please stop by. I highly (highly) recommend the almond cookie varieties.

    Home-Based Baking at its Best! Visiting bakeries for product ideas is part of your market research. Enjoy this aspect of running a business!

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    Cookies! Do You Make Cookies?

    September 17th, 2015

    Variations of the same basic sugar cookie recipe.

    October is National Cookie Month. Regardless of what you think about national food holidays, from a marketing standpoint it’s always smart to take advantage of anything that promotes your products.

    A few of the best-selling cookies: chocolate chip, sugar, oatmeal raisin, peanut butter, snickerdoodle, shortbread, and brownie cookies. When deciding the type and flavor of cookies, keep in mind some practical issues such as shelf life, packaging, storage, and handling.

    Chocolate chip cookies, always a winner.

    I suggest you keep a few basic flavors in your repertoire, then rotate other flavor(s) weekly or monthly. Have at least one cookie that is non-dairy and can be eaten by vegans. Be aware of your market. Sizing can vary depending upon venue – make large handheld cookies or small ones sold in packages. And having too many similar varieties (chocolate chip and chocolate chip with walnuts, for instance) can be counter-productive. You don’t have to make both; unless you’re selling at a very busy marketplace, customers may buy one or the other which leaves you with unsold cookies.

    Think about your current recipes and how they can be adapted for change.

    Sugar cookies sandwiched together with jam and dipped in chocolate and sprinkles.

    Double chocolate cookies. Instead of adding chocolate chips to the recipe, these have chips melted and added as a topping.

    Raisins and walnuts added to a basic sugar cookie recipe. Cranberries or other dried fruits are good alternatives.

    Think twice before following business advice from unreliable experts. Selling Homemade Cookies: Tip #2

    “Any burnt cookies should not be sold.  You can throw them away, eat them with your family, or give them away as free samples. You could also donate them to a food bank or food collection if you are into helping people. Plus, then you can say that you donate food. It’s a good advertising campaign.”

    Yup, it’s a good advertising campaign if you want to be known for burned cookies.

    Home-Based Baking at its Best! For National Cookie Month, be prepared with signs. If you have a home-based food business, this is the perfect opportunity to highlight that your cookies are all-scratch and homemade, not “home-style.”

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