Icing lessons at the Ministry of Biscuits
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When it comes to icing biscuits, what makes a good icer? Artistic ability for sure. Attention to detail. And patience – not just for managing the preliminaries such as mixing the icing colours and filling the piping bags (often cited by professionals as the least enjoyable parts) but also for decorating itself, which can take several hours depending on the time required for the icing to dry. It also helps to have someone like Agnese Basova on hand to prep and guide you through every stage of the process.
Agnese is a studio icer at the Pimlico store of Biscuiteers, where today she is giving me a masterclass in icing. As well as tutorials, Biscuiteers – the London-based company whose headquarters in Colliers Wood is known as the Ministry of Biscuits – turns out bespoke biscuits for brands such as La Mer, Cartier and Chanel, and hand-ices about 10,000 biscuits each day as part of its regular collection. This includes Beatrix Potter characters, a “Get Well Soon” first aid kit (stocked with biscuit pills, ointments and a thermometer), and a gingerbread bride and groom. It currently has a bespoke Dior collection to coincide with the brand’s festive takeover at Harrods (from £15 for one).
Today’s class is just for me. But the two-hour sessions (£90) are usually group activities, mostly for beginners and catering to everything from kids’ birthday parties to hen dos. The upside of learning this way is that the biscuits are baked and the royal icing mixed and ready to go, either in piping bags (for outlining) or squeeze bottles (for flooding). All I have to do is follow Agnese’s lead. Joining us briefly is Harriet Hastings, founder of Biscuiteers, who acknowledges a huge surge of recent interest. The Great British Bake Off may have played a part but she reckons it’s also down to a wider phenomenon of people wanting to learn a craft. “People come from Australia to do our icing classes,” she says.
Today I’ve got three vanilla biscuits to ice: one of a cluster of balloons; another of a lit candle on a sponge cake; and the third of Paddington Bear. I’m struck by how quickly I make progress. Sure, you need a steady hand to pipe the outlines. And you have to judge the speed of piping against the consistency of the icing and the pressure on the bag. But I’m a quick study, and at times I feel like an expert calligrapher, piping out curves and lettering. Of course, my confidence is my undoing. Attempting Paddington’s face, I mess up completely and end up with what looks like his evil twin. More cack-handedness turns the birthday-cake-shaped biscuit into an Amnesty International logo: the candle looks as if it is wrapped in barbed wire (not candy stripes) and rising out of a bleeding mattress (not a jam-oozing cake). Nonetheless, I’m awarded a “Certificate of Brilliance” and get to eat the results. I can’t complain. I’ve also had a blast, particularly doing the flooding.
For those looking to progress at home, Cookie Canvas (DK Ltd) by American biscuit-decorator Amber Spiegel and Baking with Kim-Joy (Quadrille) by the Great British Bake Off finalist are excellent primers. Not only do these books provide recipes for good, all-round biscuits robust enough to send in the post, but you also find tutorials on techniques that deliver big results with minimal skill. These include feathering (running a cocktail stick through wet icing) to create hearts and flowers, and lacework constructed out of a simple grid with dots. Cookie Canvas is particularly good on themed biscuits, which range from floral-patterned baby rompers to dinosaur eggs cracking open to a cable-knit hat and mittens (“almost too cute to eat”). Spiegel is also worth seeking out on YouTube as one of many icers whose videos have become a popular form of therapy: it turns out watching biscuits being decorated can be profoundly relaxing.