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When Stuck behind a creative gate, this writer loves to laminate

Zen with pastry

For as long as I can remember I loved to write. My paternal grandmother, was an avid and voracious reader. She went through about three books a week. She was a big Sidney Sheldon fan. The cover for the Other Side Of Midnight still sticks out in my mind. Grandma Salley, my maternal grandmother loved to read, but she was also an epic letter writer. She corresponded with friends and family weekly, and never seemed to run out of things to write about.

Thankfully, as a professional writer and author, I have never been at a loss when it comes to things to write about. Writer’s block is real thing and feel paralyzing. Conversely, the overabundance of ideas can easily result in choice overload, making it difficult for writers to narrow the choices and make a decision. I tend to fall into the latter situation, and heading into the kitchen helps me get over the hump.

I make the most of the tactile nature of cooking and baking to take my mind off the choices and focus it on another task. Nine times out of ten, I figure out my next steps through baking. However, when I’m not sure what I should do next, I take out the big guns and delve into more complicated recipes for pastries, like croissants.

Cooking something that is a bit more complex like paella or a Bolognese sauce, can work, but it’s the order found in baking that’s more effective for me. In cooking, as long as you stick to the basics of techniques, you can adjust seasoning, add more or less of an ingredient, or even omit something. That’s not the case in baking, it’s a science. You cannot add more leaveners like baking powder, baking soda, or yeast. Eggs are important for structure. Milk and butter add to tenderness and texture. Even in gluten-free and vegan baking, the substitutions must do the same thing, which is a challenge, but can be accomplished. The order in baking works for my writing process and channels stress.

Laminating dough creates thin layers of dough and butter through the process of rolling and folding. It’s tedious, but something about it works for me. With each turn, my mind clears and I find the clarity needed to decide what’s next in my manuscript, whether it’s adding another character, or fleshing another character further to add dimension for the reader. Is the dialogue snappy or too smart or overly witty for witty’s sake. Naturally, this is my process, and every writer is different. Some go running or take a walk. Others go to their favorite diner or park to watch people. A long drive is a good option too. The fact is anything that brings you peace will inspire and break your writer’s block or illuminate the path to making the right choice to move your story forward. Admittedly, if you work it out in the kitchen, both you and the people around you receive a very tasty benefit. In my case today, they get croissants. There’s nothing wrong with that.

King Arthur Baker’s Croissant recipe adaptation by me

Ingredients

Dough

2 large eggs + enough warm water to make 2 cups (454g) of liquid (6 tablespoons Aquafaba or ½ cup silken tofu pureed with ¼ teaspoon baking soda) **

1/4 cup (50g) sugar, divided

5 1/2 to 6 cups (659g to 723g) (gluten-free all-purpose flour or 1 to 1 gluten-free baking blend flour)**

2 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast (1 packet) 

2 tablespoons (28g) salted butter, melted (vegan butter) **

1/2 cup (56g) Baker’s Special Dry Milk or nonfat dry milk, optional

1 scant tablespoon (16g) table salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional; for sweet pastry)

Butter Layer

30 tablespoons (425g) unsalted butter, cool to the touch (vegan butter)**

3/4 teaspoon table salt or ½ teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 cup (60g) Unbleached All-Purpose Flour (gluten-free all-purpose flour or 1 to 1 gluten-free baking blend flour)**

Instructions

For the dough: Put the eggs and water in a large mixing bowl. Add 1 tablespoon of the sugar, 3 cups (362g) of the flour, and the yeast. Mix until well blended; set aside to let the sponge work.

For the butter: Cut the butter into 1˝ chunks and combine with the salt and flour at low speed in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment just until smooth, with no lumps. Be careful not to beat too much; you don’t want to incorporate any air. My tip, while the stand mixer with the paddle attachment works well, you do run the risk of add air to the butter. I used my pastry cutter and worked the flour and butter into pea-size clumps, then turned it out onto parchment paper, put another sheet of parchment over and rolled the butter until I had the shape I wanted. Then in the fridge it went.

Spread the butter on a piece of plastic wrap and shape into an 8˝ square. Wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Finish the dough: Add the melted butter to the sponge. Whisk together the remaining sugar, 2 1/2 cups (298g) of the flour, the dry milk, and salt and add to the sponge. Mix until the dough forms. Knead for 5 minutes; touch the dough lightly with your finger. If it’s still sticky, add the remaining flour 2 tablespoons at a time until the dough is the desired consistency. Once the dough is smooth and elastic, pat it into a 9˝ square, then wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

To laminate the dough: Remove the chilled dough from the refrigerator and gently roll it to a 12″ square.

  1. Unwrap the butter square and place it in the center of the dough at a 45° angle, so it looks like a diamond in a square. Pull the corners of the dough into the center of the butter diamond. Moisten the edges with a little water and pinch the seams together well to enclose the butter. Dust the top with flour and turn the packet over.
  2. Tap the dough all over with a rolling pin, encouraging it into a rectangular shape. Once it’s pliable, roll it to a 20˝ x 10˝ rectangle, picking it up and dusting lightly with flour as needed.
  3. When you’ve reached the proper size, use a dry brush to sweep off any excess flour and fold the dough in thirds, like a business letter. Take care to keep the edges straight and line them up directly over each other. If the dough slides around, use a little water at the corners to tack them in place. This is your first turn.
  4. Rotate the dough out so it looks like a book about to be opened. Roll the dough out once more to 20˝ x 10˝ and fold it as before. This is the second turn. Wrap the dough and refrigerate it for 30 minutes to allow the gluten in the dough to relax.
  5. Give the dough two more turns after its rest, then wrap the dough well and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or overnight before using. You can also freeze the dough at this point.

To shape the croissants: Cut the packet of dough in half. Wrap and refrigerate or freeze one half.

  1. Roll the other half to a 13˝ x 18˝ rectangle. Trim the edges about 1/4˝ all the way around with a ruler and pizza cutter. This removes the folded edges that would inhibit the dough’s rise.
  2. Cut the dough in thirds lengthwise and in half down the center. This will give you six 4˝ x 9˝ pieces. Cut these pieces in half diagonally and arrange them so the points are facing away from you. Stretch them gently to make them a little longer, then cut a 1˝ notch in the center of the base of each triangle.
  3. Take the two inside corners of the notch and roll them up toward you, building a curved shape as you roll the base of the dough toward the tip. Make sure the tip ends up under the bottom of the croissant. Place the shaped pastry on a parchment-lined baking sheet, curving the ends toward each other. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
  4. Take the croissants out of the refrigerator, and let them warm and rise for 60 to 90 minutes at room temperature. They should expand noticeably, and when you gently press one with your finger, the indentation should remain.
  5. Towards the end of the rise time, preheat the oven to 425°F. Brush each croissant with an egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water. Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the oven’s temperature to 350°F and bake for 10 to 15 minutes more, until deep golden brown and no raw dough is visible where the layers overlap. Remove from the oven and let cool on the pan on a rack for 20 minutes before serving.

Tips from King Arthur Bakers

Bubbles and leaks: It’s not unusual to have air trapped inside your laminated dough. If this happens, simply pop the bubble with a toothpick and press the dough down to lie flat. If there’s a bare spot where butter is coming through, dust the leak with flour, pressing down lightly so it sticks, and continue on with the fold. Refrigerate the dough as soon as the fold is done, to firm it up.

As you work, keep the dough, work surface, and your rolling pin well dusted with flour. Turn over the dough from time to time. As you roll, you tend to expand the top layers more than the bottom. By flipping the dough over, you’ll even that out. Before folding the dough over on itself, use your pastry brush to sweep off excess flour. This will help the dough stick to itself after folding, so the layers don’t slide around.

When rolling the dough, especially for the first time, be sure the dough and butter are at the same consistency; this will make rolling much smoother and the layers will be more even.

Vegan/non-dairy adaptation tips

** For most vegan bakes that have less than three eggs, I usually list flaxseed or chia seed eggs and egg replacer. We tried that in the test kitchen and both substitutions don’t work as well, it’s too dry even with additional liquid added. To keep the recipe as close to the original as possible the Aquafaba and silken tofu eggs worked beautifully.

** I also normally list more gluten-free flour alternatives, but we found that gluten-free all purpose and the baking blend worked exceedingly well

** Vegan butter is the best alternative. Margarine is too oily and you won’t get the same flaking as you get with butter

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Fighting for my right to write in peace

Whether it was life before Covid-19, most of us probably had some issues carving out time for ourselves. Although, I am very sure that men have as much responsibility and pressures as women, when dad sets aside time and he doesn’t want to be bothered, people listen. As a daughter, girlfriend, significant other, and fiancée I tried and still try not to bother the man in my life when he needs to work, write, or watch football, NCAA basketball, or the PGA,

I have found that as a woman I have a harder time setting those boundaries, but I won’t blame all of it on everyone else. I’ve been at my mother’s (whom I refer to as her mothership) and she tends to walk in while I’m writing and start talking or telling me about something that she wants me to do. Instead of telling her to please give me a moment, I am an oldest child. Most firstborns are what I like to call starter children. We are the kids parents get to practice on until they figure out their parenting style. Traditional, bohemian, militant, or a combination thereof. We are the ones who weather the trial period. That is not to say that we don’t have a right to ask for a little time to ourselves as adults, but it can get a little tricky.

All of that aside, writing is a part of my life every day. Even when I don’t have a pen and paper in hand, I’m thinking about different topics, memories, or funny stories I’d like to incorporate in a blog post or as a part of a novel, or the cookbook I’m working on about my grandmothers’ and their cooking.

More than that, writing is more than just thoughts on paper, it’s the way I can redirect nervous energy when I’m worried. It’s also the way I’ve been able to deal with MS for the past twenty-five years. Chronic diseases and conditions like MS can engulf your life. It can dominate every corner if you let it. My dad told me when I was first hit with the diagnosis, that as long as I had MS, it could never have me. I’ve lived by that creed ever since and it has served me well, in addition to saving me from going into a self-pity hole.

That is why I believe that it’s important to fight for your right to write. If you’re a writer, it’s a part of who you are, which is an artist. And artists over many different mediums from paint to clay to, cameras to musical instruments and more need to exercise that right to keep it strong. Whatever moves you to write, scope out the place and set the time aside for yourself.

Part of my right to writer includes being in the kitchen, which includes going into the test kitchen to work on recipes. I love to work on adaptations of recipes to be sure it’s tasty enough to pass muster. To that end, I am posting a recipe for shepherd’s pie with meat and vegan ground meat. This is a recipe I came across in my Google feed, I’ve tweaked it a bit.

Shepherd’s Pie

Meat Filling:

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup chopped yellow onion

1 lb. 90% lean ground beef -or ground lamb

2 teaspoons dried parsley leaves

2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

2 garlic cloves -minced

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour (gluten-free all-purpose or 1 to 1 gluten-free baking blend)

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 cup beef broth

1 cup frozen mixed peas & carrots*

1/2 cup frozen corn kernels

Vegan Meat Filling

1 pound or package of Vegan ground meat Impossible Burger Ground, Farmland Protein Starters, Good and Gather Ground, Gardein The Ultimate Beefless Ground

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup chopped yellow onion

2 teaspoons dried parsley leaves

2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 tablespoon Vegan Worcestershire sauce

2 garlic cloves -minced

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 cup vegetable broth

1 cup frozen mixed peas & carrots*

1/2 cup frozen corn kernels

Potato Topping:

1 1/2 – 2 lb. russet potatoes -about 2 large potatoes peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes

8 tablespoons unsalted butter -1 stick (vegan butter, margarine)

1/3 cup half & half (rice or soy milk)

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/4 cup parmesan cheese (Thrive Vegan Parmesan-Style Cheese Alternative, Follow Your Heart Dairy-Free Shredded Parmesan, Vegan Soy Free Grated Parmesan Style Topping)

Instructions

Make the Meat or Vegan Meat Filling.

Add the oil to a large skillet and place it over medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Add the onions. Cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the ground beef (or ground lamb or vegan ground) to the skillet and break it apart with a wooden spoon. Add the parsley, thyme, salt, and pepper. Stir well. Cook for 6-8 minutes, until the meat is browned, stirring occasionally.

Add the Worcestershire sauce and garlic. Stir to combine. Cook for 1 minute.

Add the flour and tomato paste. Stir until well incorporated and no clumps of tomato paste remain.

Add the broth, frozen peas and carrots, and frozen corn. Bring the liquid to a boil then reduce to simmer. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Set the meat mixture aside. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Make the potato topping.

Place the potatoes in a large pot. Cover the potatoes with water. Bring the water to a boil. Reduce to a simmer. Cook until potatoes are fork tender, 10-15 minutes.

Drain the potatoes in a colander. Return the potatoes to the hot pot. Let the potatoes rest in the hot pot for 1 minute to evaporate any remaining liquid.

Add butter, half & half, garlic powder, salt, and pepper. Mash the potatoes and stir until all the ingredients are mixed together.

Add the parmesan cheese to the potatoes. Stir until well combined.

Assemble the casserole.

Pour the meat mixture into a 9×9 (or 7×11) inch baking dish. Spread it out into an even layer. Spoon the mashed potatoes on top of the meat. Carefully spread into an even layer.

If the baking dish looks very full, place it on a rimmed baking sheet so that the filling doesn’t bubble over into your oven. Bake uncovered for 25-30 minutes.** Cool for 15 minutes before serving.

Notes

*You could use 1/2 cup frozen peas and 1/2 cup frozen sliced carrots.

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Baking, blogging, and writing. Using the pan in pandemic to keep up with both sides of a professional literary life.

It’s the last Tuesday of 2020 and I don’t think 2021 could arrive any sooner for everyone at this point. Although, there is no need to state the obvious, it’s been an overall rough year for everyone. Everything most of us took for granted like having the choice between getting a cup of coffee or a burger to go, or to stay, for a stretch of time this year, wasn’t even an option. Then there was the change of working from home that required far more adjustment than anyone ever thought it would. Kids, pets, and life at home made it hard for many to stay in work mode. As it turns out, working can be stressful in the office and at home, which was a shock to some people, not me. However, the effects of Covid-19 on an industry like publishing, where socializing in person is just as, if not more important, than emails and posts, it’s been an adjustment. It’s the last Tuesday of 2020 and I don’t think 2021 could arrive any sooner for everyone at this point. Although, there is no need to state the obvious, it’s been an overall rough year for everyone. Everything most of us took for granted like having the choice between getting a cup of coffee or a burger to go, or to stay, for a stretch of time this year, wasn’t even an option. Then there was the change of working from home that required far more adjustment than anyone ever thought it would. Kids, pets, and life at home made it hard for many to stay in work mode. As it turns out, working can be stressful in the office and at home, which was a shock to some people, not me. However, the effects of Covid-19 on an industry like publishing, where socializing in person is just as, if not more important, than emails and posts, it’s been an adjustment.

I’ve been working from home for some time. I have a very small literary agency with a handful of clients. Being a part of the publishing industry, I spend time reviewing the latest signings and deals happening with the Big-Four publishers (it was five, but Random just bought the venerable Simon and Schuster), independent, and boutique publishers. I read Publisher’s Weekly, The New York Times Book Review, to keep up with the industry. I live on Long Island and I spend time in Bethel, Connecticut with my sister’s family where I am Auntie Mimi. In New York I am a part of the otherhood (mothers with adult children, in my case sons)

I’m also a writer and author myself. I’ve been in the publishing industry for close to twenty years. I understand the publishing industry from both sides of the table. Editors, senior and assistant, along with editorial directors and acquisitions editors spend a great deal of time in meetings that aren’t in a conference room. They meet literary agents and authors for coffee, lunch, and cocktails. There are industry dinners where they have an opportunity to talk with other publishing professionals about projects and trends. Agents like having the opportunity to pitch clients in person and to find out what types of projects editors are seeking. We think using the #mswl, is terrific, but have you seen most people’s let alone agent’s Twitter or Facebooks threads, it’s easily lost in a plethora of other tweets, posts, or updates. We were just getting the hang of the new digital submission, when Covid-19 took the social scene away. Now we had to Zoom, and for some editors living in an NYC apartment with children, zooming from their closets was a close to an office situation as they could get.

Combining this with the number of changes that have occurred since the first of my ten books (1 nonfiction, 9 novels) was published in 1998 through the last book in 2015, it’s night and day. The Internet was in its toddler stage in the late nineties and still somewhat of a novelty. Publishers still accepted hard-copy submissions through the mail. You could call and editor or the art department direct without hitting a menu-option. Now it’s all email and pressing phone options if you call. Neither guarantees you’ll get through. In the nineties through the early 2000s, being traditionally published by the aforementioned publishers, was the only way to go. Any other means of publication like hybrid and self-publishing were looked down on as an inferior way to be published or as vanity-publishing adjacent. Now, there’s a self-publishing section in PW. Some of the major traditional publishers, have a waded into self-publishing offering services for people looking to publish their books. A blogger with a large social media following is more likely to get a publishing deal than a previously published author with proven sales and readership. Getting on social media to develop a platform is a little easier for boomers and gen-xers who were always techies or gamers. For some like me, changing from the analog to the digital has been a bit tougher. I believe conversation is an art, and there are things that simply cannot be conveyed through a text or post, unless you’re scream (all-caps) tweeting or texting. Still, I don’t have much choice but to try to figure my way through the maze. There are plenty of bloggers who have developed a lucrative platform and are willing to help you. Some want a lot of money, others don’t want as much, but the problem is how do you know if what they’re going to teach will actually work for you. It’s a lot to process.

To deal with the new world, I head to the kitchen. It’s my personal ashram where I find a way to quiet my thoughts so that I’m able to think without the white noise of our online lives. It allows me to work through professional and personal issues. Writer’s block is a condition no writers wants for any extended period. Novelists, songwriters, television and screenwriters, anyone who depends on words for their livelihood/career. It was the kitchen that made this past year a little easier to cope with and from the number of banana bread posts I saw at the beginning of the lockdown in March, others have discovered what a tasty oasis the kitchen is. Covid-19 also stands for the average number of pounds gained (if it was more, I won’t tell). Being in the kitchen helped me figure out different ways to pitch my clients’ work to publishers. As an added benefit, it helped me tighten up three fiction manuscripts of mine. I was able to compile the recipes for two cookbooks, one of which celebrates my family’s traditions in the kitchen.

I’ve also taken on the daunting task of trying to build an online presence. While I love all of these great articles interviewing people who had blogs, then got a publishing deal for cooking or a memoir or something else, I can’t dwell there. I am having a time figuring all of the ancillary things out. I don’t have time to ponder or mope over why I haven’t been discovered. I was never one for a diary, which is weird because I always loved writing, but I preferred writing stories centered around what did or is happening in my life and around me. I start with a pen and paper, before I type anything into Word. There is something about connecting to the paper that helps writing flow for me. More often than not, I don’t use much of what I wrote by hand, it’s just the runway and taxiing. When I begin typing, my mind takes flight, the words come. That is not to say that I don’t edit and change it extensively. Words have life. They breathe, contract, and change shape.

I find that baking helps the most when I’m writing fiction. There are no bounds to what I can write, but baking is science. It’s orderly. You can’t deviate and add just a pinch more yeast or baking powder. The measurements are precise, there is no free-styling. Somehow, all of it allows my creativity to flow freely. I’ve figured out more plot lines and characters just by sifting, measuring, stirring, and kneading. It’s what works for me in my literary life and has made it possible for me to blog and keep up with my website.

For others it might be painting, drawing, or another form of art that helps their creative juices get going. Physical activity like working out, running, walking, or yoga is helpful for some people. I enjoy doing yoga in the mornings to help center my thoughts and stretch my limbs. It helps with the every day pain of having MS, but it’s baking and writing that sets me free of the condition, even if it’s just for a little while.

Now that there are vaccines available, I believe the world will return to a new normal. I am quite sure that pre-pandemic life won’t return as we knew it. Time is going to be the key for the industries that were affected and that may not be enough to resurrect many businesses. I suppose hope springs eternal for writers, as much as I prefer to bake my own treats, I’m looking forward to having sitting in a bakery café, diner, or coffeehouse and watching as people from all walks of life interact with each other before they go about their day. Covid-19 has proven just how social we are. I will still be in the kitchen cooking and baking, but I won’t take seeing people in person for granted again. Apparently, we’re all people who need people.

I love to share recipes, particularly when it’s cake. Chocolate was a weakness for my Grandma Salley. She kept Hershey’s Kisses in the pocket of her aprons. She’d sneak and give us a couple when my mother wasn’t looking. Chocolate is something I love to bake with, but as I gathered recipes for the Cooking with My Nanas cookbook, I wanted to be sure to include every dietary need. Family is about everyone at the table enjoying a meal together. What’s the fun if some members only have a bowl of fruit for dessert. I know it’s healthier, but who wants that when everyone else has chocolate.

I found this recipe for Gluten-free Chocolate Cake on What the Fork Blog, which was adapted from Ina Garten

Chocolate Cake

For the Cake

  • 1 3/4 cups all-purpose gluten free flour (all-purpose flour)
  • 3/4 teaspoon xanthan gum (omit if your gluten-free blend contains it) (omit if using regular all-purpose flour)
  • 2 cups granulated sugar (Swerve sweetener, Splenda granulated, coconut, turbinado, or golden sugar pulsed fine)
  • 3/4 cups cocoa powder*
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 cup buttermilk (or 1 cup unsweetened coconut, rice, almond, or soy milk + 1 tablespoon white vinegar)
  • 1/2 cup avocado oil (or canola oil)
  • 2 large eggs, room temperature (1/4 cup Aquafaba, 1/2 cup silken-tofu pureed with 1/4 teaspoon baking soda, 2 flaxseed or chia seed eggs, or egg replacer)
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup hot coffee

For the Frosting

  • 1 cup salted butter, softened (vegan butter)
  • 3 cups powdered sugar (organic confectioner’s sugar,. Swerve confectioner’s sugar substitute)
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup heavy whipping cream (full-fat coconut milk)
  • 1 tablespoon golden syrup, light corn syrup, or brown rice syrup, optional

Instructions

Instructions

To make the Cake:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and spray 2 8-inch cake pans with non-stick spray. Line the bottom of the pans with parchment paper and spray that parchment paper with non-stick spray.
  2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, sift together the flour, xanthan gum, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Use the paddle attachment to mix the dry ingredients on low speed.
  3. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, buttermilk, oil and vanilla.
  4. With the mixer running on low speed, slowly pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. Mix until completely combined.
  5. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl and pour in the hot coffee. Mix on low until incorporated.
  6. Pour the batter (it will be very thin and pretty liquidy) evenly between the two pans. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 – 40 minutes. (Mine take about 37 minutes.)
  7. Cool the cakes on a wire rack (in the pan) for 20 minutes. Carefully remove the cakes from the pans and cool completely on a wire rack.
  8. When the cakes are cool, prepare the buttercream.

To make the chocolate buttercream:

  1. Add the butter to the bowl of a stand mixer and beat until completely smooth. Add the powdered sugar and cocoa powder and mix on low to combine. Mix in the vanilla extract and heavy cream.
  2. Turn the mixer to a medium-high speed and beat for 1-2 minutes or until the frosting is light and fluffy.
  3. Frost the cake as desired!
Italian Butter Cookies and Linzer cookies