jlanger's amazingly wonderful reef fish cookies!

Discussion in 'General Reef Discussion' started by capman, Mar 2, 2016.

  1. jlanger

    jlanger "The North Remembers"
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    Decorating the cookies varies depending on the species in question.
    When I do a species for the first time, it can take anywhere from 15 minutes to 45 minutes to finish a cookie.
    When I am doing a batch of the same cookie, I set it up so I can do three or four cookies at a time. It helps speed up the process, so on average I can decorate six to twelve cookies per hour. But there're some outside factors that work against doing any more than that. Foremost is the limitations of the human body; sore/cramping hands. And secondly is the battle against unwanted heating of the icing.

    All colors are made using basic white decorator icing with icing colors added until the desired color is achieved. There are about two dozen standard colors of icing color that I start with, but to get more variety (and accuracy) I will mix up a custom color.

    Basic cake decorating tools; icing bags with decorator tips.
    When I decorate the cookies, there're lots of bags and lots of tips; and I need to buy even more tips.
    Each little "dot" is a single squeeze of the bag of icing. When I did the ORA Clownfish cookies, I think each cookie had around 500 "dots"; that's a lot of squeezing!

    I'll have to re-post that old thread so you can get a better understanding of what it all involves.
     
    #21 jlanger, Mar 3, 2016
    Last edited: Jul 1, 2018
  2. jlanger

    jlanger "The North Remembers"
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    I'm pretty sure Chad is a fan of eating the cookies, so there's one hurdle to jump right off the bat!

    Correct! These are not anywhere near a money maker!
    And that's only when I do charge for the cookies. Most of the cookies have been given out as gifts of appreciation, so I am definitely in the red on this venture!
    I have plans to work with a different icing that does harden up and would be quicker to work with, but I'm such a fan of buttercream/decorator icing that I haven't done so yet. Taste outweighs efficiency!
     
  3. acharpenter

    acharpenter Pitas' Pita
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    Bill - did you get a Mandarin in your box? IMHO - the Mandarins are the most striking and detailed
     
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  4. jlanger

    jlanger "The North Remembers"
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    Only three mandarin cookies were made; and I ate one.
    I believe you've seen one of the other cookies.
    So that leaves just one mandarin cookie left.
    Hmm????
     
  5. ChristopherKriens

    ChristopherKriens Xenia Lover
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    Dibs.
     
  6. jlanger

    jlanger "The North Remembers"
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    Reef Fish Cookie Build Thread; Preamble.

    Instead of creating a new thread, I'll post a compilation of various posts from when I first started making the reef fish cookies in this thread; plus I really like Bill's title!.

    The first batch of cookies was made just over three years ago for Kevin Kohen and the staff at the DFS MF&C Aquaculture Facility in Rhinelander. I have been doing Christmas and Halloween cookies for years, but this was something entirely different.

    I only had a small selection of cutters built, so many different species came from the same cutter. And my color palette was quite basic as I hadn't quite gotten into experimenting with custom colors yet.
    I also tried keeping the scale of the cookies in line with the size of the fish. This made decorating the clownfish, pygmy angels and gobies very difficult.
    Here's a selection of pics from that first batch.

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    With the attention this first batch of "test" cookies generated, I knew I needed to refine my techniques to make the next batch even better.
    And as I did so, I documented the process with plenty of pictures and detailed instructions.
     
    #26 jlanger, Mar 3, 2016
    Last edited: Sep 9, 2017
  7. jlanger

    jlanger "The North Remembers"
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    Making a Cookie Cutter

    The first step to any cutter is design.
    I find a photo of what I want to make a cutter for and I make a freehand drawing to the size I want.
    The drawing doesn't have to be perfect.
    After doing many cookies, you will learn how the dough will bake and will affect the shape of the final cookie.
    This cutter will be for the Pomacanthus Angelfish species.

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    To help create the cutter's shape, I have assembled an array of 'tools' to help.
    Anything will work. I have access to lots of wood, so I like using dowels and blocks to assist in shaping the cutters.
    I also have a few pliers on hand to bend more difficult shapes.

    [​IMG]

    I make my cookie cutters out of copper sheet.
    I have used copper in many of my other woodworking projects, so I have a big roll of it. You can get the rolls from a home center; usually in the roofing area as it is used for flashing on your roof.

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    To cut the copper sheeting, I use a cutting mat and a larger paper trimmer.
    The circular blade in the trimmer is one that I only use with the copper.
    Once you cut the copper, the blade is pretty useless to use on paper.

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    I cut the copper into one inch strips.
    Using the grid on the cutting mat, I hold the trimmer down very firmly as I don't want the trimmer to move. I'm going to be cutting multiple passes.
    I progressively push down harder on each pass and it usually cuts through after eight to ten passes.
    I cut six strips to start.

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    The copper strips are twenty inches long; if I just cross-cut the copper sheet.
    I have found out that most cutters will use about twelve inches (small) to sixteen inches (large) of copper.
    For the next batch of strips, I cut the copper sheet at 12" and 16". And then ripped the smaller sheets into one inch strips.

    When shaping the cutter, I always start and finish in the flattest section of the cutter's shape.
    For most fish, this falls into the area on their dorsal fin.
    Using my drawing as the template, I begin shaping the cutter.
    It is very important to keep the copper strip flat on the work surface.
    This keeps the cutter flat and it will cut through your dough much easier.

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    I have found out that the most difficult area to shape on a fish is the tail.
    Since the copper strip has to be bent almost back on itself, the extra length usually gets in the way.
    Once the tail is formed, it gets easier. Although, the pelvic fins can be tough also.

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    Keep bending the copper until you've reached your starting point.

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    To finish the cutter's shape, trim off the extra copper with a metal snip.
    Make sure you leave an overlap for the eyelets to join the ends together.
    I usually leave about 3/4" for an overlap.

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    One thing to remember...
    The top shape and the bottom shape of your cutter may differ slightly based on how well you do the bending process.
    Take a look at both sides of the cutter, any fine adjustments can be made to either side.

    Making sure that the cutter lays flat, I tape the ends together.
    I make marks for the locations of the eyelets.
    I like to use two eyelets per cutter. This keeps the ends from twisting if only one eyelet is used.

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    The tool that I use for punching the holes and pressing the eyelets is called a Crop-A-Dile II by We R Memory Keepers.
    It's sold in craft stores and it's used for paper and other crafty materials.
    This tool makes joining the the ends together very easy.
    It is somewhat large to handle, but they do make a smaller hand held model that I may purchase to use on smaller cutters.
    The eyelets that I use are the 1/8" metallic ones; just because.

    I set the tool to punch the 1/8" diameter holes and squeeze.

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    Then I place an eyelet into each hole and set the tool to press the 1/8" eyelet.
    This takes a little practice to perfect.

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    And the cutter is now complete.

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    Now that the custom cookie cutter is complete, I compare it to my drawing and make any changes I see fit.
    I now have a custom cutter for making large angelfish cookies.

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    I've changed the cutter for the thread at this point, but everyone I make goes through the same steps.

    I've made a note about how much copper was used to create the cutter.
    And I've made a list of the different species I can make with this one cutter.

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    Before I use any of the cutters, I thoroughly wash and dry the copper and make sure they're clean for making cookies.

    As I was preparing to make this build thread, I made a list of all the shapes of cutters I wanted to make.
    As of now, I am sitting at 38 different cookie cutter shapes.
    To this point I have built sixteen of them. Most are pictured below.

    [​IMG]

    Can you name them all?
     
    #27 jlanger, Mar 3, 2016
    Last edited: Aug 6, 2017
  8. jlanger

    jlanger "The North Remembers"
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    Making Cookie Dough

    Here comes the fun part. Cookies.
    Not sure if I have to go step-by-step, but why stop here. It is a build thread.

    I use a basic cut-out cookie recipe.
    Butter (1 c.)
    Powdered Sugar (1-1/2 c.)
    Egg (1)
    Vanilla (1 tsp.) [I use my mom's homemade vanilla.]
    Almond Flavoring (1/2 tsp.)

    Flour (2-1/2 c.)
    Baking Soda (1 tsp.)
    Cream of Tartar (1 tsp.)

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    First step... wash your hands!
    "We live in a society. We're not animals." - Jim Jefferies

    Make sure the butter is softened to room temperature.
    Cream the butter and powdered sugar.

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    I mix the egg and wet ingredients in a cup before I add them.

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    Scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl and add the wet ingredients.
    Mix well.
    As this is mixing, I measure out and mix the dry ingredients in a large cup.
    After doing enough cookies, I found that having all the ingredients pre-measured and mixed makes this go much quicker and smoother.

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    Scrape down the sides of the bowl again and slowly add the dry ingredients a little at a time.
    I add about 1/4 to 1/3 of the dry ingredients at a time and let them mix well.
    Action shot!

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    Mix until all ingredients are mixed well.

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    Now comes the hardest part. (At least in my house.)
    The dough needs to be chilled for at least an hour.
    My family thinks it's time to eat cookie dough.
    Place the dough into any container, cover and chill.

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    I mold the dough into a ball shape so I can tell if anyone sneaks a pinch of dough from the fridge.
    I will admit that I sneak my share of cookie dough, but I don't tell them that.
    So now we wait...
     
    #28 jlanger, Mar 3, 2016
    Last edited: Aug 6, 2017
  9. jlanger

    jlanger "The North Remembers"
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    Making Cookies!

    Once the dough has chilled, I prepare for rolling out and cutting the dough.
    I line each cookie sheet with parchment paper.
    This makes it very easy to transfer the cookies from the pan and it makes the clean-up at the end VERY EASY!

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    I again remind you to wash your hands.
    I dust the (cleaned) countertop with flour.
    I break off a piece of dough about the size of a large orange.
    I will knead the dough into a smooth ball and flatten it just a bit and dust it with flour.

    [​IMG]

    I roll out the dough to a thickness of about 1/8". A little thicker is okay, but try not getting any thinner.
    If the dough begins to stick to the rolling pin, just dust with some more flour.
    I also prep the cutters with a bit of flour.
    This helps the cutter release from the dough.

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    Begin cutting cookies.
    As I pull the cutter out of the dough, I am aware of any places where the dough is sticking to the cutter.
    Normally shapes that are smaller tend to stick. Tails and fins are the most common.
    If the dough will not release, just use any utensil to push it out of the cutter.

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    Once I've cut as many cookies as I could fit, I use a small spatula and move them to the cookie sheets.
    I try to keep similar sized cookies on the same sheet.
    This is to ensure each cookie gets baked evenly without smaller ones getting burned.

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    I have preheated the oven to 375 degrees.
    I will put in two pans at the same time and bake for 7 to 10 minutes; until the edges begin to brown.
    I keep a watchful eye on the cookies, since smaller areas bake quicker. The tails are the quickest to burn.

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    I have four cookie sheet pans that I use, so as one pair are in the oven, I'm filling the other.
    Once the cookies come out of the oven, I remove them from the pan by sliding the sheet off of it.
    Allow the cookies to cool before moving them to a storage container.

    [​IMG]

    With this single batch of dough, I was able to make 52 cookies of various sizes.
    All that's left is the decorating.

    Have you figured out each fish shape yet?
     
    #29 jlanger, Mar 3, 2016
    Last edited: Aug 6, 2017
  10. jlanger

    jlanger "The North Remembers"
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    Making the Icing!

    I used to make a buttercream icing for the cut-out cookies.
    As I made more and more cookies, I found that the buttercream recipe wasn't great for the cookies.
    It tasted great, but it doesn't set up as well. The butter warms very quickly causing the icing to become too soft.
    By removing the butter and using all shortening has helped.
    I also found out that Wilton (a cake company) makes this all shortening icing in a large tub. Decorator Icing. Woo-Hoo!
    So now I just use this icing for the convenience.

    The flavor of the pre-made decorator icing was missing the flavor of my homemade icing.
    So I add in Clear Vanilla Extract and Pure Almond Flavoring.
    I have not yet tried to add the Butter Flavoring.
    I'm from Wisconsin and imitation butter just doesn't sound right.

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    I scoop out as much icing as i think I will use into the mixing bowl.
    As the icing mixes, I add the vanilla and almond to flavor.

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    Once the icing is mixed, it's another family invasion to taste.
    The vanilla and almond aromas seem to attract everyone to the kitchen.

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    It's time to figure out which colors I want to make the icing.
    I use Wilton's Icing Color. They have about 25 different colors to choose from; and I have just about everyone.
    I created a spreadsheet that lists all the colors of icing colors and the fish species I want to decorate.
    I separate the icing into small food containers for the different colors.
    I add the icing color and mix thoroughly until I achieve the color I am looking for.

    [​IMG]

    To decorate the cookies with the icing I use plastic bags and decorator tips; also from Wilton.
    Cut off the tip of the bag and place the male coupler into the bag.
    Place the metal tip (Star #13) on the outside of the bag and coupler.
    Use the female coupler to attach the tip to the bag.
    I have acquired quite a few couplers and tips over the years. A lot of couplers and tips.

    [​IMG]

    Fill each bag with the colored icing.
    Twist the open end to keep icing from squeezing out.

    [​IMG]

    Now it's time to decorate some cookies.
     
    #30 jlanger, Mar 3, 2016
    Last edited: Aug 6, 2017
  11. jlanger

    jlanger "The North Remembers"
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    Decorating Cookies!

    With the cookies and icing all ready to go, it's time to decorate.

    This is the most intensive portion of the cookie making process.
    I'm a perfectionist.
    I need to have my cookie look just like the fish I am decorating.
    So this process takes time.

    This build will show how I decorated the Peppermint Angelfish cookie.

    To begin... I wash my hands.

    I lay out a piece of parchment paper to work on.
    I gather the icing colors I am going to need for this cookie.
    And I use two sizes of black sugar pearls for the eyeballs, so they are also ready.
    And I pull up the photo of the fish to use as a guide for the colors and patterns.

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    Making sure the icing tip is clean, place the tip just above the surface of the cookie.
    Slowly squeeze out the icing while lifting the tip up and away from the cookie.
    (Practice makes perfect. Practice making the stars on parchment paper before you try it on the cookie.)
    I always begin with the fishes tail.
    I work from left to right and top to bottom.

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    I keep squeezing and squeezing the stars across the entire cookie.
    If the icing tip becomes messy, clean it off with a paper towel. Don't lick it!
    If the icing gets too soft, chill it for awhile.

    (This is where my family does about two cookies and then leave. (Eating one of them)
    Their hands get sore from squeezing.)
    I pay attention to where the pectoral fin is located. As this is the only part of the fish not visible on the naked cookie.

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    Once the cookie is covered, I make a 'dirty' star for the color of the eye.
    By dirty I mean that after the star is formed, I use the tip to make it a circle shape.

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    I choose which size of black sugar pearl I need for the eye, and I place it on the icing and press it down with a toothpick.

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    The final step is to allow the icing to set.
    I place the cookies on a cookie sheet and let the cookies sit out for a while.
    When the icing has lost it's shine, I place the cookies in the freezer to freeze.
    Then I will stack the cookies into a food storage container separated by tissue paper.

    All that is left at this point is a photo shoot.

    [​IMG]

    Keep the cookies in a food storage container in the fridge or freezer.
    I'm not sure how long they stay fresh as many of them don't last very long.

    Thanks for following along.
     
    #31 jlanger, Mar 3, 2016
    Last edited: Aug 6, 2017
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  12. jlanger

    jlanger "The North Remembers"
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    Cookie Requests and Special Orders

    After the initial batch of cookies was delivered to Rhinelander, the cookies were posted various social media outlets and it caught the attention of a few people interested in having cookies made and shipped to them. Since I use an icing that doesn't dry into a hard shell, it's difficult to ship them without having some casualties of some sort. But I really wouldn't know to what extent if I didn't ship out a batch.

    The first batch that was shipped went to the guys at Ecotech Marine in Pennsylvania.
    They were having a work retreat and wanted to know if I could make some cookies for them. This happened just after I had dumped my LED fixture into my tank and I needed to buy new lights. A couple of the guys over there spent extra time and effort in helping me get things set up and figured out, so I thought that the least I I could do was to try and get them some cookies.
    The cookies were individually bagged and shipped overnight in a styrofoam cooler with ice packs. Surprisingly, the cookies arrived intact. The cookies were quite the hit; so I was told.

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    It was at about this time that I started expanding my "collection" of cutters. I began making the cutters more specific to individual species.
    I even started experimenting with different decorating techniques. This allowed me more options when it came to making certain fish cookies look more like the real fish.
    One of the first improvements (besides the Peppermint Angelfish) was the Fuzzy Dwarf Lionfish; still one of my favorites!

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    And I also made a couple of special wrasse cookies for someone's birthday; these were about 10-12" big!

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    Those two cookies really made an impression.
    So much so that this was when I received an e-mail from ORA (Oceans, Reefs and Aquariums).
    Dustin asked if I could make some cookies for a secret project they had coming up in April. He wanted to replace the fish on one of their pages with cookies for their April Fool's prank on the website. I took a look at it and said that I could replace all of the clownfish; if he wanted to do that many. He was all for it.
    To make those cookies, I didn't use any cookie cutters. I used the fish images from the website and made 39 custom cookies for their 39 different clownfish that they offer. When it came time to decorate the cookies, I ended up with over 30 different colors of icing and each cookie took at least 40min to complete.
    Before I shipped the cookies, I took plenty of photographs of them just ion case anything happened during shipping. The cookies were shipped just prior to April 1st and they all made it without breaking or receiving any damage.
    ORA posted their "new product" on their website and FB page, and it went over very well.

    [​IMG]

    And soon after the ORA cookies went online, I got a message from Tal Sweet at MBI. Tal wanted to have some cookies available for the MBI Workshop in July. Since I just spent a lot of time working on clownfish cookies, I decided to make a new cutter that could be used for a variety of clownfish species; but a bit bigger for a nicer cookie. One of the speakers for the workshop was going to be Matt Pederson and he was bringing a pair of his Lightning Maroon Clownfish for the raffle. I decided I needed to make Lightning Maroon Clownfish as part of the collection.

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    Since these projects, I have made various cookies for a few house meetings and "Thank you!"s; and even a wedding! ;)
    The variety of cookies and cutters has really expanded now.

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    I have even gone so far as to try and do a Mandarin Dragonet cookie; based on the LRS mascot.
    That mandarin cookie on the bottom right looks vaguely familiar; doesn't it?
     
    #32 jlanger, Mar 3, 2016
    Last edited: Aug 6, 2017
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  13. OP
    capman

    capman I contributed!
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    Wonderful! Thanks for sharing all of this.

    And thanks for including the recipe - these are good cookies. We have our own cutout cookie recipe that we like, but your cookies are different from those (but equally good).

    And Angie is correct - those mandarin dragonettes are wonderful (as is that collection of clownfish, and, well, all of the others).

    I'm always so impressed by anyone who takes something like this so far, and refines their skills and techniques to this sort of degree.

    (This, of course, is what successful reefkeeping is all about as well, and there are numerous examples of folks who have done that in this group!)
     
    #33 capman, Mar 3, 2016
    Last edited: Mar 3, 2016
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  14. eschulist

    eschulist That Office Nano Guy
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    My wife and I got the huge Wilton icing kit before Christmas and creating well decorated cookies is a lot of fun but you sir take it to the extreme. The amount of detail on some of them makes me not want to eat them if you spent 20-40 minutes on a single fish.

    We need to try your base cookie recipe sometime.
     
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  15. Otolith

    Otolith Ehhhhhhhhh........
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    That's just the carbonation from all the beer trying to escape. ;)
     
  16. acharpenter

    acharpenter Pitas' Pita
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    Ego over these cookies is well warranted. Someone completely unrelated to the hobby saw me post a pic of mine and commented her co-worker's husband does something like that for his fish club. They were Jason's. Dude, his cookie's are recognized by strangers!


    Thanks for the write up Jason - makes me appreciate these even more - I havent eaten them all yet!

     
  17. jlanger

    jlanger "The North Remembers"
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    It's been about six months since I made my last batch of fish cookies! That's probably the longest stretch that I've gone without making fish cookies over the past number of years.

    This latest batch is for a special event with specific cookies requested. I could've used some of the cutters that I already have made, but I decided to make these cutters [almost] species specific. I ended up making seven new cutters. That brings my total up to 60 different fish cookie cutters; far above the 38 I originally thought I wanted.

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    My daughter thought that most of them looked the same, but there's specific differences that'll make the cookies more authentic.
    The hardest part will be trying to decorate the cookies to mimic the fishes' coloration and patterns. This will be especially difficult as the client is well educated (and has high standards) for these specific fishes!

    [​IMG]
     
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  18. cathorn

    cathorn Senior Member
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    WOW. Thanks Jason for the post. I do not believe I have read this before. Great Job!!
     
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  19. RSnodgrass

    RSnodgrass TCMAS President
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    Fun to see all these again, thanks for the update.
     
  20. Riley

    Riley I contributed!
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    Great write up, Jason!

    Seeing the un-decorated cookies makes me think of the "Win $100 to a TCMAS Sponsor" contest. Imagine if all the pics were un-decotrated cookies, and each week we had to "name the exact species" -- then the fully decorated one would be revealed. Is that a Paracheilinus mccoskeri or Paracheilinus carpenteri? Have to find out next week. Oh, it was Paracheilinus flavianalis? We both lose, but one person still correctly guessed.

    Let's see the leader board:
    John Smith: 5/2
    achapenter 0/7
     
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