With a lifelong love of baking, Amber Spiegel had a clear career path after college after landing a job as a decorator for a renowned cake-decorating company. However, she took a chance and decided to focus her creativity on her own online cookie-decorating business, SweetAmbs. She discusses what this transition has meant to her, including how the business quickly morphed into an opportunity to share her passion and her baking skills with others around the globe.
When did your passion for baking begin, and how did it lead you to become a pastry chef?
I’ve loved baking for as long as I can remember. I have fond memories of baking apple pies with my grandmother when I was a girl.
Although I’ve always loved to bake, I didn’t envision myself in this profession. I studied business at Ithaca College, and it wasn’t until my junior year that I decided I wanted to change direction and go to culinary school. After graduation, I enrolled in the baking and pastry program at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. I realized that decorating cakes and cookies was my calling during this time in culinary school; while growing up, I had spent a lot of time drawing and painting, so combining my artistic skills with my love of baking was only natural.
After obtaining my degree in baking and pastry arts, I spent some time working at different bakeries and cafés. During that stint, I entered a Wilton cake-decorating contest and won the grand prize: a two-week master course at their cake-decorating school in Darien, Illinois. While there, was introduced to the decorating room supervisor (I’d brought my résumé), and I was fortunate enough to eventually be offered a position as a decorator. I spent eighteen months decorating cakes and cookies for Wilton product packaging and publications, including the Wilton yearbooks. It was a great experience! That was the last job I had before starting my own business.
When did you begin decorating cookies on your own, and how did that lead you to start your then part-time cookie business, SweetAmbs?
I started decorating cookies on the side while working at Wilton. I had an online shop on Etsy, and I made cookies after work and on weekends for weddings and other special occasions. It was going well, but I felt like I needed to expand, so I quit my job and moved back to New York in 2011 to officially start SweetAmbs.
What inspired you to focus on turning that business into a full-time career?
Turning my passion for cookie decorating into a full-time career was not an easy decision. I had a great job at Wilton, and I wasn’t sure that leaving was the best thing for me to do. I knew that I wanted more creative control over my work, though, and owning my own business was the only way to achieve that. Fortunately, my family is very supportive, and they helped me get started when I left my job.
Why return to New York to lay the roots of SweetAmbs? What makes this a better location for the company than Chicago?
I returned to New York because this is where I was raised and my family is here. Without them, I would have had a much more difficult time starting my business. I moved back in with my parents and started working out of my mom’s art studio until I was able to rent a commercial kitchen. My dad is a business owner, so he also helped guide me through the process, and he still does to this day.
How did SweetAmbs transition from a cookie-making business to a cookie-decorating tutorial business?
My business has always been based online. I started out selling cookies through my Etsy shop in 2009, and, when I returned to New York, I went through the process of finding a small commercial kitchen, obtaining a food-processing establishment license, forming my LLC, and going through all the other steps that one does when starting a business.
I taught my first class and uploaded my first video tutorial in 2012. The demand for classes and tutorials grew quickly, and I didn’t have the time to do everything, so I decided to stop selling cookies and focus on teaching classes and creating cookie- decorating tutorials, which has taken me to places I would never have imagined just a few years ago. My first international class was at Alma’s Cupcakes in Madrid, Spain, and I’ve been traveling to different cities around the world teaching classes ever since.
As a form of creative release, what separates cookie decorating from cake decorating?
How do you go about creating such intricate detail in your work? Are there certain techniques that are still hard to master?
It takes a lot of patience to decorate cookies because it can be very time-consuming, but I find it to be a soothing activity. Every technique is difficult to master in the beginning, but they all get easier with practice. When I teach a class, my students sometimes get frustrated because their cookies don’t turn out the way they want on the first try. I like to show them examples of what my work looked like when I first started compared to how it looks now after several years of decorating.
How do you keep yourself interested in this field of baking? In what ways do you push yourself creatively?
I try to get one new cookie design made, filmed, and uploaded every week, and the great thing about cookie decorating is that almost anything can be turned into a cookie design. That’s what keeps it interesting for me. I usually start with an object such as an antique platter, unique cookie cutters, vintage fabric, or just something that’s begging to be turned into a cookie. If I need more inspiration, I browse antique stores to find a pretty piece of fabric or a floral pattern on a teacup. I also enjoy taking requests from my viewers because it challenges me to try things that I might not have tried otherwise.
Is there anything significant about the cookie base? Or do you focus more on decorating the cookies and less on tweaking the recipes?
It’s really important to me that my cookies not only look good but also taste good. When I first started decorating cookies, I was using recipes that would hold their shape, but they were too hard to eat and tasted very bland. My cookie recipe is flavored with orange zest and cardamom, and it has a softer texture than the recipes I was using in the beginning. The recipe is included with my cookie-decorating class on Craftsy and is also available as a download from the tutorial shop on my website.
From a creative standpoint, do you have a particular routine that you follow? Or do you find yourself drawn toward the kitchen whenever the mood strikes?
My routine varies from day to day, depending on what I have planned for the week. I go to my studio in Kingston, New York, five days a week to decorate cookies, edit a video, or teach a class. These days, I spend way more time in front of the computer than actually decorating cookies!
Tell us about yourself outside of the world of cookies:
I live in the Hudson Valley in New York with my husband, Marc, and our two cats. Marc is the cook of our house, and I stick to baking! Our home is located near several restaurants and shops, as well as the farmers market, so we spend time walking around our town in the warmer months. It’s a beautiful place to live.
When I’m not decorating cookies, I enjoy crocheting and drawing. I’m currently working on creating a coloring book with other artists in my area to benefit our local animal shelter.
What are your goals for SweetAmbs?
Right now, my main goal is to continue on this path: to keep growing my business and creating new cookie-decorating tutorials. I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing with my career, and I’m so grateful to make a living doing what I love!
For more info, visit sweetambs.com.