National Post (Latest Edition)
Meet the cookiers
The ‘blood, sweat and tears’ behind baked goods that look too nice to eat
Designer cookies: It’s the art form you never thought of as an art form.
‘Most of my cookies are not made to be eaten,” says Christine Dutcher of Hamilton, Ont. “To me, they are pieces of art made using food ingredients.”
Dutcher is part of a global community of cookiers, decorators who specialize in designing and decorating elaborate sugar cookies that many in the community consider a form of art.
A cookie canvas is usually made of sugar cookie dough, although some experiment with other types, such as gingerbread. Decorated cookies usually are four to five inches long, depending on the shape, but some are more than a foot in diameter and others tower over a cookie base in sculpture form.
Many cookiers prefer royal icing, made of egg whites and merengue powder that dries fully, and use an assortment of food dyes, cookie cutters, piping bags, airbrushes and stencils.
Dutcher’s Instagram account Sweet Prodigy features her specialty — designs that look like needlepoint or stringwork. On a nine-byseven-inch cookie, she pipes out thousands of pixelated dots to complete a white tiger in the style of needlepoint. Stringwork is laborious, and Dutcher says she developed an advanced technique that involves the delicate piping of royal icing to appear as if it defies gravity.
Dutcher saves her work in hopes of one day sharing it with others, but other cookiers sell their work for consumption. Sometimes the beautiful baked goods are simply discarded after competitive juried shows or tutorials.
Many cookiers say they stumbled into this sweet world on social media, became mesmerized and wanted to try it themselves. Others say they started decorating cookies as a way to relieve stress or grief, or because they found in cookiers a supportive community.
Manu Pezzopane, an Italian cookier based outside Bangkok, moves every three years for her husband’s work and lived in Dubai before moving to Thailand.
“My inspiration comes from what is around me,” says Pezzopane. “Everything can be ‘cookie-fied’ or transformed into cookies.”
Her cookie designs include a plate full of orchids, a 3-D swing and a giant Moroccan tile assembled from 109 mini cookies. Pezzopane creates new designs for her monthly tutorial blog, “Made by Manu,” on the website Cookie Connection, a community of more than 16,000 cookiers who share ideas, enter contests, and discuss decorating techniques.
While while there are many cookier Facebook groups, Cookie Connection is the only one that is community-based and has professionally curated content, including tutorials, articles and cookie challenges.
The group is founded and maintained by Julia M. Usher, an award-winning sugar artist, cookbook author, and an early pioneer in the global cookier movement.
Usher is well-known for her Youtube channel and video series called Recipes for a Sweet Life. After more than a decade in the cookie world, Usher has a stencil line, is licensing design techniques to Japan and teaching hands-on Zoom classes. She also hosts the premier cookie competition in the country.
It’s difficult to pinpoint when the decorated cookie craze started. Usher says she hoped her first cookbook in 2009 would make it happen, but there was no real momentum. But two years later, interest in her Youtube channel and sites such as the Canadian blog Sweetopia took off and today the new generation of cookiers share their work on Instagram.
“There is a misconception that this is all sugar and sweetness, but there is a lot of work that goes on behind this,” says Usher.
There is a darker element as well.
Both Usher and Pezzopane say picture theft is common, and some cookiers use other people’s work on their web pages or portfolios as their own cookie samples. Businesses have also used cookie photos — without permission or credit — to advertise their own tools and products.
But the biggest issue is balancing the value of the cookie being produced with the amount of labour that goes into its creation.
“People think decorated cookies are easy to churn out and should be as cheap as a chocolate chip cookie,” Usher says, but work on certain cookies can take hundreds of hours.
While there are no clear estimates on how large the cookier community is, there are plenty of signs that it is big and growing, even if few end up selling cookies professionally.
Nicole Albert, owner of The Cookiery in London, Ont., sells 3-D printed cookie cutters made of biodegradable plant plastic. She says that about 30 per cent of her orders come from Canada, but that is starting to increase.
When she started her business, she printed 30 cookie cutters a day. Now, she prints 600 to 800.
Canada’s cottage industry policies are more strict than those in the United States, and that makes it more difficult to sell cookies professionally, she says.
Actress and cookier Brittany Jeffrey certainly has her hands full. Jeffrey, who lives in New York City, often stays up until 2 a.m. to finish orders for decorated cookies. She runs the Instagram bakery Itsbritsbatch and has delivered orders for the Broadway productions of Come From Away and Waitress.
“I want people to come back and say not only are these beautiful but also yummy,” says Jeffrey, who uses flavours such as Strawberry Pepper and Turkish coffee.
She has designed cookies of woven tapestries, of pets, and of Moira Rose, a character in the TV show Schitt’s Creek, with interchangeable cookie wigs.
“Pricing is hard, because I take such pride in making them. I could spend two hours on one cookie,” says Jeffrey, who sells portrait cookies starting at US$10 each. A batch of a dozen cookies that are not portraits start at US$85.
Jeffrey is eager to attend Cookiecon this fall, a convention of nearly 1,200 cookiers from 20 countries. “At its heart, Cookiecon is an art show,” says Mike Summers, who has been organizing the event with his wife, Karen, since 2012. “It’s so much more than cookies — it’s a community.”
There will be two Cookiecon conventions this fall, held in Dallas, Tex., and Orlando, Fla., with COVID safety guidelines fully in place.
The weekend is filled with classes, keynote speeches, and open decorating tables at which attendees can try new tools such as cookie cutters and airbrushes. The marquee event is the Sugar Show, a competition in which cookies are judged for creativity, practicality, and mastery of technique.
There are other approaches as well.
Jasmine Cho uses her cookie portraits to tell powerful stories of Asian-american identity and history. “Cookies have become my favorite medium,” says Cho. “They are unique enough to make people pause.”
While running her own bakery business, called Yummyholic, Cho often wondered if there is such a thing as bake therapy, but couldn’t find much on the subject.
While studying art therapy, Cho designed research in which she measured salivary cortisol, a key stress indicator, in participants before and after they baked and decorated sugar cookies. Her findings suggest that after baking, the levels were significantly reduced. Her research adviser, Jen Roth, a cognitive psychologist and associate professor at Carlow University, says it’s the first study on baking therapy of its kind.
Samantha Yacovetta agrees with Cho’s hypothesis.
“I find the intricate and repetitive nature of cookie decorating therapeutically tedious and almost meditative,” says Yacovetta, known on Instagram as the Aproned Artist. She says her favourite techniques involve sculpting stiff-consistency royal icing to create three-dimensional designs.
She designed a 3-D dragon cookie sculpture made entirely of royal icing, a moon landing scene with a tiny astronaut, and “Consumed by Cookies,” a set of cookies for Halloween depicting cookie decorators trapped beneath icing.
In the end, it all comes down to love for the craft.
“While on maternity leave, I started decorating cookies as a hobby and I have never looked back,” says cookier Melissa Matthews of Arva, Ont., who runs the Instagram account The Miller’s Wife Custom Cookies, which has more than 62,000 followers.
She has designed a 3-D cookie cutter line with The Cookiery that includes butterflies, narwhals, and flowers. Matthews now teaches online cookie classes based on themes such as Mother’s Day and a Summer Strawberry Lemonade cookie set.
“The pretty picture you see on social media makes it all look effortless, but behind that photo is literally our blood sweat and tears, but also so much love,” says Matthews.