Come to think of it, we already know quite a bit about the subjects of this month’s Close-up, Laegwen (aka Leoni Eckart) and Ryoko ~Cookie Ave. (aka Ryoko Hayashi), thanks to the detailed bios they shared with us earlier this month. Though they live at opposite ends of the globe (Leoni in Germany, and Ryoko in Japan), they have a surprising number of things in common: both are passionate hobbyists; both have been decorating for just two to three years (though you’d never know it from their work); both are married with no children; and both have experience in the import-export business. Oh, and both were the July winners of Practice Bakes Perfect Challenge #13, which is why we’re spotlighting them here today! Congrats again, ladies, on the beautiful backgrounds and banners you contributed to the site (banners, pictured below)!
That all said, I think we can safely skip the usual introductory formalities and jump right into the heart of the interview. Jump we will, but, first, let me just say that we’re going to be jumping in a very different (and hopefully fun) way! Rather than interviewing each of these cookiers one-on-one, I’ve chosen to take a tandem approach, where both cookiers will be asked the same questions, and then we’ll sit back and see just how similar (or different) they really are! Will their commonalities end with international trade, or will they extend more deeply into their cookie worlds? What are we waiting for?! Let’s find out!
JMU: Welcome, ladies! It’s wonderful to be chatting with both of you today. As I said, I’m going to dive right into the meaty questions, so no holding back, you hear?! Here’s the first one: What do you like most about the world of cookie decorating? And what do you like least, or wish you could really, really change about it?
LE: What I like most? Gee, that's a tough one, as there is so much I like about it, but if I really need to make a decision, I'd say it's the impermanence. I have always liked to do crafts, and did quite a few of them over the years (like silk painting and cross stitch), and sooner or later I always reached a point where nobody wanted any more of what I had made. With cookies, this is never a problem, as at least a certain amount actually gets eaten. Additionally, I kind of like the idea of spending an insane amount of time on something that can be devoured in two bites. It gives me the feeling that I get the most out of my spare time.
What I like least is easy to answer – the cleaning up, of course!
RH: I’ll just plunge into the answer then! What I like most about cookie decorating is that it connects people beyond boundaries, such as differences of experience, gender, age, culture, and language, bringing expanded possibilities and smiles. Thanks to social networks, and needless to say Cookie Connection, bridges have been created between us, and we see and share numerous cookies full of new ideas and techniques. At Cookie Connection, we can ask questions directly to the big names, and when I get answers from them, it is like having famous movie stars living next door to me.
What I wish is that universal measurements could be used for weights and size. [EDITOR’S NOTE: I couldn’t agree more!]
JMU: In looking at your fellow July site artist’s work, what do you most admire about it, and why?
LE: I remember that, when Ryoko’s entry popped up, my first thought was: “OK, so you are out, you can never match that.” The sea life was so realistic, and the staging so flawless; I truly felt like I saw a photo of an underwater scene. I still can’t even imagine how long it must have taken to get those lifelike corals and all those tiny scales on the turtles – a totally terrific job that left me in awe and still does. It so took me back to my vacation in Egypt at the Red Sea, and the crystal-clear water and the abundance of life in it. I almost felt 19 again!
RH: What I admire most about Leoni’s work is her skill in combining colors, techniques, and media, and her overall designs. If you look at her cookies, you’ll see that each is different and perfectly suited to its theme. Her Practice Bakes Perfect challenge cookies especially give us fresh bewilderment every time. She can utilize the tools and techniques she has in just the right way and right amount on her cookies. I do not have enough experience with decorating cookies and art, and I am still learning the right consistency of royal icing, so what she creates amazes me all of the time.
JMU: If you could ask your fellow July site artist one question (about anything), what would that question be?
LE: What is your favorite technique when working with royal icing, and what is your least favorite?
RH: As I said, I am very impressed with Leoni’s wide variety of unique designs and her use of many techniques. I would like to know where (or how) she gets ideas and how she chooses which techniques are suitable for her cookie designs?
JMU: Good questions! Now, ladies, how would each of you answer your question?
LE: First, thanks for your kind words, Ryoko. I am mightily flattered! It is awesome to hear that your work is admired by someone whose work you equally adore. Let me not start about your flower girl series – AMAZING!
My biggest source of inspiration is definitely flowers – real ones, painted, ornamental, simple, complex. No matter what, if it has flowers, I can at least think about cookie-ing it! I get quite a lot of inspiration from wallpapers and fabric patterns, too. My granny, my mam, and my sis are all quilters and generally sew a lot. I grew up in piles of fabric and baskets of wool and always felt drawn to the designs. But inspiration can jump at me any time from anywhere, really. And I have to admit that I am not one for doing a lot of planning in advance. I normally just have a vague picture in my mind, sometimes only a special color, and start piping. Everything else just follows. So it is more that the techniques choose me than the other way around.
RH: On the whole, my techniques are still low level, and I am still struggling with each one, except flooding. I wonder if flooding can be included as a technique, though . . . anyway, it is getting better and, when I make a perfectly smooth surface, I am always cheerful until my finger accidentally destroys it. Moreover, my flooding is the only thing my husband praises. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Silly husband! There is so much more to your work that he should praise! ]
My least favorite technique is piping details. To concentrate on piping, I must hold my breath, but when I exhale, the piping goes in an unintended direction all the time. I need an enormous amount of lung capacity and must find a way to pipe without blinking. [EDITOR’S NOTE: LOL!]
JMU: What’s your “cookie kryptonite” or Achilles' heel in cookie decorating? And how, if at all, are you taking steps to turn this weakness into a strength?
LE: I have quite a collection of cookie kryptonite stored away already, some large and some smaller chunks. My biggest used to be painting on cookies, but I have checked each of Dolce Sentire’s tutorials about this topic at least ten times, bought a couple of brushes, and practiced quite a lot, and slowly I am starting to get the hang of it.
But there’s also this other kind of kryptonite, which I don’t feel the least inclined to do anything about. Like intricate lace designs or needlepoint. I love to look at them – they are such beautiful decorating techniques – but making them bores me senseless and doesn’t trigger my ambition at all. I guess they will just stay kryptonite . . . which is actually a rather pretty stone (or is it metal?), so I don’t mind having a few pieces around. [EDITOR’S NOTE: LOL, again! You two are too funny!]
RH: I probably covered this in my last answer, but . . . my Achilles' heel is piping straight lines, flowing curves, and perfect circles of uniform diameter. (Actually, all of piping!) So far I’ve just avoided piping details near the cookie surface where they can be seen easily. To cover my weak skills, I try to design cookies with time and care and to pursue just one new design twist at once, pushing myself a little bit at a time. But I know the right answer is, “Practice piping more!”
JMU: How would you characterize the cookie culture in your home country, meaning is there a large or growing market for decorated cookies? What types of cookies or other sweets are most popular there, and why? Do you see any cookie decorating trends emerging there that are similar to or different than those in the US or elsewhere in the world? And, if so, why do you think they are occurring?
LE: We don’t really have a decorated cookie culture in Germany so far, and it is only growing very, very slowly. There are a few people who teach cookie decorating classes, but they are only for beginners. That also goes for the decorated cookies that are being sold. Fancy baking is a pretty new phenomenon over here, only a couple of years old, and most people are still stuck with picture cakes, cake pops, and cupcakes. I hope that time will bring more cookiers to the front, though. But Germans are generally very traditional. We have our well loved cakes, like Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte (Black Forest cake) and butter cake, and we need our time to take to new things. I would sure love to have a bit more cookie crazies over here, if only to have more people to connect with in real life.
RH: The decorated cookie culture in Japan has definitely gotten bigger in the last few years. We can tell from the increasing number of stores that deal with cookie ingredients and their tools, notably cookie cutters. Cookie decorating trends in Japan seem to be very similar to those in the US, except for airbrushing and stenciling. Many techniques appeal to the Japanese who have a tendency to be fond of acquiring skills, but decorating cookies is not part of our culture yet. So even though we are interested in using airbrushes, we are very reluctant to own them just to make a few cookies at home. Because of this, airbrush-related things, including stencils and airbrush food coloring, are not easy to get.
We have various traditional Japanese cookies and sweets that are popular to buy and give as gifts, but they tend to use local Japanese ingredients and cooking methods. (We have just started to see easy-to-make cookie and cake ingredients in Japan. We usually do not use the oven for baking and roasting at home even if our microwaves have that function, and we really do not use flour and butter when we cook dishes.) Since we already have a bunch of traditional Japanese stuff rooted in our lifestyle, it seems rather hard for decorated cookies to squeeze in with ease in a commercial sense. But, on the other hand, since most Japanese have not seen decorated cookies with icing yet, and it is getting easier for us to get those ingredients, the possibility for decorated cookies to spread in Japan is unimaginable.
JMU: What was your biggest challenge in creating your winning Practice Bakes Perfect Challenge #13 entry, and how did you overcome that obstacle?
LE: Oh, that was definitely taking the picture and fulfilling the requirements about size and balance of free and occupied space. I don’t know exactly how many pictures I took in all, but it was something like 50 to 60. I was constantly rearranging the cookies. It was especially hard to lay them out so that, once the actual picture was cropped, they were still where I wanted them to be. Sometimes I had too much space on the top and bottom, but the cookies were cut off at the sides, or the other way around . . . or the background was not large enough and part of my living room floor showed in one of the corners! All in all, taking the picture took almost as long as making the cookies. Did I ever mention that I am the worst photographer in the world?
RH: When I saw the color palette, an ocean was the image that immediately came to mind. I wanted to show the depth of it and something in it looking toward us (the viewers). At first, I made a turtle to face us, but it looked funny, so then I changed it to a sea lion. My next cookie was a diver swimming downward, but it really did not fit, and I just threw away this design. The nightmare part of this challenge was taking photos and maneuvering in Photoshop to fit everything into the specified size. I took over 300 photos, changing positions and lights. I googled how to use Photoshop. It took longer than decorating the cookies, but I just didn’t give up.
[EDITOR’S NOTE TO SELF: Avoid photo constraints in the next challenge! ]
JMU: You are both hobbyists who make gorgeous cookies that many people would love to buy. Why then have you chosen not to sell your cookies, and do you have plans to sell them in the future? Why or why not?
LE: Selling cookies is highly complicated here in Germany. Not only do you need to get hundreds of permissions to be allowed to sell food in general (and which are so strict that making food in your home is almost impossible), we also have the remnants of medieval guild rules that still apply for certain professions. Baking is one of them, and only people who are acknowledged bakers by the Chamber of Crafts are allowed to do this. So I have not really decided against selling cookies. But unless you intend to make a full-time profession of cookies, and also offer picture cakes and other sweets to be profitable, the expenses you would have to incur to get the permissions simply don’t make sense. I have found a tiny loophole, though, and I am actually allowed to do barter trade for my cookies, as long as I keep it on a low scale – which is exactly what I want anyway. If I had to be profitable, my cookies would probably look a lot different and I would only have half as much fun! [EDITOR’S NOTE: So interesting about the guild rules. I never would have guessed!]
RH: To sell cookies in Japan, one needs to be a food sanitation supervisor and get a confectionery manufacturer’s permit. The former is easy - attending some lectures is all that’s asked. But the latter requires a separate kitchen from daily use, a dedicated sink for food production only, and more details. After this investment, everyday hard work would be mandatory to make ends meet. All of this would diminish some of my enthusiasm for decorating cookies, and only add to my body aches. Right now, my cookie decorating and swimming to reduce back aches are just balanced. If I were to decorate more cookies, I would become a real swimmer.
JMU: Thanks, ladies, I appreciate your candor – and humor! More about the future . . . here’s my big, pie-in-the-sky usual parting question: What three things would you most like to accomplish in the world of cookie decorating over the next three years, and why?
LE: Three things? That’s quite a lot, and I am a modest girl. LOL.
At the moment my main aim is to improve my picture-taking skills (and I fear I need to invest in a new camera . . . ) and my tutorials. Being the technical illiterate that I am, I might very well take three years to do this and still never reach other people’s results. I’d also love to give classes starting with intermediate cookie decorating, but so far there is hardly any demand for cookie decorating classes, not even for beginners. So this is truly more of a long-term goal, and right now I don’t even pursue it. But, mainly, I hope to be able to constantly improve my skills, try out new things, and keep on enjoying myself in the kitchen.
RH: I hope that I still maintain my zeal to decorate cookies and that I can find what I am really good at and fully develop my style. I want to hear “I want to make cookies like yours” from others and see somebody actually make cookies of my design.
Last but certainly not least, I am very honored to be interviewed. When I found out that my banner and backdrop were chosen along with those of a remarkable artist (Leoni!), I was very thrilled and read the notification repeatedly. Thank you, Julia, for organizing Cookie Connection where we can not only share ideas, but also connect with other decorators.
JMU: Well, thank YOU both! I am grateful to you for such thorough and thoughtful answers to these questions - and for making me laugh on more than a couple of occasions! I’ve learned a lot in the course of this interview, but one of the most important things it has underscored for me is that we cookiers are more similar than different. Cookies truly have a unifying power that transcends differences, perceived and real, across cultures, and this is a wonderful thing! I wish you both the best of luck in achieving your cookie dreams!
To learn more about Leoni, please visit her Facebook page and profile on this site. And, of course, you won’t want to miss her Cookie Connection Get Inspired series of tutorials either! As for Ryoko, you can also find her on Facebook and this site, so check her out too!
Cookier Close-ups is the place on Cookie Connection where we celebrate the change-makers of the cookie decorating world. Whether forging new enterprises, inventing novel decorating techniques, or consistently charming us with their cookie decorating prowess, each of our featured thought leaders has redefined in his/her distinctive way how we interact, create, or otherwise do business here in cookie space!
If there are other cookiers you'd really like to get to know, please post requests in this forum. We'll do our best to round them up for an upcoming Cookier Close-up! Thanks!