I’ve been loving our October site art, haven’t you? The colors and textures are so perfectly evocative of fall . . .
Earlier this month, we got a brief introduction to its creator, the very talented virago, in this forum post. There, we learned that virago and her husband of 20-plus years are retired from the military and live close to a military installation in central Kentucky, USA. (That said, for security reasons, I won’t be sharing virago’s real name, and you’ll only see her incognito below.)
Even though virago has been decorating cookies since June 2013 and has contributed many marvelous cookies to this site (check out her portfolio here), she still considers herself a novice cookie decorator and remains a cookie hobbyist. When not focused on cookies or other culinary pursuits, she enjoys exploring winding country roads, observing the awesome weather and creatures that visit her property, perusing fantasy artwork, and learning to draw/paint in digital format.
If you’re anything like me, I’m sure you’re eager to learn even more about virago’s cookie life. So let’s get started, shall we?!
JMU: Hi, virago! It’s wonderful to be chatting with you here! In your forum post, you mentioned that your first cookies were made in June 2013 and were done for an inspiration challenge on another site. But, what drew you to that challenge and to cookies in the first place? And were you immediately hooked, or did cookie decorating take a while to grow on you?
V: Hi, Julia! Thank you for this opportunity. It's an honor to be included in your Cookier Close-up series. Truthfully, I'm a little nervous - this is the first time I've done something like this.
Being a lover of all things fantasy, I was drawn to the fantasy aspect of that challenge. It was entitled "Enchanted Forest" and offered a Pinterest inspiration board - really beautiful artwork, jewelry, and photographs of dragons, fairies, potion bottles, misty woods, and rivers. It was also a challenge specific to cookies. Until that time, I had only decorated cakes and cake pops, and had never submitted a challenge entry to a website. I really enjoyed the design aspect of creating a cookie set (mixing elements, shapes, and colors), but I realized my cookie skills were lacking after encountering problems (rough cookie surface, off-taste, brittle royal icing transfers, painted details not drying and dissolving the icing . . .). I had the will, but not the skill! It wasn't until May 2014 that I really got my cookie bearings; that's when taste, texture, and technique came together in cookie harmony.
JMU: How did you settle on “virago” as your cookie name? I know it means “female warrior”, but why did its meaning particularly resonate with you and/or your cookie experiences?
V: Thank you for emphasizing the positive expression of the name . There's no special significance in choosing "virago" other than a personal affinity for its etymology. I guess I'm fascinated as to how its meaning went from being a singular biblical reference, to a heroic title, to now a pejorative. For better or worse, I chose the moniker years ago for social media.
JMU: Have you always had an affinity for baking and decorating, or was cookie decorating your first real foray into sweets?
V: After exiting the workforce and settling into permanent residence in early 2010, I began teaching myself to cook so that my husband and I could eat well and stay within budget. Prior to this, I really didn't know my way around the kitchen beyond boxed helper meals and cake mix. It came as a total surprise and pleasure to discover that I actually had a talent for culinary endeavors. The past six years have been spent leisurely tackling and tweaking recipes, both savory and sweet - anything my taste buds may have had a hankering for. I've committed everything to paper and amassed a small arsenal of kitchen supplies and equipment that rivals my husband’s tool collection.
Now, my interest in decorating sweets started with a cake. As mentioned in my forum intro, it was a laughably ugly box cake, domed, and decorated with tub and tube icing in a Halloween theme. It was totally cringe-worthy, but it was the spark that lit the fire. And it rekindled a passion for art - something I hadn’t really been able to explore or indulge in for years. First came decorated cakes, then cake pops, and now cookies have been added to the "I can do that" list. I love bringing various visual elements together to create cohesive themes and sets, and playing around with flavor combinations.
JMU: Okay, you’ve piqued my interest! What is your favorite cookie and icing flavor combination? And are you working on any new combinations that we should know about?
V: Last year, I gave out orange-cinnamon sugar cookies with a vanilla topcoat to family and friends (the October site submission set, in fact). The flavor combo was well received across a broad audience. One friend passed a sampling of cookies to children in her care - she said the kids gobbled them up, and the smallest girl devoured the giant pumpkin. My mother received the bulk of this set, to be passed around to the seniors in her community. The same flavor combo was requested for their annual Christmas dinner. The triple-lemon sandwich cookies done for this past Valentine's Day were also a big hit - lemon sugar cookie, lemon topcoat, and lemon cream filling.
Around spring/summer of next year, I have a lime-ginger sugar cookie with a coconut topcoat in mind. I had hoped to roll out this flavor combo this summer - I had even begun to design the set - but then I pulled a calf muscle and managed to hobble myself for the remainder of the season.
JMU: Ooh, so sorry to hear about your accident, and doubly sorry to hear it delayed a new flavor introduction!
I know you’re a hobbyist decorator, but can you describe your typical week in more detail, and how cookies factor into it? For instance, how many cookies do you produce per week, and how many hours per week do you spend decorating cookies? Do you produce cookies strictly for the creative or artistic challenge, or do you ever sell your cookies?
V: I float my time between various sweet projects - some decorated, some not. If I'm doing a decorated cookie set, I will dedicate the entire week to that project, designing and producing approximately six dozen cookies. Right now, it is purely for creative challenge, recipe development, and skill improvement. Unfortunately, I am not able to sell cookies.
JMU: Would you ever consider turning your cookie hobby into a business of selling cookies?
V: Well, as background, Kentucky has some very restrictive cottage food laws. Basically, you have to grow the main ingredient, have your processing kitchen blessed, and can only sell at approved farmers’ markets and certified road stands. There's a group petitioning to get the laws changed, but the process is moving incredibly slowly.
The only other option, if I were to sell cookies, is a certified kitchen, either rented, purchased, or built. I just can't see dragging supplies and equipment to a temporary rental space. I know nothing about operating a business, but I've watched bakeries come and go in my area. Reading what others have experienced has been very insightful. Many people have remarked that operating a full-time business leaves little time for baking and elaborate decorating - what a bummer that would be!
I don't think I can even legally give away my cookies to anyone other than family and friends. So I continue to work on cookies and other sweets in the only capacity over which I have control (design, taste, technique, and presentation) and hope the future offers change.
JMU: In looking at your cookie portfolio here on Cookie Connection, you are clearly well versed in many techniques – airbrushing, painting, brush embroidery, to name a few. How did you go about learning so many techniques so quickly (three years is not a long time in cookie-years )? Were there certain resources that you found especially helpful and would recommend to other beginning decorators?
V: Thank you so much for the cookie kudos! I still feel like I'm more of a dabbler of many, master of none - and there are a lot of techniques that I haven't yet tried. What I'd like to offer is not necessarily a resource, but rather a habit to get into. Read everything, watch videos, take notes, stay organized, and save resources as you find them (even if it's not something you're currently working on). Whenever I find a good website that offers a wealth of information like Cookie Connection, I take the time to read through the forums/blogs. If I stumble across a particular recipe, tip, trick, or tutorial of interest while surfing the web, those links get bookmarked immediately, or sent to a Pinterest board dedicated to "edible decorating techniques", or even printed out and saved in a binder. I take copious notes on everything - any tweaks or changes (no matter how minor), the results of successful attempts, and even failures will get a scribble. In short, I would recommend putting yourself in school-mode and making time for self-education.
With respect to airbrushing and painting on cookies, I had a bit of a head start with these techniques from doing acrylic painting and airbrushing way, way, way back in high school.
JMU: Great suggestions - and thanks for the nod to Cookie Connection! How has your past life in the military and in computers influenced your cookie work, if at all?
V: Confidence, discipline, focus, organization, attention to detail, determination, and ability to troubleshoot and resolve issues - all qualities and skills gained in the military and reinforced in the computer field. Also, know your limits, and know when to take a breather.
JMU: What is your cookie kryptonite, if anything? How are you working to turn it into a strength? Or are you happy just to ignore it?
V: I cannot make a parchment cone . . . There, I've said it! I've unburdened my soul! Well, in the spirit of honesty, I can make a parchment cone, but they never seem to stay intact once I start to use them. I can make a wax paper cone . . . 'cause I can cheat and tape the seam together! Please note, wax paper is not a good receptacle for royal icing! [EDITOR'S NOTE: I concur on the wax paper point, as does Liesbet in her first-ever Toolbox Talk!]
I'm a cookie "set" person, and sometimes I get carried away with too many shapes, designs, and colors - to the point of visual overload. To compensate, I try to scale back on the larger, more detailed cookies; add simpler, smaller filler cookies to round out each set; and repeat the same colors across different cookies.
I still struggle with photo staging. I really need a larger selection of backdrops, more props, and a better camera. This is not necessarily a cookie kryptonite issue, but a subpar photo will diminish a good cookie.
JMU: Well, it sounds like you've got a clear game plan with concrete goals and objectives, which is more than I can say for myself at the moment!
You mentioned in an earlier answer that you enjoy “bringing various visual elements together to create cohesive themes and sets”, which I assume also involve sweets other than cookies, judging from the number of adorable cake pops and cakes that you’ve also posted to Cookie Connection. Can you describe what you mean by this, and/or share a recent project where you brought all of these sweets and elements together in a way that especially pleased you?
V: Thank you again for the cake kudos. I've done cake and cake pop combos, but have yet to combine cookies with other sweets for a multi-dessert table.
What I mean by visual elements and cohesion is being able to unify the imagery, shapes, and colors within a cookie set to represent a chosen theme. The gingerbread dunkers (photo below) that I did for this past Christmas are a good example. I wanted the set to be in a more adult-oriented, seasonal Christmas/winter theme. Any imagery that looked cute or adorable was eliminated from consideration. After narrowing down the imagery that would be represented (snowdrifts and flakes, mistletoe sprigs, evergreen branches with shining star, birch trees with cardinal, gift-wrapped greetings, and hanging ornaments), I drew the foreground designs to run horizontally or vertically only, which emphasized the shape of the cookies. The color palette was traditional for Christmas, but every color, except white, was muted for a more mature look. Background colors on each cookie were distinct, but those colors were repeated in the foreground on different cookies, which tied the designs together. I hope this makes sense.
JMU: It sure does! It's sometimes hard to explain the design process, but you did a great job. (BTW, I love that cookie set!)
Thinking back over the three years that you’ve been involved with cookie decorating, have you observed any significant changes in the cookie world? If so, what are those changes and why do you think they’ve occurred?
V: Um, hummm . . . I'm so new to the cookie world that I'm not sure I'd recognize a significant change. Though it does seem like decorated cookies are a new, surging trend. Or is it a resurgence? There might be a growing level of astonishment from the general public directed to the cookie world - a sort of collective gasp at the creativity and skill being offered up.
JMU: Yes, I can almost hear the collective gasping - there's tons of cookie talent now that wasn't around a few years ago!
What do you like most about the cookie decorating world, and why? And, what do you like least about it, or would most like to change, and why?
V: I love the international representation of cookie artisans. It's a very talented, supportive, encouraging, and giving community - I feel very blessed to be able to participate in it.
What I hope changes is the monetary value, or lack thereof, that many consumers place on a well decorated cookie, or any other time-consuming sweet treat for that matter. And, yes, I see the irony in whining about not getting paid whilst I gift out cookies. But I've done research, followed forums and conversations, and read many a weepy tale of how others didn't get the sale, didn't make a profit, didn't get paid for lost time/labor, or - the ultimate insult - had a freeloader demand money back. That collective gasp doesn't seem to be liberating a lot of wallets. Please tell me I'm wrong about this - I want to be wrong!
JMU: No, unfortunately, I think you're right. I also find irony in the fact that many people seem to admire the art of decorated cookies, but then they expect them on demand. I can't tell you how many inquiries I get for rush orders, even though I don't sell! Art takes time, people! (There, I said it!)
Enough looking backward! Let’s prognosticate for a bit! What key trends do you think will emerge in the cookie world over the next few years, and why do you think they’re going to occur?
V: Um, hummm . . . I'm so enamored with what I see happening now, it's hard to imagine what's coming. And since I'm not in the business, it's hard to anticipate new trends aside from what I read in articles and see posted. The demand for more cutter shapes seems to be growing . . . I think I'm going to have to pass on this one - I really don't know.
JMU: No worries! I always ask, because I hope someone will have the answer for me!
And, last but not least, where would you like to be in the cookie world in three years? Selling cookies? Teaching? Making award-winning cookies? What are your hopes and dreams, and how do you plan to make them come true?!
V: Do I get to dream hard here?! Yes? Excellent! Let's just go for broke, and imagine me accepting some grandiose cookie award, confetti raining down upon my shoulders, press flashbulbs showering the stage, hoards of adoring fans clapping and crying in my honor, me holding the award high above my head and blowing kisses . . . No? Too much?
JMU: As the über-creative Walt Disney once said, "If you can dream it, you can do it." I firmly believe this!
Thank you for sharing so much of yourself in this interview. It's been wonderful getting to know you better! I absolutely cannot wait to post your latest site submission (below) as next year's October art!
To learn more about virago, please visit this Pinterest board featuring her work. And, if you're interested in getting your cookie work featured in our banner and backdrop, just check out our submission guidelines here!
All cookie and photo credits: virago
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!