Given the wealth of phenomenal cookies posted to Cookie Connection each week, it's pretty darn easy to get lulled into site-centric thinking. All of the world's greatest cookies are here, right?!
Granted, many fabulous cookies are gracing our photo feed, but it doesn't take much pulling of one's head out of the sand(ing sugar) to realize there's a big wide world of cookie decorating out there. And in that world, there are countless incredible artists yet to be discovered, on the verge of making it big, or already established who prefer to hone their craft without any online fanfare.
I had the pleasure of one such reality check at the recent Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show (aka OSSAS), September 28 - 29. The brainchild of cake queen-turned-TV star Kerry Vincent, OSSAS has a longstanding reputation for bringing together the best cake artists from miles around. Decorators prepare for weeks, if not months, to win a piece of the $160,000-plus in cake competition bounty awarded at the end of the show. But what you may not know is that OSSAS also hosts a kick-booty decorated cookie contest, where there's no shortage of talent revealed each year.
For two years in a row, I've had the privilege of sponsoring this event and seeing some truly wonderful work firsthand. Though the financial stakes aren't as high as those in the cake show (at least not yet ), the cookie competition is certainly as fierce! Just to qualify, contestants are required to bake, decorate, and creatively set up at least one dozen cookies. Entries are then evaluated by a jury of cookie and cake decorators who weigh several factors, such as number of techniques used, difficulty of techniques, cleanliness of the work, and originality of design, to select first, second, and third place winners. Oh, and did I forget to mention the swarm of scrutinizing sugar art fans? Some 80,000 people filter through the show each year, weighing in with their approval or disapproval - often within earshot of contenders. It takes a unique breed of cookier who can create a winning entry and withstand this sort of pressure!
That said, I've decided to take a break from tradition and cast this week's Cookie Connection spotlight on cookies that have never before appeared on this site - those of the very deserving first, second, and third place OSSAS winners!
By way of introduction to these cookiers, I asked each the same six questions, ranging from "How long have you been cookie decorating?" to "How did you come up with your winning entry?", and I've compiled their stories below. It certainly has been eye-opening for me to see their work and to hear about how they challenge themselves to get better and better with each cookie they craft. So without further ado . . .
Meet Heather Campbell, First Place Winner
I have been decorating professionally for seven years now, but I was always asking my mom to decorate cookies with me. She finally let me take Wilton courses when I was 12. Gingerbread has always been my passion, but I've turned toward individual cookies in the last few years. I am employed as a full-time supervising decorator at a bakery in Houston. I have been there for three and a half years now. I have been working in a bakery for almost eight years, since graduating from culinary school in 2006.
I guess I really started decorating cookies with a passion a few years ago because they are easily portable to shows and competitions. Plus, I have a fascination with all things small. Cookie-ing challenges me to always be coming up with new and innovative designs to produce (1) quickly in mostly buttercream (for the bakery) and (2) in other mediums (for me when I
compete). I am always connected to the sugar world on social media such as Pinterest for the latest trends and ideas (you can read into this that I am slightly obsessed), and I regularly attend Days of Sharing (local International Cake Exploration SocietÉ, aka ICES, events) and ICES (national convention).
I started thinking about my (OSSAS) entry this year over the summer and had settled on an idea. But when it came time to get started, my heart was just not completely attached to that idea anymore. After staring at a poster in my living room with a hot air balloon on it, I settled on a new idea. The initial idea was to use tuile cookies as the slats on the balloons, but after some trial and lots
of error, I had to abandon that notion and turn to gumpaste instead. At this point, I had less than two weeks to complete the piece, but somehow managed to pull it off! [EDITOR'S NOTE: She sure did!]
And See Her First Place Cookie Design
[EDITOR'S NOTE: You may have to look closely, but there is impeccable royal icing stringwork floating between the balloon panels; the frame is all cookie too!]
Meet Angela Chin Negron, Second Place Winner
When I was living in Singapore (2004-2010), it was difficult to find custom sugar cookies so I began making them and bringing them to my son's school at every occasion (Halloween, Christmas, soccer games, cub scouts' meetings, etc.) and catered to the American community there. Soon I was known as The Cookie Lady. I also conducted cookie decorating workshops especially for kids. I enjoyed customising cookies and donating cookies for fundraising events or giving them as gifts. I love art and craft and would make cute boxes to put the cookies in.
I work full-time in a Montessori school. My little business (ButterNBites) is part-time, but I hope it will grow someday so I can put all my attention into baking and decorating. I began to get seriously into cookie decorating three years ago when we moved back to Austin after my husband lost his job. I discovered many talented cookie decorators via Flickr. I was invited to join the Cookie Queen Club where we share many experiences and have cookie exchanges and contests; we learn so much from one another each day.
I started making cookies before cakes, so that gives me a lot of practice with royal icing piping. Unlike cakes, cookie decorating is more precise and there isn't much that you can do to cover up mistakes or imperfections. There are cake mixes for the cake industry, whereas for cookies, we have to make them from scratch. For me, I want to taste the butter in the cookies, not a whole
load of sugar. So getting the cookie texture/taste and icing (which is not rock hard) just right is important. If the cookie is too buttery, the oil will seep through the frosting. Also, I want my cookies evenly baked and not burnt on the sides (they are not cakes which allow us to trim off their crusts). Getting the right consistency of the icing for the various techniques is also quite challenging especially with dark colors. A big challenge for me is trying not to incorporate air bubbles in the frosting when thinning it or coloring it. Often the weather also affects the shine of the icing and freshness of the cookies. Another challenge in this area is to find the right customers who appreciate art and are willing to pay for it - customised cookies are not "just cookies." [EDITOR'S NOTE: You got that right, girl!] People are more willing to pay for cakes than for cookies. [EDITOR'S NOTE: But if we value and price our work properly, we can begin to change this mindset, I believe!]
Practice, practice, practice, and lots of patience are the best ways to hone skills. Share with cookie friends; keep updated on trends, styles, and colors; and try new techniques. Get curious . . . The inspirations are endless. Everywhere I look, I try to imagine incorporating what I see onto cookies, and my mind goes visualising when I am supposed to be sleeping. When a cool idea hits, I jump out of bed and scribble it down in my notebook (which I keep next to my bed) before it evaporates the next day. Then when I have time, I play with that idea.
The 2013 OSSAS theme for the Grand Wedding Cake Competition (which I was too late in signing up for) was ballet, so I decided to do the ballet theme on cookies instead. I like delicate and elegant designs, so I thought decorating tutus would be fun. I ordered my cutters from ecrandal; they are hand-
made and of good quality (symmetrical and sturdy). I believe good cutters give you good shapes to begin with. I did a few practice cookies and decided to give the tutus a see-through effect by playing with two tones of royal icing and to give them "form" by flooding thicker icing at the folds. I really like the result this method creates and enjoyed designing and decorating these cookies.
And See Her Second Place Cookie Design
[EDITOR'S NOTE: The judges counted an extraordinary number of techniques on these cookies; the see-through effect on the tutus, which Angela discussed above, is also expertly done.]
Meet Terrye Stephenson, Third Place Winner
I took a class on cake/candy making 30 years ago and did some decorating for some birthdays when my children were small, but then went into other creative ventures (i.e., custom upholstery business) for years. Five years ago, I went to Michaels and took a Wilton class and was "brought up to snuff" with the cake/cookie decorating industry and began to decorate cakes for my family and friends.
Cookie decorating has been a sideline hobby with more people asking me to make it a business. I'm interested/curious about all mediums of art, and cookies are a great palette to explore and express. Cookie art has been a place where I can work in smaller quantities of material and achieve the same results as a cake. I hone my skills by watching TV shows, and I just joined a local cake club where someone demonstrates a new technique or procedure every so often.
Because I work as a physical therapist assistant outside of the home, my husband didn't want me to get too stressed out on a project for the OSSAS. I'm into color, and the clothing/shoe industry is so neon/bright these days. I look at images on the web and tend to be an abstract person. I came across a picture of the original Rubik's Cube, which has primary colors, and thought what a new/neat way to put a twist on an 80s design. I almost put each side of the cube in one color, but after putting all the colored pieces together, the final layout was a "no-brainer."
And See Her Third Place Cookie Design
[EDITOR'S NOTE: The cookie construction and fit are perfect, and the colors just pop especially when mixed up!]
Thank you, ladies, for sharing your stories! And congrats again on cookies well done!
A final note: As all of these ladies have intimated and as Kerry Vincent - matriarch of tough love - will surely confirm, competitions are a great way to up your decorating game. Yes, they can be intimidating, but it's all too easy to otherwise fall into a decorating rut without the mirror of others' feedback to inform and expand your work.
That said, I challenge all cookiers reading this post to step out out of your comfort zones, if you don't routinely do so . . . enter a competition like 2014 OSSAS, the sugar show at CookieCon, or an online challenge hosted by your favorite blogger; teach a class or demo something that requires a creative stretch; or systematically gather your customers' feedback without taking "your cookies were great" at face value. Plumb deeper by asking what you could have done differently to improve the flavor, your designs, or your service.
You may lose some challenges along the way, but if you don't take any risks, the greatest win of all - unwavering belief in yourself - will forever be elusive.