Hi, everyone! If you've read the most recent Practice Bakes Perfect challenge recap, you know that our beloved host @Sweet Prodigy has decided to move on to bigger and better things. While I couldn't be more delighted about the work Christine (Dutcher) has done to develop and support these challenges over the last two years, I am just as delighted to see what she does with this new chapter in her cookie life. I wish her the best of luck with her endeavors, even though it's doubtful that she - with so much innate talent and skill - needs any luck from me.
I must confess, I was initially stunned when I learned of Christine's plans. A whole host of questions started darting around in my head, most of which fell under the general umbrella of, "Oh no, how can we carry on?" Or, "What good news can I give members after they've learned they've lost their Christine?" After some initial panic, I collected myself, sought advice from other site contributors, and thought carefully about the challenge feedback that came from you in this May 2021 survey and also more informally through this blog Q&A.
First, I want to thank former challenge host Christine (Donnelly), aka @Bakerloo Station, for helping to crystallize your feedback for me and actually suggesting the new form for our challenges that I am about to reveal to you. What she said to me made so much sense that I decided to act on it. But more on this in a bit . . . Second, I want to thank @Aproned Artist for being another great sounding board as I hashed through Christine's suggestions.
And, last but not least, I want to thank @Manu for agreeing to step up to take on the role of host for our new challenges. She has been instrumental in helping with the conceptualization, re-branding (yes, we have a new logo!), and soooo many other details. And I know she will continue to be. She also has the video production skills, social media savvy, and cookie community credibility and connections that are essential for making these new challenges a success. I am so very grateful to have her by my side as we walk this new path and learn together. In many ways, we are challenging ourselves with this challenge reincarnation! (Also, no worries! Manu plans to continue with her monthly tutorials. ) Thank you, Manu, and welcome to this new and hopefully fun role! (For those of you who don't know Manu, you will very soon. In the meantime, check out her bio at the very end of this post.)
Why Change the Challenges At All?
Before I reveal the new format, I'd like to share some of the motivation behind this reengineering - just so you have an appreciation for where it's coming from. I have always felt that one of Cookie Connection's greatest strengths has been helping cookiers learn and grow, and the challenges have been the primary way we've fulfilled this mission. But after a successful run of 50 (!) Practice Bakes Perfect challenges, it was also clear to me that it was time for a makeover - not only to keep members engaged, but also future hosts and me. I have reviewed every challenge post and recap since 2014, and, to be truthful, this has gotten pretty humdrum for me. And, in the challenge's current form, the work of the challenge host is quite large. Bottom line: there needs to be more member engagement to justify this volunteer work. Christine Dutcher's departure certainly precipitated this change, but so too has your feedback, which brings me back to my conversation with Christine Donnelly.
That January day when we met on Zoom, Christine and I talked a lot about what you had said in various surveys. What we heard is that participation might be higher if the challenges were less restrictive and rules-heavy. Dense rules can be overwhelming to read, especially for our members whose native language is not English. Further, we creatives tend to be visual people, so reading a long blog post just to get started can be off-putting. Of course, people want to play and have fun while they learn, and the challenges seem competitive to some, particularly the recaps where entries are handpicked and highlighted by site contributors. Plus, those recaps take hosts a long time to pull together. Then, let's not forget that we are deep in the digital age, and people are now doing much of their learning through videos - much more than when these challenges first started eight years ago. Just a handful of cookiers were making videos then. Christine went on to describe the virtues of a live video training workshop she had recently taken and how she thought a challenge could be woven into that framework. And, thus, the seed was planted.
How Will the Challenges Change?
The upshot of all of this conferencing and brainstorming is a remodeled challenge series (with a logo!) that addresses all of your feedback, is much more interactive, is very exciting for me and Manu to develop, and promises (I hope) to be just as exciting for you. Mind you, not every detail has been worked out (hence, the vague dates in this post's cover image ). In fact, the kickoff session (maybe more) will be an experiment, using me as a guinea-pig first guest, to help us to fine-tune content and technical details.
First, a look at the new logo and a huge thank you to Liz Cox of Jukefox Graphics for working so quickly and expertly to bring it to fruition.
Both Manu and I wanted to preserve a connection to our Practice Bakes Perfect series' rich legacy (after all, we are basically just retooling an already great concept). So you'll see a nod to the old piping bag photo in a new graphical rendering, and we'll be picking up where Christine Dutcher left off with Challenge #51. To engage a broader international audience, Manu felt it was important to make a stronger link to Cookie Connection and to use more clear-cut language to describe the challenges ("Practice Bakes Perfect" was pretty mystifying to her when she first saw it years ago). I concurred, so the challenges have a new and very straightforward name ("Cookie Connection Challenges"), and the logo uses the interlocking "C"s and scrollwork also used in our site's existing logo. Lastly - though this wording is not finalized - "live expert series" is intended to convey that these challenges will be guided by experts through live video. Yes, video! No more reading of dense rules!
Second, an overview of the new challenge features. (Since this post is running long, I'll try to keep the features to short and snappy bullet points. As we get closer to launch time, Manu and I will have more details for you.)
- Bimonthly as before (~six per year), but kicked off with video instruction by a cookie expert and a short blog post with the embedded video;
- Hosted by Manu, whose primary roles will be setting the annual calendar, selecting topics and guests, making the videos with guests, and posting the challenge videos and a new form of recap;
- Videos will focus on new or less common techniques, but ones that everyone from beginners to advanced decorators can tackle and learn from;
- Techniques will be ones that rely on as few specialty tools as possible so that more people can join in;
- The challenge will simply be to create a cookie set or cookie project of your choice that uses the technique in a focal way (entries must be original work as always, but otherwise you can largely create whatever you want);
- As you are creating, the cookie expert will regularly check the associated challenge blog post to answer your questions so everyone gets the benefit of Q&A along the way;
- In addition to posting an entry photo, entrants will be asked to describe what they did and how they overcame any challenges (as always, we want to encourage sharing so everyone learns and grows from each other); and
- The recap will take the form of a typical Saturday Spotlight, meaning that those featured will be selected by the site's trending algorithms (determined by your collective likes, comments, and views) not by site contributors. Our hope in so doing is to still highlight incredible entrants and their hard work while removing the perceived competitive aspect of the current challenges. Writing this form of Spotlight will also require less time than the current commentary-rich posts. And . . .
- Small prizes will still be awarded on a random basis, just because I like to give them out!
When Will the New Challenges Start?
Good question! Because this change requires a fair bit of technical sorting out (i.e., how do we film the videos? do we capture them live or prerecord them? where do they get hosted? etc.), we haven't yet set a firm start date. But since I will be the first guest (primarily to work out technical kinks before we invite other guests), I suspect it will launch at the end of June or possibly early July after my cookie art competition reopens on June 15. But you'll certainly know when, because we will be posting banners like the following one all over social media and this site well in advance!
Please note that nothing is cast in stone at this point, so Manu and I welcome your feedback and suggestions for improvement. We especially want to hear what topics you'd like to cover and which guests you'd like us to invite. Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below or to message Manu privately. Of course, questions of any kind are welcome too. Last but not least, thanks for reading to the end of this post (phew!) and your patience as we sort out the remaining logistics in the next couple of months. And don't forget to read Manu's bio below if you still need to get to know her. Huge kudos and thank-you again to Manu!
Manuela Pezzopane, affectionately called Manu by her friends and family, is a fan of everything handmade, and professes to have tried every possible hobby. However, it wasn’t until the end of 2014, when an American friend invited her to a Christmas cookie exchange, that she first discovered decorated cookies. In 2015, after watching Julia M. Usher's videos and signing up on Cookie Connection, Manu finally attempted her own. Since then, cookie decorating has become Manu’s passion. You can follow Manu on Facebook and Instagram, or email her at email@example.com.