It’s been a true pleasure to have members’ cookie art gracing the site this year – not only is it a beautiful addition, but it also gives me the perfect excuse to get behind the cookies themselves and into the heads and hearts of the cookie Picassos and Van Goghs who created them!
So, it’s with continued pleasure that I bring you this month’s Cookier Close-up, an interview with Ina Uzzanu (aka Magadiuz), the August winner of Practice Bakes Perfect Challenge #13. We already know a lot of general info about Ina from her recent forum intro – she’s been decorating since 2014; she doesn’t sell cookies, but she does sell classes; and she’s a painter’s daughter and mother to a 26-year-old son. But, now’s the time to pick that clever cookie side of her brain, and really get to know what keeps her cookie passion burning. Shall we?!
JMU: Welcome, Ina, and thanks again for writing such thorough and thoughtful answers to my forum intro questions! I realized upon re-reading that post that I failed to ask a basic question that has been nagging at me for quite a while now. Let’s begin there, so I can finally put my mind to rest!
What does “Magadiuz” mean, and why have you chosen it as your cookie moniker?
IU: In fact, I was surprised you didn’t ask me! Everybody does. Let me try to explain. It’s quite a silly, but funny story that has nothing to do with cookies. When I was younger, my family had a sailboat called “Mago di Oz” (in English, “The Wizard of Oz”). I really loved to go sailing, and I had great holidays on that boat. I used to talk so much about Mago di Oz that once a friend of mine nicknamed me “Maga di Uz”. In Italian, the feminine of wizard is “maga”, and “Uz” are the first two letters of my last name. Since then I have called myself Magadiuz.
JMU: Well, that all makes complete sense. Thanks for the explanation!
I’d like to pick up now on some threads started in your intro post. You mentioned there that you began a “cultural association” at the end of 2015 so you could start offering cookie decorating classes. But what exactly is a “cultural association” (we don’t use that term alongside “cookies” here in the US!)? And why is one needed to start teaching classes in Italy?
IU: I know, it’s quite puzzling to understand the relation between culture and cookies! First, a cultural association is a formalized business in Italy, with a president, a council of directors, and a general assembly of members. The general assembly decides which activities the association will perform according to the association's statutes. Our association's mission is to spread new techniques to decorate treats and other stuff. The assembly gave me the task of selling classes about decorating with royal icing. I am paid to do it, but all earned income from what I do must be spent only on the association's projects and not on private needs.
Selling classes means teaching, and teaching is handing down knowledge and culture. Again, doing these things is a cultural association’s aim.
I don’t know much about teaching classes in other Italian regions. But I know quite well why I chose to start selling classes in Sardinia. Sardinia is quite a big island, but it has only 1.6 million inhabitants. We have many ancient traditions though, and one of these is the great variety of sweets. Each of the 377 villages in Sardinia has its own typical sweets, and royal icing is a common decorating technique.
When I opened my Facebook page one year ago, many people from my region were surprised, and they fell in love with this new royal icing decorating method. So I was asked to help them to learn or improve their traditional technique. It was a big surprise, and I couldn’t imagine that I would have introduced a new way to decorate, integrating the old tradition with a new approach. I hope to have explained the link between tradition and culture in cookies.
JMU: Oh, you did, and quite well! I can see that culture and cookies are linked in many ways; I just didn’t know that there was a formal business structure in Italy called a “cultural association” that permits one to offer cookie classes. That is news to me!
So, please tell us more about the classes you teach. How frequently do you teach? And how are your classes typically structured, meaning . . . What skill level(s) do you teach? How many students do you teach at one time? How long are your classes? Where do you teach? Do you do all of the prep and marketing yourself, or do you work with other people and get some support from those partners?
IU: I usually teach once a month, sometimes two, depending on my other engagements. Above all, I’m a literary translator by profession, and that’s a very demanding job because I work with publishers who always give deadlines that I can’t miss.
Going back to my classes . . . at the beginning, their skill level was aimed at beginners. But after the first few classes, my students started asking me for intermediate-level classes, because they were looking forward to learning more and more.
I typically average about 10 to 12 students in each class. The classes usually start at 10 am on a Sunday, and finish at 5 or 6 pm. Class length depends on the number of students and the project(s). I teach in many places, mostly villages and little towns all around Sardinia, and wherever I am asked to go.
I do all of the prep alone, and, for the marketing, I rely on social media like Facebook, Instagram, and some online regional newspapers. If I know the place quite well, I can do everything alone; otherwise, I need somebody to help me find the location and promote the event. I have two or three partners who help me in this regard.
JMU: I know that teaching and prepping for classes, in particular, can be almost, if not more, time-consuming than making a lot of cookies! What’s the average prep time for your typical class, and what activities does that preparation involve?
IU: Teaching is my favorite part of the job, and it is an innate gift of mine. I love it! Sharing with others my little store of knowledge is a great reward. Most of all, I like when someone thinks s/he will not to be able to do something, but, in the end, I see gratitude and self confidence in his/her eyes. That’s moving, and I like those moments.
First of all, every class starts with an idea. Generally, I see something - a photo or an object - and then I decide if it could become a class. I usually design three or four cookies with the same theme for each class. The prep time is the most annoying part, and it takes me about one week for each class, because I have a family and a job to look after. During this week, I start making cookies by preparing the dough and baking it. Then I print the cookie photos for each student, and prepare all of the necessary tools.
The day before the class, the last (but not the least) demanding activity is to glance through my precious list several times and to collect everything I need, hoping not to forget anything.
JMU: Now for the money question (double entendre intended!) . . . How do you price your classes to ensure that you cover your prep time and other costs and make some money for your cultural association? What’s the typical price for your average-length class?
IU: LOL! Sorry, but that’s quite a funny question to answer! I think I’ll never fully cover my prep time, the ingredient/supply costs, the location fee, the travel costs, the payments to people who help me, and so on. In Italy, there’s an apt expression we use to sum up this answer: I do it for the glory!
I have established a fixed price of € 80 per person, not considering travel and other extra costs, such as external collaborators or extra materials or an unusually long class time.
JMU: What’s been the most challenging aspect of teaching classes, and how have you dealt with that challenge? What’s been the most rewarding part?
IU: When I start a job, the most stressing aspect is being up to my task. Therefore, I try to predict different scenarios of what students could ask, and how much they might expect from me. But I think that the most challenging aspect of teaching is being empathetic to students and their needs. A teacher must always be ready to help and to stimulate students' attention and curiosity, and to do all of this with a humble attitude. The expressions of fondness and appreciation received from students are the most rewarding part for me.
JMU: These days, more and more people seem to want to get into the teaching of cookie decorating, as opposed to the selling of cookies. Or so it appears at least here in the US. Do you see the same trend in Italy? If so, why do you think it might be occurring? If not, why not?
IU: I’m not well informed on Italian trends, but, from what I can see, I don’t think there are many people who want to get into teaching. In Sardinia, there are maybe two or three people who teach decorating with royal icing, but so far they teach the traditional technique. They don’t decorate cookies, but other kinds of sweets made of almond paste.
JMU: Interesting . . . What are the three most important tips you would give to cookie decorators who might one day aspire to teach cookie decorating?
IU: It goes without saying that any teacher should cover the ABCs of royal icing, because icing can be the biggest trouble ever. But this is quite obvious! The first tip I would give is to be empathetic – teachers should put themselves in their students’ shoes. The second is to transmit a positive message to even the most insecure students - encourage them to feel at ease. And the last one is to teach with love. Student can sense it, and therefore they’ll work better.
JMU: Nicely put! You’ve given me some new food for thought as I approach my next class, so thank you.
In reviewing your work in preparation for this interview, I was struck once again by your amazing versatility as a cookie designer. You seem to be equally adept at many techniques, ranging from painting to intricate piping to working with specialty materials such as fondant and isomalt. I know your dad was a painter, and some of his influence must have rubbed off on you, but how did you go about acquiring expertise in such a broad array of techniques with only two years of decorating experience under your belt?
IU: Wow! That’s a big compliment, Julia! But I don’t feel adept in anything in particular. I would rather define myself as a curious person, always looking for something new to try, the more difficult the better. I admire those cookiers who have their own personal style and artistic identity. I don’t think I have a personal style – today, I like one technique, but tomorrow I will fall in love with another.
To better explain what I mean, let me give you an example. I love cookie artists such as you, Evelin, Teri, Leoni, and many, many others whose work is like a signature. Every time I see a new photo of theirs, I can say who did it. You have colors you favor, a certain style, and projects of your own. I don’t think I have this gift.
JMU: First, thanks! I think personal style takes a little while to evolve. I also think there can be a downside to having a strong style in that it can sometimes get one in a decorating rut. Breaking out of a favored style can be hard, especially the longer one has been decorating.
Second, I think you're being too hard on yourself! I see that you do a lot of things very well, which is what leads me to my next question . . .
What’s your “cookie kryptonite” or Achilles’ heel – that is, if you actually have one?! How do you plan to get rid of it once and for all?! Or are you happy just to ignore it?!
IU: Well, I tend to rush things - this is my kryptonite. I should put more accuracy into my cookies, and I’d rather be more precise. I’m working on it, but I still have much to do, and I don’t intend to ignore my kryptonite at all!
JMU: Let’s turn to your winning August banner and backdrop (pictured above) for a sec. The cookies in these images are teeny, but they actually have an immense amount of detail on them (which is best appreciated in looking at the blown-up version of the backdrop now on the site). What was the most challenging part of creating this entry – the detail work, or something else, and why?
IU: There wasn’t a real challenging part to this entry. I used the wet-on-wet technique for the most part. The only difficult moment was working in Photoshop to assemble all of the backdrop parts and to create a mirrorlike symmetry in the banner.
JMU: Well, it’s just a great entry, as so many of your challenge entries are. I really appreciate how seriously you take our challenges, and I know Christine does too! Onto some “bigger” questions for a bit . . .
Tell us more about the cookie decorating market in Italy. Is it growing, shrinking, or now stabilizing after an initial spurt of interest? Why do you think this is? And what predictions would you make about cookie decorating in Italy? Do you see any trends emerging that are unique to your country or to Sardinia?
IU: I think the cookie decorating market in Italy has begun to grow, thanks to cookie artists such as Evelindecora. People have begun to see brand new techniques, less classic than Sir Eddie Spence’s ones. In my opinion, this trend will continue. I can see it on Cookie Connection as well. But it’s not at its highest peak yet.
As I explained above, there’s a great curiosity in Sardinia about this different and less traditional use of royal icing. Even people who have been decorating for years have asked me to update them. Their interest has been a great source of satisfaction for me, as you can imagine. But, I think the successful strategies will combine tradition with innovation. Sardinian people are very protective of their traditions, but maybe I have found a way to make them love innovation too!
JMU: It sounds like you have! Congratulations!
Since we’re on the subject of traditions . . . What are some of yours? Do you have any special cookies in Sardinia (or Italy, at large), or rituals where cookies play a big role? One of our previous guests, Stefania Onano, also lives in Sardinia and answered this same question here, but I’d love to compare and contrast your personal take.
IU: I want to condense this answer a bit by focusing on what I know about Sardinian traditional sweets and cakes decorated with glaze and royal icing. Here’s a little list of those glazed sweets . . . All of them are flooded with a different kind of icing that doesn’t use albumen, but rather water and sugar that is melted over heat. Royal icing is used only to write or draw on these treats. The papassino is found in every part of Sardinia and is a sort of cookie with almonds, raisins, pine kernels, orange and lemon zest, aniseed, and candied fruit. The pistoccheddus are like donuts. The pastissus are little baskets filled with a sponge cake made of almonds. The candelaus are tiny sweets that come in several shapes: amphorae, pullets, shoes, and baskets. They are made of almond paste with an orange blossom aroma. All three of these treats are from the south of Sardinia and are prepared for the wedding day. Oliena’s fruttini (little fruits), made of almond paste, are from the centre. Croccante (almond brittle) is from the south and the centre, and while it generally comes without glaze or royal icing in Italy, it is often decorated with it here in Sardinia.
But the most picturesque and artistic works are made by Anna Maria Sarritzu and Anna Gardu. Their cakes are monumental and decorated with tiny royal icing drawings.
JMU: Mmmm, you're making me hungry, and, yes, both Annas' cakes are impressive!
So on a completely different note . . . here’s something else I’ve been dying to know: what about that cookie exhibit you were asked to do at MURATS craft museum?! How did they discover you, and what did you prepare for the exhibit?
IU: Oh, I’ve been very lucky, and this exhibit is something I feel proud of. In March, I received a message from the museum’s director (thanks to his secretary, who had seen my cookies on Facebook) inviting me to take part in the July exhibition. Even though they let me freely do what I wanted, I thought I couldn’t show ordinary cookies. I had to make something more special that required more commitment. I prepared a triptych dedicated to Sardinian women. Each panel was made up of three cookies. The first panel was dedicated to prehistoric religions and magic with two Sardinian neolithic goddesses and a witch (Jana); the second panel was dedicated to women’s craft work; and the third was dedicated to the Sardinian artist Maria Lai, the Nobel Prize winner Grazia Deledda, and finally to traditional clothing. You can see the triptych below.
JMU: Lovely, and congrats again on this honor!
Lastly, if you could live your ideal “cookie life” three years from now, how would you describe it?
IU: I’ve always been unable to make predictions about my life. I take life as it comes. But if I base my predictions on my present desires, I’d design and decorate new cookies all day. I’d spend all of my time experimenting, with 3-D, 4-D, and so on . . . I’d have nothing to do other than decorate and I’d never be at rest!
JMU: Well, I wish you luck in pursuing your dream cookie life - but please do leave a little time for eating, sleeping, and hanging out with friends and family! It's been fun getting to know you better, and thank you again for your comprehensive answers to my many questions! I look forward to seeing more of your work here on Cookie Connection!
To learn more about Ina, please visit her Facebook page and profile on this site. You can also find her on Pinterest, and on Instagram as ibiscottidimagadiuz.
All cookie and photo credits: Magadiuz
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!