Great news! With this post, I’m launching the first in a series of in-depth Close-ups with CookieCon 2017 instructors! Over the next several months, in between Close-ups with our monthly site artists, of course, I’ll be interviewing all those teachers who haven’t been featured here before. Seeing as this year’s CookieCon slate was comprised of the best of the best decorators, we’re in for quite a treat – starting right here and now with Dany Lind of Dany’s Cakes!
A self-taught decorator and mother of three boys, Dany founded her home-based bakery in Turner, Maine, USA in 2010, and she’s been going strong ever since. Though her business moniker suggests that cakes are her forte, her Cookie Connection profile proclaims cookies as her true love! And there’s no reason to question her cookie passion, judging from her spectacular portfolio.
Today, we’ll talk at greater length with Dany about how she got started in cookies, what she learned from her CookieCon experience, and more. So let’s not delay the excitement any longer – it’s time to meet Dany!
JMU: Hi, Dany! It’s wonderful to have you here. I imagine you’re still recovering from all of your CookieCon prep, and the jam-packed days there, so thank you for jumping right back into the thick of things with this interview and your recent live chat. First question: Can you tell us when you decorated your first cookies (and possibly share a picture of them too!) and what or who got you interested in cookie decorating?
DL: Hi, Julia! I made sugar cookies at Christmastime when my boys were little, and we’d take them to all the neighbors’ houses. The selection looked a lot like the picture below, which I believe was taken almost ten years ago. My mom always made a large variety of Christmas cookies when I was young, and would gift them wherever we went, so cookies have always been part of the holiday traditions I have created with my own family. The focus is more on delicious cookies than pretty ones, and the kids like to help me make them.
In 2010, I had been making cakes for friends and family, and a friend of a friend called me to order 100 decorated cookies for a fortieth birthday party (a Sex in the City theme, pictured below). I thought it sounded kind of crazy, because I hadn’t really seen many beautifully decorated cookies. I googled decorated cookies, and found lots of Flickr pages devoted to the most gorgeous cookies I had ever seen. My first real attempt wasn’t amazing, but I was pretty excited about all the possible designs. It was a lot more work than I imagined it would be, but I was hooked.
JMU: Well, you're not alone - most Cookie Connection members have a cookie addiction! How did you decide to take the leap from being a hobbyist decorator to a business owner in 2010? What were some of the biggest hurdles to opening your home-based shop, and how did you overcome them?
DL: In 2009 and early 2010, I had been getting more requests for cakes, cupcakes, cinnamon rolls, and other baked goods, and I was realizing that I needed to stop baking for people as a favor and start charging money. I had started Dany’s Cakes originally in 2001, because I was making cakes for friends, but it never took off and I got too busy having more kids. But that first big cookie order (the Sex in the City cookies) came right around the time my youngest boy was starting kindergarten, so having no kids at home for the first time in 11 years, I felt like I had time to devote to growing a business. Also, I had been out of the publishing world for more than a decade, and I didn’t think that jumping back into full-time editorial work would allow me the flexibility I needed to have with three little boys. So I decided to give Dany’s Cakes another go.
Probably the biggest hurdle for me starting my business (besides trying to work in a house with three young, active boys) was figuring out how to get my home processing license, which involves an inspection and water testing in Maine. I failed my water test twice because I was doing the test wrong, and I stressed out about my inspection, but it was all fine and not that difficult. I think it was just the idea of filing the paperwork and learning the rules that was daunting. After that, figuring out how to make my business make money was a huge struggle, and honestly, I still struggle with that.
JMU: Interesting . . . hopefully, we can touch more on your money-making comment in a bit, as I know plenty of cookiers are struggling with the same issue. But first . . . Why are cookies a greater passion for you than cakes? What is it about them that makes them your preferred mode of artistic expression?
DL: I love doing cakes. I have been loving cakes since I was a very little girl, snuggling up with my grandmother’s Wilton Yearbooks and pouring over every page. But cakes take a lot of time, cost a lot of money to make, and take up a lot of room in the fridge. (I have a separate fridge for cakes now, which is so helpful.) Cakes are big, finicky structures that often have to be delivered, and there are a hundred things that can go wrong, even after I hand a cake over to the customer and walk away. Cookies, on the other hand, are less stressful for me. Cookies are small, they can sit out at room temperature, I can walk away from them to go to a baseball game or make dinner . . . cookies are low maintenance compared to cakes and don’t elicit as many moments of panic for me. As an artist, I think of cookies as a small canvas. It’s easy to make extras in case I make a mistake (and I do!), and I don’t feel as at risk with my time or my expenses to try new ideas on a cookie. Cookies are portable, they stay fresh when bagged and heat-sealed, they are easily customizable . . . and people love cookies. Cookies make people happy.
JMU: I hear you about the anxiety surrounding cakes - I used to do them in my own bakery (which I closed ten or so years ago), and delivery days always had me sweating bullets! Anywho . . . I now work from home myself, and I sometimes find it a challenge to separate work from my personal life – and to carve out downtime. By contrast, when I had a separate shop, it was much easier for me to mentally “turn off” work at the end of the day. Do you find that working in your home environment creates any challenges for you, and, if so, how do you handle them?
DL: What is downtime? Ha ha! I’m the worst at knowing how to relax. I can’t even watch TV without knitting or doing something like folding laundry or loading the dishwasher. It’s actually a joke in my family. As a mom who has been a mom for almost 18 years, I’m used to the fact that there is always work to be done, and I rarely feel like my time is my own. I’m usually driving for hours a day getting my kids to and from school, appointments, sports practices, and games. I’m a believer in sitting down to dinner every night as a family as well, so that’s a challenge to plan. I fit the cookies and an occasional cake around the boys’ schedules, which means that I’m often working late into the night, because I spend so much time during the day running around. I always say I work from 9 am to 2 pm, and from 9 pm to 2 am, but I’m happy to be flexible. I do often feel like I’m always working, but I think most moms feel like that. I think working outside the home would make it easier for me to focus on Dany’s Cakes, but harder to focus on my family, and my family is my priority right now. I feel fortunate that I can spend as much time with my boys as I do, especially since my oldest is leaving for an internship and college in June, and my littlest one is entering middle school in the fall. I can’t get this time back.
JMU: So true. Do you have any desires to expand beyond the home into a brick-and-mortar shop, perhaps when you're an empty-nester? Why or why not?
DL: I can only see myself doing that once my kids are grown, but even then, I think it would be very difficult for me to make money in my area with the overhead of a shop. I’m also a control freak, so I get stressed out about the idea of hiring people to make MY cookies. But I do dream about having my own shop and cookie studio in downtown Bar Harbor. Mount Desert Island is one of my favorite places on earth, and my husband and I have always talked about moving there when the kids leave. If I had a cookie studio in Bar Harbor near the ocean, I bet I could get you to come visit me, Julia!
JMU: Yes, you could! Bar Harbor is only about an hour or so away from my summer house in Stonington, Maine, which is a slice of heaven, I might add!
Let’s talk about your cookie style for a bit. You clearly have an eclectic portfolio here on Cookie Connection that draws on many techniques, but it seems like you have recently been drawn to dimensional, painted creations, like the girl cookie you taught at CookieCon, shown below. Would you say this is true, and, if so, what attracts you to this set of techniques or style?
DL: I’ve been making dimensional, painted cookies since 2013, so it’s not a new technique for me, but it has evolved over time. I think it all started with texture and a desire to work beyond the flat plane of a cookie. I’ve built on these techniques over the years, and I’ve gotten good at creating dimension in cookies - particularly in faces - but it’s not something I do very regularly. I have probably done more faces recently because of the class I taught at CookieCon, which had me trying to wrap my mind around creating and teaching different faces. I like creating dimension in cookies because it’s a challenge, and I like creating faces because I love painting faces. But intricate cookies don’t make me money, so I don’t make them as often as I’d like.
JMU: Kate Sullivan, one of our CookieCon correspondents, reported back to us in March about your class at CookieCon. (See that post here.) She mentioned that, when you create dimensional pieces, you first pipe an underlayer with thick icing, and then flood over it. But, what she found most interesting was that you then use a “paint brush to push around the icing, both the top layer and the thick icing underneath”. Why is this “pushing” step so critical, and why couldn’t you just flood over the thick icing, assuming you had placed it exactly where you needed it to create your desired dimensional effect?
DL: I approach dimensional cookies as sculptures. Sculptors don't just carve out their figures exactly; they push and play, build and remove, roughen and smooth. It’s an artistic process, not a science. So I do place my thick icing where I think it should be, but sometimes I want more, or less. I think when people watch me do it, it really does look more like sculpting than cookie decorating. I told my students that once they let go of the traditional outline-and-flood idea of decorating cookies, and start approaching the cookie as an artistic medium, the way they do cookies will change. There are no rules; there is only play. Get comfortable with playing and throw expectation and proper technique out the window, and see what you make.
JMU: Thanks for that explanation. All clear now! And I couldn't agree more with the notion that breaking rules breeds innovation. A good lesson for everyone!
Back to those cookie faces . . . What top three tips would you give to those just getting started with dimensional faces or designs? What must they bear in mind in order to end up with realistic and satisfying results?
DL: Firstly, study faces. I said in my CookieCon class that humans are hardwired to notice problems in a person’s face - particularly in the eyes. When the eyes are wrong, it makes us feel weird inside, even if we can’t describe why the eyes are wrong. Eyes have rules. Secondly, study sculpture. A projector isn’t going to help you create a dimensional cookie; once the cookie is no longer flat, the projected image becomes distorted, so get comfortable with freestyling proportions and three-dimensional details. And lastly, decide how fragile your cookie’s details can be. If you’re never going to move the cookie off your worktable, you can create a higher, more fragile, or pointy design. If you have to bag and ship your cookie, keep the details a bit lower and less fragile; also don’t create a lot of sharp points that can poke holes in your sealed bag. An intricate, beautiful cookie is art that is meant to be eaten, so design it to arrive intact to the person who will eat it.
JMU: Though your CookieCon focus was on these dimensional techniques, there’s no doubt you’re incredibly versatile. Is there any technique you haven’t yet tried that you’re dying to do? Do you, perchance, have a cookie Achilles’ heel, and if so, what, if any, plans do you have to turn that weakness into a strength?
DL: I have never done marbled dipped cookies or crackled cookies, but I guess if I were dying to do them, I would have done them already. I like what I like and tend to avoid the fads (except woodgrain . . . I’m still not over it). I am loving all the tiny piped tulips and flower bouquets I’ve been seeing lately, so I am going to have to work some of those into my upcoming wedding sets. As far as a cookie weakness goes, I’d say I make everything more complicated than it needs to be. I’m in awe of the cookiers, like Melissa Joy and Jill Wettstein, who make clean and simple designs that are beautiful in their simplicity. And I love the free-spirited “hot mess” style of Katy Metoyer. That is just not the way my brain works, but I wish it did. I am actively trying to simplify my designs in larger sets, to increase my profits and save my sanity.
JMU: Smart of you - design simplification (and diversification into simpler, more mass-produced product lines) was ultimately how I made my bakery business profitable. But, as you've rightly pointed out a few times, it's not easy making money in labor-intensive custom-designed cookies, and just that!
Let’s talk about your CookieCon teaching experience a bit. I know the teaching days there are pretty intense for instructors . . . you have to teach something like six or seven one-hour classes nearly back to back, right? How did you prepare for that pace? Did you design your curriculum in a certain way to allow for this rapid turnaround, or employ other tactics?
DL: It was a crazy day! All the instructors taught eight 45-minute classes, every hour on the hour, with a one-hour lunch break. I would usually run overtime by a couple of minutes, and then people wanted to ask questions or talk to me while I was cleaning my station and getting set up for the next class, so there really wasn’t a break for me between classes. I literally ran to the bathroom a few times as people were being seated for the next class.
I had never taught a class alone, and I’m certainly not used to talking in front of so many people. I knew the key for me was preparation. I’m a person who needs to wrap my mind completely around a situation and prepare for every possible problem, so I definitely designed the class as a race against the clock. During class, I had the clock running on my iPad and kept a close eye on it, knowing how long each part of my presentation should take. I really worried about talking while demonstrating, because that’s not something I usually do, so a few days before I left, I made my 15-year-old son watch me pipe a face while I talked him through it, and then he made me pipe three more, asking me questions all the while. I piped at least 20 faces to practice for the class, and then timed myself painting them. I even painted the ones that didn’t come out as well as I liked, just to give myself practice fixing problems on the fly (see photo, below). I think all the weeks of planning and preparation really paid off, because my feedback from the class was good, and apparently I didn’t appear nervous, which is hilarious to me because I was terrified.
JMU: LOL! It sure sounds like you left no stone unturned in your course prep! And, phew! I'm exhausted just hearing about the teaching pace! But I'm sure the students profited from your investment in planning!
What were the three biggest lessons you learned from teaching at CookieCon that you intend to bring with you into other teaching experiences, or into life in general?
DL: Firstly, I won’t be as nervous next time, but I will be as well prepared. Preparation was really the key for me, and being overprepared was the only thing that gave me confidence to get up in front of a large group and teach. I’m not a person who is confident in who I am, but I am confident in what I know. So if I know my topic inside and out, I’m good to go. Secondly, I realized that a lot of people like to learn by doing. In my CookieCon classes, there were 60 to 80 students per class, so there was no opportunity for people to try what they learned or to ask questions - it was designed as a lecture. But the day after my class, in the open decorating room, I ended up working for hours with people one-on-one, and I really enjoyed that part. I loved answering questions as people were working, and watching them overcome the stumbling blocks. I think I would like to teach more classes that focus on helping students create the cookies I’m teaching. Lastly, I learned that I should teach something I’m comfortable doing. One of the cookies I demonstrated in class was my Christmas elves, which I have made hundreds of times. I picked the elf as the first demonstration because it was easy for me; therefore, I was confident making it in front of an audience and explaining my process.
JMU: Great pointers! Did the CookieCon experience give you reason to expand your teaching now that you’re back at home? Do you have plans to do more in-person or online classes, or instructional videos? Why or why not?
DL: I did buy myself a professional stand and a better phone to take instructional videos, but I don’t have any immediate teaching plans. I’m planning to teach at Katy Metoyer’s new SugarDayne shop in Hermosa Beach, California, within the next year, and I’m certainly more open to teaching opportunities that come my way. I’d love to teach at a cake show and get to meet the many online cake friends I have. But for now I have a LOT of cookies to make this spring, interspersed with many baseball games and track meets, and my oldest son’s high school graduation, so my focus will be close to home until the fall.
JMU: So, on the subject of homes . . . As I mentioned earlier, my home-away-from-home is in Maine, and I absolutely love it, though I don't do any cookie work there. Do you find there’s any uniqueness to the cookie culture in Maine? For example, is there a higher than usual demand for certain flavors or styles of decorated cookies? Is there a limit to what Mainers are willing to pay for a custom-designed art cookie? What, in your opinion, accounts for any differences you’ve observed between Maine and other parts of the USA?
DL: I love Maine, too! There aren’t a lot of cookiers here in Maine, compared to states like Texas and California, so it’s difficult for me to speak to the cookie culture here. For years, it was just me in my area, but now there are several nearby. I offer vanilla and chocolate cookies, and I am known for making them very thick and delicious. I have always used my own recipe, tweaked over the years, and it’s more like a cakey shortbread than the sugar cookies everyone else makes. I like having a unique product.
I think there is a smaller demand for cookies in Maine than in other parts of the country. It’s still catching on as a “thing” here. Maine is not a wealthy state, and my cookies are not cheap, but I have lots of buyers who are looking for delicious, high quality cookies for special events, and they are willing to pay five to ten dollars (each) for my cookies. Not all of my cookies have to be complicated (I love the simplicity of the Maine cookies, pictured above), but they have to be delicious. I also don’t feel bad charging what I think my cookies are worth. If I’m going to work all day on a set of cookies, they need to be priced to cover my costs and represent a full day’s work.
Mainers are planners. If they order ahead of time, they don’t mind paying for a beautiful set of cookies for their event, and I think a lot of Mainers have an appreciation for handmade things. But if you surprise a Mainer at a bake sale with a five-dollar price tag on a cookie, they will buy a coffee and a donut instead and save a “dollah.” Decorated cookies at Maine auctions, bake sales, or craft fairs never sell well for me, because people haven’t planned for that extravagance. I think the culture of keeping up with the Joneses is much less prevalent in Maine than it was in the areas I lived in Massachusetts and Connecticut, so people aren’t buying cookies here because it’s the thing to do. At least not yet.
JMU: Interesting, once again! And, lastly, my usual parting question . . . What’s next for Dany Lind in cookie decorating? What’s your stretch goal or aspiration in the cookie world?
DL: I am trying to make more money at this cookie thing this year. That means I’m taking more orders, simplifying my designs (wish me luck!), raising my prices, trying to waste less time, and buying less. That’s the plan, anyway. And over the next few years, I’d like to teach more. I’ve even thought about starting a blog, because I do miss writing. My immediate goals are not at all focused on learning harder, more complicated cookie techniques . . . it’s just the opposite, really. I’m sure I will keep learning and trying new things, but I’m not going to try to outdo myself with every new cookie set. I went through a stage of feeling like I needed to do that, and now I’m over it. I could make myself crazy doing that. I’m not stressed out about growing my Facebook page or impressing anyone anymore. I’m just making cookies, and raising my boys, and I’m happy to be able to do all this in a beautiful place . . . and if anyone is interested in this journey of mine and in the things I create, that’s like icing on the cookie.
JMU: Well, I certainly admire and applaud your balanced view. Simplifying and de-stressing about my cookie work are things I struggle with on a regular basis. I need some one-on-one lessons on cookie inner peace from you! Thank you so much for spending time with us here today, and for such candid, thorough, and well written answers (yes, a blog would suit you perfectly)! I wish you all the best in attaining your cookie goals, and hope to meet you in Maine or at a cookie event very soon!
To learn more about Dany, please visit her Facebook page, Cookie Connection profile, or the transcript from her recent live chat with us. You can also find her on Instagram @danyscakesbydanylind.
All cookie and photo credits: Dany's Cakes by Dany Lind
Past Cookier Close-ups and chats with other CookieCon 2017 instructors:
1) Angela Niño, The Painted Box: chat
2) Lisa Snyder, The Bearfoot Baker: Close-up; chat
3) Rebecca Weld, The Cookie Architect: Close-up; chat
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!