Hello, I’m back with the next interview in our ongoing Cookie’sCool instructor series – Francesca Belfiore of Dolcimaterieprime! An architect who “likes to turn everything into sweets,” Francesca often works in mixed media – royal icing, wafer paper, modeling chocolate, you name it – choosing the medium that works best for what she’s trying to create. You probably know her distinctive murrina millefiori patterns done with modeling chocolate, as they’ve been gracing our site from almost the beginning. But if you don’t, no worries – you’re about to be introduced to them and some of Francesca’s many other cookie delights!
JMU: Hi! It’s so nice to have you back! I feel like we barely scratched the surface with you in our recent live chat. (Where did the time go?!) But that’s okay; it just means I have more questions for you now!
So, I understand that you’re trained as an architect and that you’ve temporarily “retired” to stay at home to raise your young family. I also know that you make wonderful cookies – not for sale, just for teaching purposes. But can you tell me a little bit more about why you started cookie decorating and when?
FB: Hi, Julia. I'm thrilled to be here again! It's true, the time flew during the chat!
Well, I made my first decorated cookies in 2010 for the occasion of a friend's birthday, just to make a nice thing for her. I remember I had a lot of problems with a disobedient royal icing . . . LOL.
JMU: Do you think you have a distinctive cookie style? (I think you do, but I’m interested to hear how you might describe it. ) Did you set out to cultivate that (or any) particular style, or did your style just come to you naturally?
FB: I think that the only style I have is something that you can call "changing", because I continuously modify my way of working. I don't cultivate any style, and I let the inspiration guide my "no style".
JMU: Boy, I envy your ability to be so dynamic; I more often find myself in cookie ruts . . . How did you go about learning to decorate cookies? Did you rely solely on blogs (like Sweetopia and those of some of the other cookie artists you mentioned in your chat)? Or did you take classes, or do other things?
FB: Until last year, I learned by myself, solely on blogs and sites; then in 2013, I attended my first and only course of cookie decoration with Donatella Semalo. That course was only about cookies decorated with royal icing.
JMU: Why did you make the decision not to sell cookies and only to teach about them? Do you think you will ever sell your cookies? Why or why not?
FB: In Italy, to sell cookies, you must have a pastry shop; we can't do it at home. I like teaching very much and I also like to do cookies . . . maybe one day I'll try to work in a pastry shop!
JMU: How often and where do you teach cookie decorating? And what is the typical structure/format of these classes? (Hands-on or demo? Project- or technique-driven? Number of students?)
FB: Not very often, maybe twice a month. I teach at events, I have taught in a cooking school, and I do private lessons. The classes are always hands-on, and they can be both project-driven or technique-driven, it depends. The number is from 4 up to 12 students.
JMU: For those readers interested in getting into teaching, can you describe the most important steps needed to organize a successful cookie decorating class?
FB: It could sound strange, but the most important thing I try to give is fun . . . People don't come to a decorating class only to learn; they come to also have fun. It is a special moment they offer to themselves, one in which wellness is very important. The second thing I do is tell everything about my work, without keeping any secret to myself.
JMU: No, having fun doesn't sound strange at all. I think it's very important to a good class too!
Now, no interview would be complete without some cookie technique questions! And boy, do I have some for you. I was really impressed with your wafer paper shell cookies that you posted to the site a few weeks ago. I know you play with lots of decorating media, so let’s talk about why you chose wafer paper and not modeling chocolate (one of your fortes), for instance, for that shell?
FB: I fell in love with wafer paper in April of this year, and while waiting to attend a course with Lucia Simeone in June (she is the queen of wafer paper in Italy), I started to do some experiments by myself, working with wafer paper and royal icing together. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Lucia Simeone will also be appearing at Cookie'sCool!] I offered these elements in a plate at my daughter's birthday, and they disappeared in few minutes, because the mix of wafer paper and royal icing is nice and has a good taste too! I also used them to decorate a Disney Frozen-themed cake. So in that moment, I decided that my personal wafer paper use would embrace royal icing . . . that's why the shells are in wafer paper, placed in royal icing. All of that cookie set is done with royal icing and wafer paper. [EDITOR'S NOTE: See some of the rest of this set, below.] I love modeling chocolate, but the lightness of wafer paper is irreplaceable!
JMU: Wafer paper can be a tricky medium with which to work, as water is both its friend and foe. You need enough to make the paper sufficiently pliable to bend, but too much water can be disastrous! (Envision shriveled, dissolved wafer paper. Not pretty!) That said, how on earth did you control the paper (to the extent that you clearly did) to make that shell so lifelike and uniform?
FB: Yes, it's true, water should always be well-dosed. In this case, I used very little water to create the structure of the shell. I held it not with my fingers, but with instruments, because if it is humid, the paper sticks to your hands and tears. After this, I used more water on the contours of the shell opening, to make it look natural.
JMU: You mentioned in your recent chat that you teach a lot of classes about your signature marbling technique with modeling chocolate - example, above. What, if anything, is unique about your modeling chocolate and how you work with it? Can you briefly describe the steps involved in marbling it?
FB: Well, I created a special recipe that I call chocolate paste, something like a mix between fondant and modeling chocolate. At the moment, I do everything with it, and it's perfect for making flowers. I used to marble Fimo (polymer clay) to create necklaces, so I carried this technique into chocolate.
JMU: Modeling chocolate made with white chocolate can be temperamental in that it sometimes breaks, especially if it gets too hot or over-mixed? Do you have any special tips for avoiding this issue, or handling white modeling chocolate in general?
FB: Yes, what you say is so true . . . a degree over is enough to destroy the right structure of modeling chocolate. The chocolate needs to be melted at a low temperature and not for a long time. I use the traditional method of melting chocolate with a bain-marie, but to avoid too much heat, I remove the hot water from the heat before I put the pot that contains the chocolate on top of it.
JMU: Back to teaching questions! I finally get to meet you at Cookie’sCool! Yay! How, if at all, do you think this teaching experience will be different than your typical classes? How are you preparing for it?
FB: Yes, surely this experience will be very different for me. This is a very important event, with the best cookie decorators in the world, and it makes me feel a great emotion. I'm thrilled to have the possibility to meet you and the other famous teachers at this event! I'm planning my little exposition, trying to make it something special.
JMU: What classes will you be teaching there?
FB: I will teach the kids' classes! Children from the ages of 6 to 14 will make little boxes of cookies and edible necklaces in chocolate paste, as pictured above.
JMU: Ahh, I love those boxes. The kids will too!
So, you live in Genoa, the location of Cookie’sCool, right? What are the most important things that Cookie’sCool-goers must know about your fair city before they get there? And, are there any special bakeries or sweet shops that everyone must visit? (I’m planning ahead for my inevitable sugar fix! )
FB: Genoa is atypical, secret, enchanted . . . and when it opens itself to you, you can only fall in love. In a street near Cookie'sCool, there is a very particular pastry shop called Villa Profumo. I suggest you to visit it . . .
JMU: Ooh, I think I spotted it near Via Garibaldi during my trip to Genoa in May, but I was late for something (as usual) and didn't get a chance to stop in. I'll definitely indulge this time!
(Aside: That charming beach hut cookie, above, was Francesca's entry into Cookie Connection's very first decorating challenge. Perhaps it goes without saying, but I was enamored with it at first sight!)
Last but not least, I was thrilled to learn in our chat that you’re writing a book. Big congratulations! You mentioned that it’s going to contain designs for all seasons – and not just for cookies, but for cakes and cupcakes. Writing a book can be a huge undertaking, as I know from (sometimes painful) personal experience. Can you tell us a little bit more about the process of writing it, i.e., how you settled on the idea, whether you’re self-publishing or working with a traditional publisher, how long it’s going to take to complete, and anything else you think we should know about it? (Like where and when we can buy it?! )
FB: Well, I am trying to choose special, not common ideas for every season, so the most important thing I'm concentrating on is having good ideas. Friends and some followers of mine told me that I had to write a book . . . so I try. I will be self-publishing, and I hope to finish it in November. There will be a link on my blog to buy it - thank you!
JMU: Well, I'll be sure to keep an eye out for that link in November! It was truly a pleasure to learn more about you. Thank you. I look forward to picking up where we left off when we meet in Italy!
All cookies designed, crafted, and photographed by Francesca Belfiore.
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!
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