In this fourth edition of special Cookier Close-ups focused on Cookie’sCool instructors, we visit with Jacinda (aka Jaci) Baynes Harper of Ali’s Sweet Tooth, a cookier widely known for her romantic shabby chic style and predilection for all things gilded. (BTW, that's Jaci, pronounced Jay-cee, not Jack-ee! )
Jaci was also the brainchild behind Cookie Connection (read that story here under "Special Thanks"). For that reason alone, she holds an extra special place among my cookie friends.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Since the writing of this interview, it has come to my attention that Jaci will no longer be attending Cookie'sCool. But she's such a wonderful and influential cookier that I just had to post this interview - with her permission, of course.]
JMU: Hi, Jaci! It’s so great to have you with us again today. You recently did a live chat on Cookie Connection (thanks!), so I’m going to try to extend my questions beyond those already explored there.
I’ve seen some people mistakenly refer to you as Ali – understandably though, as “Ali” is in your business name. I know Ali is your granddaughter, but can you tell me what inspired you to name your business after her – apart from her obvious cuteness, that is?! Also, how long have you been in business as Ali’s Sweet Tooth?
JBH: Hello, Julia, and thank you for having me back. Ali is my first grandchild. On the verge of her turning one, I wanted her birthday to be something special and decided to have a dessert table. I have a long history of crafting, and thought I would make everything, including cookies. She inspired me to bake, so it seemed fitting to name my business after her. I love cookie decorating to this day, so I think it was a good choice, and her cuteness certainly swayed me. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Ali turned one in March 2012, so that makes Jaci's business a touch over two years old.]
JMU: I also know you manage a large (200-person strong!) Facebook-based cookie group and are teaching at Cookie’sCool in November, but what is the full scope of your cookie business? For instance, do you sell your cookies, or make them strictly for instructional purposes? Do you teach local cookie decorating classes in your hometown of Tenino, Washington, USA, or via video or any other platform?
JBH: I did sell at one time and really enjoyed it, but found it was a full-time job that was hard to manage with children still at home. Now I focus on my Facebook group, donating cookies whenever I can, and doing tutorials.
When I first discovered cookies, I realized sharing and helping others was one of my favorite aspects of baking, so I do so as often as possible. I like to share tips, tricks, and tutorials on my Facebook page and blog, www.alissweettooth.com.
I have also done some teaching and truly enjoyed it, but do not offer classes at this time. Classes are actually next on my list. The space is almost ready, and we will be focusing on it more when I return from Italy.
JMU: Wow, congrats! I had no idea you were building out a space for teaching classes.
So . . . roughly how many cookies do you bake/decorate each week? Do you produce them out of your home or another establishment? Why have you chosen this mode of operation?
JBH: Currently I am not selling, but when I was, I would do up to 400 cookies per week. It sounds hectic, but you find what works for you, and it's an assembly-line style of decorating. I was also blessed to have a separate space, which really helped. Having everything you need in one area is a huge time saver. A lot of the tips and tricks that I picked up and have shared along the way were a result of decorating so many cookies in a short amount of time.
I also think being a working mother teaches you how to make the most of each day. This proved helpful with cookies. Being efficient without sacrificing quality is important, and that was how my mode of operation came about.
JMU: What have been the three biggest challenges associated with starting your cookie business? How have you overcome them – or have you?!
JBH: The biggest issues were time, family, and my priorities at the time. I would find myself decorating at all hours and that took a lot of the joy out of baking. When my children are a little older, I plan to sell again.
JMU: As I mentioned in the intro to this interview, you’re perhaps best known for your shabby chic style. What makes a cookie “shabby chic” to you? Are there certain techniques or colors that you most often apply to get this look? And, if so, what are your tips for executing those techniques as perfectly as you do?
JBH: I have a love of all things vintage. I collect tea cups and linens, and many things I inherited from my grandmothers. I have always loved the look of a pretty pink flower, or the gilded edge of a tea cup. In fact, my first cookies were based on that very look, and I still use the same styles today.
I think the possibilities for shabby chic cookies are endless. A simple ribbon rose or a hint of gold gives off that soft look. Or aging a cookie with a little petal dust or even cocoa powder. And I don't think certain colors are an issue, really. I tend to lean toward pink and green, but if you look at vintage greeting cards, all colors of the rainbow are used. I think you can add a shabby chic style to almost any cookie, and like the many styles of tea cups, there's no end to what you can create with some flowers, a little gold, and imagination. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Case in point - even hot air balloons can be shabby chic!]
JMU: I’ve seen you experimenting with a variety of techniques lately, like the handpainting on your vintage spring animals cookies, below. Your shabby chic style is so distinctive and versatile – I imagine there are countless cookies you could make with just that approach. So, why are you now playing with other techniques? Is this purposeful playing, part of some grand cookie plan, or just a random foray for you?
JBH: This is pretty simple really; I love to learn, try new things, and be different. The endless styles and options for cookies are why I came to love decorating. You challenge yourself with each set and get to be creative, which is my favorite part.
JMU: On that note, what was the most challenging cookie or cookie set that you’ve ever done, and why? Can you give our readers a one- or two-paragraph tutorial about how you decorated that cookie (those cookies)?
JBH: Those would have to be the vintage greeting card bird cookies, above. I am not a fan of character cookies or the Kopykake projector (aka KK), so I am not very good at it due to lack of practice. With this set, I wanted to see what I could create without a KK as an option. I found a website that offered free vintage photos and printed them in the size that would fit my cookie. They were about 3 to 5 inches each. I placed food-safe acetate over the photo and traced with an edible marker. Parchment paper will work also. Once I had my cutout, I "glued" it down to the already flooded cookie with a touch of icing. [EDITOR'S NOTE: See Jaci's handy pictorial of this process, below.]
At this point, you can airbrush or use a canned luster spray over the cookie. Once the acetate is removed, your guideline is left behind. If you look close enough at my bird cookies, you can see that each is slightly different. I chose to freehand at this point, but if you want more detail, you can trim down your cutout image and trace with an edible marker or "scratch" in the details with a scribe tool. If you want to add a stencil pattern in the background, you would airbrush that first and trace your acetate cutout afterwards. Keep in mind that the edible marker is covered when you outline and flood your design.
Once the base is dry, add your details. I chose to do some in icing, which can give a look of real fur by dabbing it on. And I chose to do a lot of the little details with food coloring “paint” and fine-tipped edible markers. Since I did these freehand, it was a bit of a challenge to make them look like the actual photo. For some details, like the eyes, I poked a hole through the acetate so I would know where to paint them.
At this point, you can add flowers, little birds, or pretty trim, and finish them with a touch of gold. Again, your imagination comes in handy with styles like these. There really is no wrong way to accent them. Or keep them simple and a little more elegant.
So those cookies would have to be my toughest set to date, but I would still like to try them again and maybe use that Kopykake that I need to figure out!
JMU: On the subject of tutorials: I’ve seen a couple of great video tutorials from you with really clever cookie decorating tips, like the one about how to eliminate air bubbles in icing by vibrating it! (Everyone, check it out here!) Or this one (below) about using a turntable to speed up the process of flooding lots of cookies.
What is the single most important tip that you would like to share with beginning cookie decorators?
JBH: Perfect your recipes. I have found that where you live and the humidity can wreak havoc on your icing and cookie recipes. Keep trying until you find what works best for you and your area.
JMU: Same question for more advanced decorators: what’s the single most important tip you have for them?
JBH: Focus on your cookies. Never compare yourself to others or forget why you loved baking in the first place.
JMU: Great advice, particularly that last point. I think it's all too easy to get competitive, which can quickly sap the joy out of creating.
BTW, you’re a super teacher in those videos – very clear and concise. Do you have any intentions of expanding your teaching through video tutorials? Why or why not?
JBH: The funny thing about those videos is that they were never meant to be public. I was sharing and helping some friends. They did well, and I ended up with a few YouTube followers. I would like to do more video tutorials, but have them a little more professionally done. Like I said earlier, sharing is one of my favorite aspects of cookies.
JMU: Now, about that Facebook cookie group that you manage . . . you call it For the Love of Cookies, which I’ve also heard affectionately referred to as FLOC. How does it differ from public communities like Cookie Connection or other Facebook cookie groups? What was your goal in starting it? Can anyone join?
JBH: When Facebook changed its form and feed, several of us were lost, so groups were formed. My intention for FLOC was to have a place to meet others who love what we do. We support each other, and share ideas, cookies, tutorials, pages, and local sellers. We have also had challenges, cookie swaps, and donations that have helped those in need. And we have met other cookiers who will be friends for life. FLOC became a cookie family of which I am proud to be a part.
It is closed at this time. I found that the more members you have, the harder it is to follow, but I do know there are several groups with this same concept that are open to new members. I've heard wonderful things about Shop Bakers Nook. [EDITOR'S NOTE: The Shop Bakers Nook cookie making group now appears to be closed, but The Shop Bakers Nook baking advice group is open.]
JMU: For those who might be interested in starting their own online cookie groups, what can you tell them about what it takes to manage a group like FLOC? How many hours do you spend on it each week? Doing what – i.e., organizing Facebook-sharing, updating member information, etc.?
JBH: It really depends on what you want from your group. My attitude has always been: my members are all adults and can post as they wish. This won't work for every group. If you want your group to be about cookie cutters only, for instance, you need to make that clear. I would also suggest adding an admin to help if you are concerned with the content posted. It helps to have an extra hand.
There are several things you can do within groups. There are cookie challenges, sharing pages, sending each other cookies, and my favorite: donations. If anyone reads this and would like any help with setting up a group, please feel free to contact me.
JMU: Though we became fast friends through your Facebook group and you actually live very close to my sister in the Seattle area, we’ve never met! I cannot wait to see you in person in November at Cookie’sCool! On that subject . . . will Cookie’sCool be your first teaching experience outside of the US? How are you preparing for teaching so far away from home?
JBH: I agree and am so looking forward to meeting you! This will be my first experience teaching in another country. The vintage bird cookies were designed for that purpose. I wanted to show how to create detailed or matching cookies without all of the extra toys we have at home. They were my trial run, and I am happy to say I think they turned out well and will not require much more than cookies and icing to teach.
And on a funny note, I have decorated cookies in my RV with very limited tools, and they made your Saturday Spotlight. [EDITOR'S NOTE: For our international members, RV is shorthand in English for "recreational vehicle".] So that would be my main goal: seeing what I can share without all the gadgets, but still creating something beautiful and unique.
[EDITOR'S NOTE, AGAIN: For a peek at those RV cookies, just look directly below. Jaci made store-bought Keebler cookies look pretty grand, didn't she?!]
JMU: Besides the birds, what other projects are you planning to teach there, and how did you go about selecting those projects?
JBH: I chose each project based on how they were received by people on Cookie Connection and Facebook. I liked my spring set because there are so many techniques you can share. Other projects include: My 3-D snowflake and snowmen, and snow globes, which were inspired by you. My vintage greeting card cookies, which are much easier than you would think. And my vintage hot air balloon cookies, because they show that you can “shabby-chic” any cookie.
JMU: And, last but not least, my favorite question for all of my interview “subjects” . . . After Cookie’sCool, what’s next on the horizon for Ali’s Sweet Tooth? What one thing would you most like to accomplish in the cookie world?
JBH: I would really love to teach. I know I said it several times, but I have found sharing and teaching to be one of my favorite aspects of cookies and would love the chance to try it hands-on.
Thank you so much for this interview, Julia. I look forward to meeting you soon and in one of the most beautiful places in the world!
[EDITOR'S POSTSCRIPT: It now looks like I won't get to meet Jaci as soon as I thought - but perhaps on my next visit to Seattle when I visit my sis?! Here's hoping!]
All cookies designed, crafted, and photographed by Jacinda Baynes Harper.
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!