Say hello to Stefania Onano of Sweets_by_me in Cagliari, Italy, another of our recent and talented Practice Bakes Perfect Challenge #13 honorees! In recognition of her winning March entry, pictured below, Stefania’s rose cookies are featured in our site’s banner and backdrop through the end of this month. So striking, aren’t they?!
Just as I agonized over the prospect of conducting our last site artist's Close-up in Danish, I started sweating bullets as soon as I learned that Stefania was from Italy. (You’d be nervous too if “tiramisu” and “ciao” were the extent of your Italian vocabulary!) But, as luck would have it, Stefania is a student of modern language at the University of Cagliari, which means she speaks and writes English fluently. Phew, emergency Rosetta Stone class averted - yet again! I’m now ready (and able ) to begin this interview!
JMU: Hi, Stefania! It’s wonderful to have you here with us today. Though we exchanged a brief planning email before this interview, all I really know about you is what I gleaned from your member profile about your university studies, and that you’re a relative newcomer to cookie decorating. So I’m excited to learn a lot more today!
Let’s start at the beginning - of your cookie life, that is! When did you decorate your first cookie? What or who turned you onto cookie decorating? And what is it about cookie decorating that got you hooked, assuming you are hooked like the rest of us here?
Cookie decorating helps me relax and take my mind off things, which is what initially got me hooked. In addition, we can, potentially, express everything we want on a decorated cookie. Furthermore, ever since I was a child, I have loved doing things like painting, and working with clay or salt dough, so cookie decorating was a natural fit.
JMU: Well, I'm very glad you joined the ranks of addicted cookie decorators! Thanks for that background.
You seem to use a broad range of techniques in your cookies. In the images you sent me for this post, I see everything from marbling and wafer paper to handpainting and intricate piping. That’s certainly an impressive repertoire for a beginner. Do you have a favorite technique, and, if so, why is it your favorite?
SO: I have used different techniques on my cookies, because I like to put myself to the test and get out of my comfort zone. I don't know if this approach is really the right thing to do. Maybe in order to improve more quickly, I should focus more on one technique before moving ahead. I have little experience, and I haven't found my favorite technique yet. But when I see someone else's cookies, I am most often fascinated by intricate piping and handpainting. A lot of artists on Cookie Connection paint magnificently! I'm nowhere near as good as they are. I have so much to learn!
JMU: We all have a lot to learn, no matter how much experience we have. But that's part of the fun of cookie decorating, right? That said, I remain super impressed with what you've accomplished since late 2013.
How did you go about learning all of these various techniques so fast? What resources did you find most useful, and which would you recommend to others who are just getting started with decorating?
SO: As I mentioned before, the internet was absolutely critical for me: first, to get me acquainted with decorated cookies, which, until Christmas 2013, were totally unknown to me; and, second, to help me gain knowledge about royal icing consistencies, food coloring, and various icing techniques. I find that personal blogs are very useful. Since I speak Spanish, I discovered Con Azúcar y Algodón and Dolce Sentire, and found their blogs helpful. They, like many other big artists, are always generous with suggestions and tricks. Another resource that I recommend is video tutorials. I've learned so many things on YouTube, watching your videos and the ones of SweetAmbs. Anyway, these are only two of many other useful resources, like books, or in-person or online classes.
JMU: So, I know you’re studying modern languages, but what does that mean exactly? What languages are you learning? How far along are you in your studies? Are you a full-time student, and, if so, how and when do you do your cookie decorating?
SO: First of all, "modern language" means any language that is currently in use. This term is used to distinguish between languages that are used in everyday communication (such as Italian, English, French, and German) and dead classical languages like Latin or Sanskrit, which are primarily studied for their cultural or linguistic value and not to be spoken. I’m learning English and Spanish, and I’m a full-time student at the University of Cagliari. I have been living in Cagliari since 2008, but I’m from Belvì, a little village in the center of Sardinia. I’ve already earned a bachelor’s degree. Now I’m in the master’s degree course, and writing my thesis. Since I’ve already finished my exams, I have enough time to do my cookie decorating, although I usually do it after dinner.
JMU: Do you decorate cookies for personal enjoyment, to sell to others, for teaching purposes, or any or all of the aforementioned?
SO: I decorate cookies for personal enjoyment. In Italy, it isn’t so simple to start a business, in particular a home-based business. So I enjoy preparing cookies for friends. With regard to teaching, I feel that I’m still learning, and I’ve got a lot to learn. I’m not yet mature enough, professionally, to teach other people cookie decorating.
JMU: Can you describe a typical week in the life of Stefania Onano? That is, roughly what portion of your time, on average, is spent on language studies, cookie decorating, and/or other work or personal activities?
SO: Well, as I was saying before, I’ve finished my university exams (yeah!), so I don't have to attend classes any more. Consequently, I’ve got much more free time to dedicate to my personal activities. I spend the vast majority of time on my thesis. But when I'm not studying, I’m doing housework or trying a new recipe in the kitchen, because I also love baking cakes and cooking, of course. Three times a week, I go running with my boyfriend or do some home fitness (I need to burn calories, trust me!). Usually, I do cookie decorating in the evening, after dinner, although not every day. But, on the weekend, I can spend more time on it, so I sometimes start earlier on those days. Since I am an off-site student, I often go home to Belvì on the weekends to visit my parents. Cagliari is such a lively place, but Belvì is so quiet and relaxing. I love going hiking there. However, I have to be honest, I often bring everything for making cookies with me. You know, it's an addiction!
JMU: I see from your work that you do a lot of people cookies, and you do them quite well. But getting the human form looking proportionally correct has got to be one of the hardest things to do in cookie decorating! Why have you gravitated toward such a difficult type of cookie, especially when just starting out? What tips can you give to others for conquering their fears of people cookies?
SO: Well, my people cookies are nowhere near as proportional as they could be, but you must know what is said about Sardinian people: they are very obstinate. Yes, I'm a perfect Sardinian woman , so I try everything that comes to my mind without considering how difficult it could be. I didn't decide to gravitate toward this type of cookie; I'm actually quite impetuous. For example, for carnival, I decided that I wanted to represent two of the most popular Sardinian masks on a cookie (pictured above), and I tried them without thinking too much. I believe that, as difficult as something may seem, we should always try, because making mistakes is how we learn to make things right. This is the advice that I would give to others.
JMU: Great advice!
You also seem to do a fair number of cookies inspired by your home of Sardinia, like the woman in red (directly above) who appears to be in traditional garb (if I am not mistaken) and the Sardinian filigree jewelry displayed on Sardinian fabrics (below). Can you tell us more about the significance of the Sardinian costumes and jewelry that you’ve cookified? And can you also tell us more about your sources of cookie inspiration in general? To where or to whom/what do you typically look for inspiration?
SO: As you have already noticed, Sardinia is my most recurring inspiration. Maybe it is in our blood, but, in Sardinia, we are very proud of our traditions - probably because we live on an island. Regarding my cookies, the woman in red wears the traditional costume of Belvì. It isn't an ordinary dress . . . in fact, it is a wedding dress of the past, as might be deduced from the wedding veil that she is wearing. The story goes that the Spanish first introduced the use of the veil in Sardinia during their rule (circa 1479). Women also used to wear that dress on celebration days, in particular during religious feasts. Even today, many women keep the traditions alive by wearing this traditional costume on special days.
As for my jewelry cookies, I've represented a gold filigree button. These buttons were used on the traditional costumes, on the collars or the cuffs. Nowadays, they are used as charms, or in earrings or rings. They are quite popular in Sardinia.
Another source of inspiration is certainly Mother Nature, with her colors. And, of course, all of the artists on Cookie Connection are incredibly inspiring to me; I'd like to thank each one!
JMU: So, tell me more about Sardinia. I’ve only ever been to parts further north like Genoa and Sorrento. How does Sardinia differ, if at all, from other parts of your country? Is cookie decorating any more, or less, popular in Sardinia than in other parts of your country? If so, why do you think this is the case?
SO: Sardinia is one of the biggest islands in the Mediterranean Sea, and the Italian region with the largest coastal development. Many Sardinian beaches are nationally and internationally well known, and many have also managed to maintain their wild nature. But Sardinia isn't only about sea and beaches. In fact, it is mostly mountainous. Moreover, there are many historical and archaeological sites; the most famous are the Nuraghes, the most impressive megalithic monuments in Europe. The geographical isolation has allowed the development of indigenous plant and animal species, and as I was explaining before, has allowed us to maintain our ancient traditions and linguistic peculiarities.
With regard to cookie decorating, yes, I think it is less popular in Sardinia than in other parts of the country, but not because it isn't appreciated . . . maybe because it isn't widespread enough. Cookie decorating is relatively new in Italy, and in particular in Sardinia. Nevertheless, in our region, we have a great tradition of decorated sweets, especially almond pastries decorated with royal icing.
JMU: How, if at all, do you think cookie flavor, texture, and decorating preferences differ in Italy as compared to the United States or other parts of the world?
SO: In general, traditional Italian cookies are quite different than American cookies, even though American confectionery has been spreading across Italy in the last few years. Our traditional cookies are quite simple. They are usually made with flour, eggs, butter, lemon or orange zest, almonds, and sometimes other nuts, and they aren't meant to be decorated. I suppose that many Italian cookiers use the same recipes used by American cookiers when decorating with royal icing, because a smooth dough texture is fundamental to having a perfectly smooth baked cookie.
JMU: When it comes to Italian cookies, I immediately think of biscotti and amaretti. But are there other signature cookies that are more popular in Italy, or in your region? If so, what are they, and how would you describe them?
SO: I didn't understand what you meant by "biscotti", so I had to search the internet (LOL)! In Italy, "biscotti" stands for American "cookies", so it isn't used to refer to a particular type of cookie. I presume it is used by Americans to refer to a kind of cookie that we call cantucci, a typical Tuscan cookie made with almonds.
We have many types of cookies in Italy, such as krumiri, canestrelli, baci di dama, savoiardi, ricciarelli, and others. Even in Sardinia, we have different types of cookies. For example, we make a lot of amaretti, but what I really want to talk to you about today is another traditional cookie - pabassinos! The name originates from the Sardinian "pabassa", which are raisins. In Belvì, these cookies are made mainly with raisins (naturally!) and nuts. They have a rhombus shape and are decorated simply with royal icing and sprinkles. They were traditionally baked for All Saints' Day or Easter.
JMU: Wow, those pabassinos (and all of the other cookies, for that matter) sound delish! And I never knew that what we call "biscotti" are not "biscotti" to you! Leave it to a modern language student to decipher cookie etymology!
More questions about your region . . . From my culinary school days, I recall that Sardinia is a large exporter of pecorino cheese, and that honey, saffron, and myrtle often factor into the local cooking. Do these ingredients, or any other local products, appear regularly in Sardinian desserts or cookies? If so, how are they used?
SO: Well, as I've already mentioned, nuts (both almonds and walnuts) regularly appear in Sardinian desserts and cookies. And you remember well! Honey, myrtle, and saffron are typical ingredients in our cooking. With respect to myrtle, I personally don't know any dessert with it, but we use the berries to make a liqueur. Saffron and honey are widely used, however. With saffron, we make a traditional Easter dessert called pardulas, which are made with ricotta cheese flavored with saffron. When I think about honey, caschettes, a traditional dessert that hails from my village, come to mind. Caschettes are made of phyllo dough filled with chestnut honey and nuts, and flavored with orange. They are not only delicious, but also incredibly beautiful and delicate. I'd suggest you search for a photo on the internet!
JMU: Done! Here's a cool video that shows caschettes being made:
Now, let’s change the topic and talk a bit about your Cookie Connection winning site banner and backdrop, which you, ironically, entitled “Timid Spring.” I say “ironically”, because the color choice is quite vivid and un-timid, if you ask me! I love your striking color choice and overall composition. Tell us what thoughts went through your mind as you were designing your entry. What were the biggest challenges you encountered when executing your design, and how did you overcome them so splendidly?
SO: I actually didn't mean to be ironic, but I wasn't thinking only about the colors when I chose the title. I entitled it "Timid Spring" for two main reasons: the first is because March is the first month of spring, but it usually has cold weather, more similar to winter, at least here in Italy. The second reason is that, while my rosettes are quite shimmering, they are more discreet than other typical spring flowers, like primroses, violets, hyacinths, and iris.
The most challenging thing was undoubtedly the roses. This was my first time with a petal tip, but I learned quickly, thanks to YouTube tutorials. (Although I want to improve my technique; my roses weren't perfect at all.)
JMU: You are too hard on yourself; they look pretty darn perfect to me!
What’s next for you in cookie decorating? What are your cookie aspirations for 2016 and beyond?
SO: Well, the thing I want most is to improve my skills, so I promise to keep on training in 2016. I also hope to attend at least one cookie decorating class this year!
JMU: Great goals! I wish you well with them!
And lastly, my new set of parting questions that I’ve recently started to ask all of my interviewees: What do you love most about cookie decorating? And, what, if anything, would you change about cookie decorating if you could?
SO: There are several things that I love about cookie decorating . . . for example, the sensation you feel when seeing your cookies finished after hours of work, or the fact that you can, potentially, represent anything on a cookie. This is incredible! Hmm . . . what would I change? Perhaps I would forever eliminate things like craters, air bubbles, and so on.
JMU: Well, I won't argue with that! Thanks for such a delightful and completely interesting interview! How cool to have had a guided tour of Sardinia without ever getting on a plane!
All cookies and photos by Stefania Onano.
Interested in learning more about Stefania? Please check out her profile and portfolio right here on Cookie Connection - and, of course, her Facebook page too!
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!