Wow – it’s been quite a while since our last Cookier Close-up (my bad!), but this one certainly won’t disappoint. Today, we’re talking with serial Practice Bakes Perfect Challenge entrant, January 2020 site artist, and a cookier who harks from a distant land. (I can’t wait to hear about cookie traditions where she lives!)
And who is this interesting cookier? Glad you asked! It’s none other than @Kanch J, better known as Kanchana Jayasundara in non-cookie circles. As you might recall from her January site artist intro, Kanch J grew up in Sri Lanka, but currently resides in Malé, the capital city of Maldives, an archipelago that lies southwest of India in the Arabian Sea. (If you need a geography lesson as I did, check out this world map here. ) Kanch J decorated her first cookies back in 2017, after making some for her son’s tenth birthday. And, while she is a graphic designer by training and loves art of all kinds, cookies have captured a special place in her heart. Since joining Cookie Connection in May 2018, she’s participated in nine Practice Bakes Perfect Challenges (all but one since Challenge #29) and contributed 29 entries (an average of 3.2 per challenge!), making her one of our most prolific and enthusiastic entrants. Many of her entries are wonderful, but “Monochrome Aquarium Puzzle”, “Tulip Field”, and “Love Is An Art That Comes From The Heart” are some of my favorites. In this interview, I look forward to learning more about Kanch J’s typical cookie week, cookie practices both in Maldives and Sri Lanka, and her future cookie dreams. I might also hit her up for some feedback on our challenges, since she has such vast experience with them.
So let’s get started, shall we?!
JMU: Hi, Kanchana (I think I’ll use your full name, because it’s so darn pretty – and unusual here in the US)! Thanks for waiting so patiently as I finally got around to writing your Close-up questions. And thank you again for so generously contributing your cookie photos to beautify our site back in January.
I understand you’re a cookie hobbyist, mostly serving your creations to family and friends. But, do you ever sell your cookies, and do you have any aspirations to sell more (or fewer) cookies in the future? Why or why not? Please explain.
KJ: Hello, Julia! Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity! It's an honor to be included in your Cookier Close-up series. Regarding my name - that's nice of you to say. It took me a long time to like it, actually. It means golden in Sanskrit.
I'm so excited; this is my very first time doing something like this.
I would love to sell my cookies, but I don’t have that opportunity. There are many reasons. First, the expensive holiday destination I live in (and my husband ) . . . In the Maldives everything is relatively expensive, especially quality baking ingredients, equipment, and name brands, e.g., Wilton, AmeriColor, etc. If want to maintain a good quality product, I don't think I can do so and be commercially viable here in Maldives (maybe I’m wrong). I don’t think the local market is yet ready to pay the price of decorated cookies, considering the time and effort that goes into them. And I don’t want to drop the quality of my cookies just to sell at a cheaper rate. Convincing my spouse that I should sell them is also not that easy. I will explain later.
The second reason is that I don't have much information about the laws and regulations surrounding the selling of homemade cookies/food in Maldives. I don’t even know even if it is legal to sell homemade food within the country, or the procedures to follow if it is. I need to do a little bit of research before starting a business.
The last reason is the time required to make cookies as a business. If I’m to sell cookies, I need to spend more hours with cookies than I do now to ensure a successful business. As of now, I’m on a bit of a tight schedule with my two boys. Hence, I’m thinking to wait until I get some free time to search for some business opportunities.
JMU: Well, that sounds like a reasonable approach, for sure. How did you go about learning cookie decorating in 2017, and how were you able to advance your skills so fast? What tools or resources did you most rely on, and why?
KJ: Actually, my baking started during my school days when I used to decorate cakes with my mom during my school holidays. As practice, I used to bake all of the birthday cakes for most of my family members. Hence, I had a little experience with basic icing techniques. As far as learning about cookie decorating, it all happened by accident. Making cookies was a completely new subject to me. One day I was searching for a royal icing recipe for one of my cakes on YouTube. Then I spotted your “How to Make Royal Icing (Plus, Coloring and Consistency Adjustments)" video. It was my first time ever to learn anything about decorated cookies. At that time, I hadn’t even seen or tasted a decorated cookie. Your video inspired me. Subsequently, I studied a lot about cookies from your other videos - thank you! I hope those videos help thousands of other cookie enthusiasts all around the world. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Aww, shucks! I am blushing. But, seriously, I'm thrilled to know that video turned you onto cookie decorating! ~JMU]
One of your videos was about gingerbread cookies, but I couldn’t try them, as I wasn’t able to get molasses here. So, I made basic sugar cookies as my first attempt - hand-cut fidget spinner cookies for my son’s tenth birthday. In retrospect, it was a very ordinary design with many errors. (Please see that first cookie attempt, photo directly below.)
From then on, I exploited each and every opportunity to make cookies. I experimented with many decorating techniques whenever I got a reason to make cookies. Failures always helped me to identify dos and don’ts. My enthusiasm and previous art knowledge helped me to understand colours and dimension. Since joining your wonderful Cookie Connection and participating in the Practice Bakes Perfect challenges, I have drastically elevated my cookie skills. Thanks again to you, Julia, and to Christine Donnelly for the educational challenges. Still, I use pretty basic equipment to decorate cookies, such as icing tips, piping bags, and paint brushes . . . but I do like to use tip-less bags rather than nozzles. They helped me with practicing straight lines, such as the string work I did for my Lambeth challenge entry (more on that entry in a bit).
JMU: What’s your typical cookie-week look like? How much time do you spend cookie decorating or doing cookie-related activities? How many cookies do you decorate in a typical week, and for what types of occasions?
KJ: For the moment, I don’t have a typical cookie-week. The time I spend on cookies all depends on the upcoming occasions for my family members or friends, such as birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, and other events. If I have a project, I work three to four hours per day depending on my schedule. Otherwise, I make cookies only to experiment or to practice a new technique. Sometimes I make them just to participate in the Practice Bakes Perfect challenges.
JMU: All that practice is undoubtedly what makes you such a great challenge participant! You’ve made such a wide range of cookies in our challenges, all quite well, but what’s been your favorite challenge and challenge entry, and why?
KJ: Thank you, Julia! I have couple of favorite challenges. But, out of all, I do like Practice Bakes Perfect Challenge #33 (the Lambeth Method Challenge) and my 3-D anniversary cookie-cake entry (pictured below) the best.
I had never heard about the Lambeth method before this challenge. It was a completely new technique to me. I searched all over and practiced different types of piping methods before making my entry. I read a lot about the Lambeth style, and wanted to include all of the patterns I learned in this project. I also wanted to try something 3-D so badly, as I had watched all of your amazing 3-D creations on YouTube. And then it was also my husband's and my wedding anniversary. So, this challenge presented an opportunity to achieve all of those things in one go.
JMU: And achieve them, you did! It is quite an impressive project. Which of our challenges proved most difficult for you, and why?
KJ: Actually, Practice Bakes Perfect Challenge #30 (the Crystal Clear Challenge) was the most difficult one for me. I couldn’t find isomalt or any other alternatives here in Maldives. Hence, I could not participate in the challenge. I tried various techniques with melted candy but wasn’t that successful.
JMU: As you know, @Sweet Prodigy (aka Christine Dutcher) just joined us as our new challenge host. What tips would you - a veteran challenge entrant - give her about constructing a “good” challenge? What factors make a challenge a “good” one for you? And what topics would you like to see covered in future challenges, and why?
KJ: As far as I know from Cookie Connection and other social media, Sweet Prodigy is an amazing cookie creator. I believe she will bring wonderful challenges to awaken our creativity, just as Bakerloo Station did. I would like to see new topics focused on improving cookie skills and techniques that most cookiers haven’t attempted before. I believe creativity is the most important factor when it comes to arts and crafts. If Christine can persuade participants to come up with more creations for each challenge, then they can realize their hidden talents and see cookie decorating from new angles. Some of the best challenges - ones that really pushed me creatively - were Lambeth Method, Monochrome, Crystal Clear, and 3-D Cookies.
I would like to see new topics such as sculptural painting (like some of the beautiful masterpieces done by Evelindecora and dimensional royal icing work (like the amazing line work cookies that Sweet Prodigy always does).
BTW, I’m so excited about Christine's first challenge!
JMU: I'm excited too! Thanks for that great input! Enough about our challenges! Let’s talk more about your personal cookie journey and experiences in Maldives and Sri Lanka. What moment, if any, has been your highest point (or greatest accomplishment) in your cookie decorating history, and why?
KJ: Since I have been living here in Maldives for about eight-plus years and the whole cookie thing started just three years ago, I have much less to say about this topic and Sri Lanka. In 2017, I started as an entirely new cookier. At the beginning, it was difficult. With much dedication and practice, I was able to overcome many failures. Now, my family and friends recognize my cookies by their decorations and taste, and they praise my work. So far, this recognition is the best achievement of my cookie journey. I’m happy about what people say about my cookies and delighted to see how they - especially my little ones - enjoy every bit of them. In addition, the other memorable achievements have been getting featured on Cookie Connection. Those features encourage me a lot.
JMU: So glad to hear that those features have had an impact on you! What’s been your most trying or challenging moment in your cookie decorating history, and how did you get overcome it?
KJ: Practice Bakes Perfect Challenge #35 (the Painting Challenge) was the most challenging moment in my cookie career so far. All obstacles could not stop my eagerness to paint on cookies. Both alcohol and alcohol-based products are prohibited here in Malé, and I couldn't find clear lemon extract either. I did many experiments and, in the end, I was able to submit many entries to the challenge. In one entry, I used glaze icing for the first time without corn syrup (again, I could not find it here). In another entry, I used vanilla extract to dilute the gel colourings. And, in another one, I just used gel food colouring, undiluted. I had to use a blow dryer to dry each layer, but, due to environmental effects, it started blurring. As of today, I consider this challenge to be my most trying, but successful, accomplishment. [EDITOR'S NOTE: See two of Kanch J's painted entries, directly above and below. ~JMU]
JMU: Is cookie decorating as popular in Maldives as it is now in the US? Is interest in it growing or waning, and what market or other factors lead you to say this?
KJ: I don’t think decorated cookies are a popular subject here like in the US. When I started cookie decorating about three years ago, I didn't notice anyone decorating cookies. Mostly, we have a coffee culture with plain cookies without any decorations.
But recently, I have observed a growing interest in cookie decorating. There are a few cake decorators who have started decorating cookies, but most of their cookie decorations are with fondant. I have also noticed on social media that some of these cake decorators have started basic-level cookie decorating classes. I have further noticed that many baking shops are focusing on selling various shapes of steel cookie cutters, rolling pins, baking pans, silicone mats, etc., suggesting that interest in cookies, both undecorated and decorated, is growing as a whole. I also see a trend of making cookies with cakes and other sweets to celebrate traditional functions, such as birthdays and weddings. Maldivian sweets are in high demand during the Eid Festival. I feel like cookies are becoming a part of every celebration.
So, overall, I believe there is a growing interest in cookie decorating, but, so far, it's not nearly as popular as in the US. Maldivians are sweet lovers and excellent in arts and crafts. So, despite health concerns, I feel like decorated cookies will be in high demand in the near future.
JMU: So interesting . . . Do you have any special cookie traditions, recipes, or ingredients in Maldives that you think members should know about? If so, please describe them.
KJ: I don't know of any cookie traditions as such. Maldivians prefer coffee and chocolate flavors mostly. However, Maldivians do have a couple of uncommon local flavors: sea almonds (locally known as kanamadhu) and screw pine fruit (locally known as kashikeyo). Maldivians use these local ingredients as their main flavors for cakes and other sweets.
I have tasted Kanamadhu Cake, and it was super delicious. I've also heard that the kanamadhu is better than the almond when it comes to health benefits. I haven't tasted anything with the screw pine fruit flavor yet, but I’m planning to give it a try. I suspect these flavors will be used in the local cookie industry in the future.
JMU: Same question for Sri Lanka . . . Do you recall any special cookie traditions, recipes, or ingredients there that you think members should know about? If so, please describe them.
KJ: Sri Lanka is a country famous for spices. The most popular flavors for sweets are cinnamon, coconut, ginger, etc. Even in Sri Lanka, I don't know of a traditional cookie recipe unique to Sri Lankans.
Due to religious and health reasons, some Sri Lankans don’t eat products containing eggs. For them, I have tried making egg-free cookies and royal icing. I went through many recipes from the internet and did many experiments. I was finally able to make egg-free cookies and egg-free royal icing by using aquafaba.
On March 2018, I submitted my first set of eggless cookies using aquafaba royal icing for Practice Bakes Perfect Challenge #31 (the Wet-on-Wet Challenge). This set was the aquarium puzzle, pictured below.
JMU: You did such a nice job on that puzzle, especially considering the icing was an experiment for you at the time! What’s your favorite part of belonging to the online cookie community, and why? And I’m not talking just about Cookie Connection; I’m talking about “community” in the broadest sense of how you experience it everywhere online.
KJ: Sharing knowledge and making valuable relationships are my most favorite parts of belonging to the online cookie community. Some of my online contacts go out of the way to help anyone in need. When I started a few years ago, I did not know anything about cookies or decorations. As I mentioned earlier, cookie decorating was not that popular in this part of the world, and, without online communities, I wouldn’t have developed myself to where I am now. Also, I noticed that people are happier to share their experience and knowledge at a distance with those they don't know.
More specifically, here's what I appreciate about the online cookie community: People helping anyone, sharing without any secrets, providing support for newbies - plus, the internet is free, fast, and easy. It's the best place for any cookier to learn new techniques with ease. Since it works beyond geographical boundaries, it really helps countries like mine supplement our knowledge and get updated information; it's also a great platform to share one's unique experience. So far, I have learned so much from cookie communities, thanks to everyone involved.
JMU: I love those same things too! And, the converse of the previous question . . . What’s your least favorite part of the online cookie community? Or what part(s) would you most like to see change, and why?
KJ: Since online platforms and social media are so powerful, fast, and popular, it is easy for people to misuse them. Not all, but some people copy others' creations and post them as their own work without passing credits on to the original artist. Considering the initial experimental struggle that the original artist may have gone through to release the finished piece online, copying is unfair from this angle. In my opinion, copying is the best way to learn something new or unknown, but it is important to give credit to the original artist. There are also many benefits of doing so: the satisfaction that the original artist receives (which money cannot buy) and better understanding the value of each others' hard work.
JMU: Well, you know my stance on copying - crediting isn't enough. You must also seek permission to copy, or you could be infringing on someone else's copyright - that's just US copyright law. I agree, though, not enough people take permissions or even crediting seriously.
But, off my soapbox and on to my usual parting question! Where would you like to see yourself in the cookie decorating world three years from now? Do you see yourself doing more or less of anything, or taking on any new cookie-related activities, such as teaching, creating or selling products, or something else? Why would you like to go in this direction?
KJ: When I look back at where I started and then forecast the next three years, I would like to be an entrepreneur who really depends on a cookie-related enterprise. The interest in decorated cookies is rapidly growing, and there will be more demand than ever. In addition to the increasing popularity, cookie decorating is how I like to spend my time, so I strongly feel I can achieve this.
The most difficult part is persuading my husband that I should sell my cookies. I’m interested in making cookie decorating a commercially viable and successful venture. In my opinion, it is the way to gain financial freedom from my day-to-day job.
BTW, as you were my first cookie inspiration, I’m hoping to one day meet you and to attend one of your cookie decorating workshops if circumstances allow.
JMU: Nothing would thrill me more than meeting you in person! Hopefully, our world will right itself soon, so I can get back to what I love most, which is traveling the globe to teach.
I also share your confidence that you can make a cookie business work. I hope you can convince your husband as well, and that you are able to start exploring this new path very soon. Thank you so much for your thoughtful and detailed answers to these questions. I learned so much about your country just from reading what you wrote! I'm eager to come there to try the screw pine fruit and sea almonds - and to decorate with you, of course!
To learn more about Kanch J and her work, please visit her Cookie Connection portfolio.
Cookie and photo credits: Kanch J
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!