Hi, everyone! I’m back with a wonderful chat with our October site artist and cookie philanthropist @LisaF. As you may recall, Lisa’s luminous fall cookie leaves, pictured below, graced our banner and backdrop a few months back. Lucky us!
At that time, Lisa told us in her forum intro that her cookie journey began in 2011 when she started making gingerbread houses. After getting a handle on construction, she focused on improving her decorating skills through books, videos, and online tutorials. This work eventually brought her in 2016 to Cookie Connection, where she now regularly participates in challenges and shares cookies often created for and donated to her local food shelter.
Not surprisingly, Lisa has a long history in the nonprofit sector. After careers in corporate communications and freelance writing, she spent more than a decade at various soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and prison reentry programs throughout New York City where she lived until quite recently.
Though Lisa enjoys making cookies for family and friends, her main focus in cookies has been charitable work. She has frequently donated cookies to Food Bank for New York City, Boys & Girls Club of Harlem, and the Children’s Aid Society, among others. In 2020, Lisa and her husband moved from New York to the eastern shore of Maryland where they already had a part-time residence. This move has enabled her to significantly improve her decorating skills, while still continuing to donate cookies to various local charities.
Thanks, Lisa, for such an in-depth bio; it certainly gives me a great launching pad for interview questions. So here’s my first (of many!) . . .
JMU: I’ll start at the beginning of your cookie journey. Why, in 2011, did you start with one of the most ambitious of cookie decorating projects – the gingerbread house?! What drew you to them out of all cookie types? And can you share any photos of early gingerbread houses that you’ve done?
LF: As I have mentioned, we’ve had a home on the eastern shore near St. Michaels. It’s a lovely coastal town with a lot of part-time or seasonal residents. We used to fall into that category and I wanted to feel more connected to the local community. In December, there is a “Christmas in St. Michaels” celebration that features a gingerbread competition, and I decided to participate. My first creations were pretty sloppy but I had so much fun! I’ve included some pictures of “Santa Gets Stuck” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” (below). Since then, I’ve definitely come a long way in terms of quality, skill, and attention to detail.
I realize this is going to sound strange, but back then I didn’t think of making gingerbread houses as cookie decorating! To me, cookie decorating was something done for holidays, and other elaborate decorating was reserved for cakes. I thought gingerbread was in its own space and more related to edible architecture, with candy and edible elements used creatively. As I noticed details on masterful gingerbread creations, I realized there was much more piping, original work, etc. I began researching techniques and that opened my eyes to the world of cookie decorating in all of its applications and glory – including gingerbread!
JMU: LOL, I just love the humor in your gingerbread creations! It's also interesting to hear what you said about gingerbread being reserved for edible architecture. I too had always wondered why gingerbread was relegated pretty much only to gingerbread houses, and why gingerbread houses were the only 3-D cookie construction ever done. So when I started out in cookies and was trying to make a name for myself, I purposely tried to demonstrate how gingerbread and other cookie types could be made into so many other 3-D things. I wanted to stretch people’s conventional ways of thinking about this medium.
From a quick glance at your Cookie Connection portfolio and your entries to our challenges, it’s also clear that you enjoy 3-D cookie work in general, not just houses. Am I right in that observation, and, if so, what is it about 3-D cookies that appeals to you? If not, what’s your favorite area of cookie work, and why?
LF: I love everything about 3-D cookie work - the construction challenges, the creative shapes, and all the possibilities. I am in awe of the intricate piping work and painting ability of so many cookiers, however those are simply not my strengths. I feel like 3-D shapes give me more pizazz out of the gate, with less reliance on all the other bells and whistles. That being said, I am constantly trying to improve on my weaknesses with the hope of eventually having all the bells and whistles on top of the pizazz!
JMU: I feel the same way about 3-D work – the ability to play with shapes and structures adds a whole different level of interest to cookie decorating.
Seeing as we’re on the cusp of Christmas season and you’re a seasoned gingerbread house artist, what are your best tips (or best-kept secrets) for constructing gingerbread houses successfully?
LF: The dough is extremely important. Flour matters. I always use high-quality bread flour. I have tried countless recipes for construction, each of which has been hands-down endorsed by notable bakers as the best to use. There are a number of good ones out there. My advice is to pick one that is comfortable for you to make and, more importantly, roll out and work with. The construction dough provided in your cookbook (I don’t remember if it is in both of your books) is an excellent recipe.
Thoroughly bake all of the pieces. I tend to overbake. If you are concerned that the additional baking will darken the pieces too much, substitute additional ginger for darker spices like cinnamon and cloves. If any pieces soften before decorating or assembly, put them back in the oven to harden.
If a piece isn’t contoured, I weigh down all pieces as soon as they come out of the oven. I leave them on the baking mat, cover them with a second baking mat, and then put a stack of sheet pans on top. The additional weight ensures that the pieces stay flat as they cool.
Store baked pieces, or dried decorated pieces, in airtight containers with rice. I live by the water so moisture is a constant issue. The rice helps.
JMU: So many awesome tips! Thank you! You mentioned in your bio that your recent move to Maryland allowed you to “significantly improve your decorating skills”? What change(s) in circumstance came with that move that allowed this improvement? And, how specifically have your skills changed and grown? Did you suddenly find yourself doing less charitable work and having more time for personal skills development, or was something else the driving force behind this change?
LF: For starters, I wasn’t working as much and we still don’t go out very often. The pandemic really changed the landscape of so much, even in the nonprofit sector. After leaving the city, I found myself with a lot more physical space, a lot more time, and a lot more anxiety about the state of the world. I did my best to channel that energy productively. I practiced piping, I tried new techniques, I dabbled in dough flavors, and I entered all the Cookie Connection site challenges. This site was a truly a godsend for me.
JMU: Oh goodness, I am so glad to hear the site helped you in that way. And thanks – words like yours encourage me to carry on the hard work of site maintenance.
For a while, maybe when you were back in New York, you were making a very large number of cookies per week (about 150, is that right?) for your local food bank, I believe. What drew you to this charity, and why did cookie-gifting seem the best way to give back to this cause?
LF: You’re thinking of the soup kitchen/food pantry in St. Michaels. I had read about the organization and planned to one day see how I could use my work experience to help. Once the pandemic hit, they had to restrict volunteers coming in and switch all the meals to takeout. I contacted the team and offered to make cookies as part of the weekend distribution. They told me that they were serving about 150. They were a bit surprised when I said, “Well then, 150 it is.” I made 150 each week for over 15 months. The cookies became a bit of a “thing”. Then the organization went through some changes in staffing, distribution, and needs assessment. Now I make 125 cookies every other week and for various special events that are starting to resume.
JMU: I imagine that you learned a tremendous amount about decorating efficiently when putting out those large numbers of cookies each week. What are some of the most important time-management or efficiency-maximizing practices that you learned?
LF: The biggest challenge I had wasn’t just getting the cookies completed on time; it was enjoying the process. I don’t mind doing a lot of work, but I like to keep the stress and boredom to a minimum. I start by making and freezing the dough two weeks ahead and thaw the night before I bake. I decide on the cookie design three to four weeks ahead to give me enough time to make sure I have the correct colors and cutters. As part of the design decision, I figure out what I can do ahead as a royal icing transfer and allow for sufficient drying time. I set aside chunks of time to actually decorate, with an emphasis on minimizing the amount of time the cookies are out of the container. I find the decorating part quite enjoyable. However, to keep from becoming bored, I also use the time to catch up on NPR and podcasts, and FaceTime people who don’t mind me not looking at them while we chat.
JMU: LOL on that last part! Do you have favorite time-management or organizational tools that you use to keep your large cookie jobs on track? If so, what are they, and please explain.
LF: I’m very old school. I write things on a calendar and make daily lists on large index cards. I try to update the lists at the end of each day as things wind down, and I’m forced to acknowledge anything that didn’t get done. Unfortunately, I have two lab puppies that are prone to eating any lists with just a touch of sugar residue. Obviously, it’s a flawed system.
JMU: LOL again! How do you determine the theme or type of cookies that you make each week for the food bank? Does the food bank have any input into your design or production process?
LF: Generally speaking, I make whatever I want to. I try to pick something that is seasonal, fun, and reasonable to execute. I do get theme requests from time to time, but they aren’t too specific. This free range adds so much enjoyment to the process.
JMU: Yes, freedom to create is good - the lack of freedom in my wedding cake business is what eventually caused me to jettison it and move into book writing and later video production. But that's a digression - back to the interview!
You’ve been particularly active in our Cookie Connection challenges – thanks for participating! Which was your most difficult one, and why?
LF: Thanks to you and Christine and the judges for the challenges. They are wonderful opportunities to learn, grow, and connect with each other. I am so grateful to finally have the time to participate. I would say the one I found most challenging was the wedding favor/customer order challenge. It was challenging for me because I have no experience in client orders or price points. Additionally, I knew I was going to have to do lettering, and my penmanship in any form is horrendous.
JMU: Well, you did a great job with it. The surprise message inside was a nice touch. And which challenge did you learn the most from, and why?
LF: In truth, I learn a great deal from each and every challenge, so thank you for that. If I had to pick one though, I would go with the stringwork challenge. I learned a lot about all of the necessary prep of the icing as well as the creation and use of “bridges”. These things can be useful in many other ways. It gave me such an appreciation for the art form.
JMU: What’s been the most exciting or enriching aspect of your cookie journey so far, and why?
LF: I think it’s probably the limitless opportunity for creativity. There are so many techniques to try, apply, and master. And most skills really can improve with instruction and practice.
JMU: What’s been the most challenging or difficult aspect of your cookie journey so far, and how have you overcome those challenges (or how are you working to overcome them)?
LF: Not to sound to hypercritical, but many weeks I struggle with everything - icing consistency, proper coloring, and idea execution! Whenever things go sideways, I just push through the best I can and then revisit the project with a critical eye. I try to figure out what I could have or should have done differently and, hopefully, do it better the next time.
JMU: I appreciate your persistent effort to grow and learn from mistakes. Too often, people get defeated and move on when just a little extra effort could push them over the top.
If there’s anything you would change about the larger cookie community, what would it be, and why?
LF: That’s a hard one. I guess more virtual connection. I realize that in-person activities are superior but, as we have learned, they are not always possible. I like the idea of more Zoom classes, virtual competitions, and anything that has an increased online interactive component. As with a lot of creative mediums, it is difficult to find ways to monetize, so participants should expect to pay. I would also like to see continued product innovation.
JMU: I love the emerging virtual formats myself, as they allow for broader connections that truly span the globe!
And, of course, my very predictable 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 selling cookies or products, teaching, or something else? Why would you like to go in this direction?
LF: In three years, I hope I am a better cookie decorator, having mastered more techniques and applications! I would like to continue donating cookies and identify new organizations or causes to help. I have no desire to sell cookies, and I think the instruction should be done by those who are more qualified. I do like cookie and gingerbread competitions though, so I will continue with those. And, I would like to become more detail-focused. If I am stressed or bored, I can get pretty lax and those details matter.
JMU: Well, I, for one, really look forward to seeing how your three-year plan plays out! I also hope I can continue to observe your cookie evolution here on Cookie Connection for years to come! Thanks for taking so much time to put together this wonderfully informative and thoughtful interview.
Cookie and photo credits: Lisa Foss
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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