From time to time, I like to provide Cookie Connection members with more thorough introductions to our site contributors – after all, they give so generously of their talents here, it’s the very least I can do! And – surprise – now is one of those times!
This month, I’m profiling the marvelous @Manu biscotti decorati, more fully known as Manuela Pezzopane. As you may know, Manu originally harks from Italy and is the creator of our monthly Made by Manu blog feature, where she provides wonderfully in-depth tutorials for her signature striking, and often minimalist, projects. Here in this interview, we’ll get to know Manu even better, focusing on her recent transition from Italy to the United Arab Emirates (Dubai), the differences (and similarities) in cookie culture between these two locales, and what it takes to write awesome tutorials on a regular basis, something Manu has clearly mastered.
JMU: Welcome, Manu! Before we dive into some of the topics I just mentioned, I thought we should give our readers a little more basic context . . . You mention in your onsite bio at the end of your tutorials that you have tried virtually every hobby in your quest for creative expression! What is it about cookie decorating that’s caused you to gravitate toward it as your “chosen” hobby?
MP: I love the ephemeral aspect of decorated cookies, as all that lasts are crumbs and pictures. But, on the other hand, I have jealously saved in a box those cookies I made during the classes I took from @Evelindecora (aka Evelin) and @Marta Torres - Royal Icing Cookie Art (aka Marta Torres). I have also saved two little masterpieces I received as presents from Evelin and @iSugarfy (aka swissophie) (aka Sonja Galmad). I can’t tell you the emotion to see these cookies in person!
I found out about decorated cookies quite recently (end of 2014), and I tried my own cookies only one year later, after watching your video about royal icing consistencies and discovering Cookie Connection. I finally posted my first cookie on Cookie Connection in January 2016, which was my entry for Practice Bakes Perfect Challenge #14 (“Mixed Media”), shown in the picture below. This challenge was the perfect chance to apply techniques learned from other hobbies to cookies, which is another reason I like cookie decorating. When it came time to take a picture of my cookie entry, the cookie I had on the table was not the same as the cookie in my photo! Taking good pictures is definitely part of cookie decorating too!
JMU: So I know you were born in Rome, Italy and lived in Italy for many years. But what prompted you to move to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) last year? I think of Rome as “classic elegance” and Dubai as “extreme modernity” – a study in contrasts, if you will. Perhaps this is an overgeneralization though? What’s the biggest difference you’ve encountered between the two places? And the biggest similarity?
MP: Yes, I was born in Rome, and I lived there for about 30 years. I have two children, a boy who went to college two years ago and a daughter who just graduated from high school and is now in college. Over the last 18 years, my family has moved every three or four years, between Germany and Italy, following my husband’s work. We lived in Germany for six years, and have spent the last eight years in Milan, Italy. I moved to Dubai in July of this year. Summer is the worst time to move, as the average temperature in Dubai is 44ºC (111 ºF!), and it is nearly impossible to live outside - or at least I’m not yet used to it! So, I’d have to say that the temperature is the biggest difference.
My first visit to Dubai was back in 1986. I visited a few more times over the last 15 years, which gave me a unique opportunity to see this young city develop. I am fascinated by the shapes of its buildings and the dunes of the nearby desert. Dubai is characterized by the people who built those buildings - hardworking in the unbearable heat. Dubai is open and welcoming; its people are kind; and it’s also one of the safest cities in the world.
I can’t tell yet if there are any similarities to Italy . . . apart from it being especially beautiful in autumn. However, there are no colors of autumn here, except for the Halloween decorations sold in the malls. Fortunately, I have found a way to cookie-fy my memories of Italy’s fall colors (photo below)!
JMU: How do you currently participate in the cookie world? We know you write amazing tutorials for Cookie Connection, but do you also sell cookies or cookie-related products? Do you teach in-person classes? Are you now working full-time in cookies, or does cookie decorating remain one of your hobbies?
MP: At the moment, cookie decorating is a hobby for me. Though, over the last two years, every occasion has been a chance to make cookies! Whether made for Christmas, friends’ birthdays, Bunco nights, or @Bakerloo Station's Practice Bakes Perfect challenges on Cookie Connection (see collage of my challenge entries, below), every cookie that has passed through my hands has been a learning opportunity. I read everything I can find that is cookie-related, and I think I know every “corner” of Cookie Connection. I had a blast when I found this site, as it has so many resources in one place, and it’s such a welcoming community. The recognitions earned here have been my fuel. I like to see the cookies posted here everyday, but I like even more to read about how they were made. Cookiers share a lot in their clip comments, and I started to do the same from the beginning, including step-by-step pictures along with my primary cookie photos. My first mini-tutorials! I have also made many connections here with cookiers from all over the world. For instance, I designed a cookie for @Ryoko ~Cookie Ave., and we also designed a set together. It’s so nice to speak cookie-language with people who share my passion.
JMU: And why have you chosen to participate this way? For instance, why don’t you sell cookies or teach in-person classes?
MP: I thought about selling my cookies, but life got in the way – twice! The first time was because of a surgery, which left me not being able to pipe for a while, and with no idea for how long. I was blessed to recover quickly, just in time to participate in this site’s rose challenge, where I learned how to pipe them! That set of cookies (photo below) means a lot to me. The second time was because we were due to move again, and I didn’t have enough time to turn the selling of my cookies into a profitable business. In order to sell homemade food in Italy, one must follow a number of laws and requirements, and many Italians are still not ready to pay the right price for my kind of cookies. To sell here in Dubai, one must operate in premises other than a home kitchen, and secure a trading license (unless you sell at craft fairs, where you can operate under the craft fair’s license). Doing either or both of these things is expensive in a city that is already expensive!
I was asked if I gave in-person classes right before and right after moving to Dubai. I am happy about, and proud of, these queries, but, again, bad timing. At the moment, I am focused on writing tutorials for Cookie Connection. I was so honored (and thrilled!) when you asked me if I was interested in writing for the site. I really want to enjoy this opportunity and to keep giving it my best.
JMU: Phew! I am (selfishly) relieved to hear this, as I love having you contribute to the site, and, as far as I can tell, you always give everything your very, very best! Thank you again for all of your contributions! Now, for the next question . . . What’s your typical week look like? How much time do you spend doing cookie-related things versus other activities?
MP: Well, I don’t have a typical week yet. These last four months have been ones of transition and change in my life. There was a lot to sort out with the move, and that was quite hard on many levels, both emotional and physical. I always try to clear some time for cookies, as they help to set my mind free. Tutorial-writing for Cookie Connection helped to smooth the transition, too. It usually keeps me busy about one whole week of every month (with finalizing the project, writing the tutorial, and taking pictures). I am just starting now to have more free time to enjoy life in Dubai by taking advantage of the many workshops organized here. I will attend one next week about Islamic patterns and, if I like it, then I will follow it up with another course in January.
JMU: Let’s turn now to some more specific questions about the “cookie cultures” (i.e., decorated cookie business) in both Italy and the UAE. First, how would you characterize the cookie decorating market in Italy? Is there an appetite among consumers for buying decorated cookies, or are other sweets favored? Is this market growing, shrinking, or staying flat, and why do you think this is? Are there other sectors of the cookie business (apart from selling cookies), such as teaching or selling products, that seem to be taking off, or declining in interest? If so, why do you think this is?
MP: I see a growing interest in decorated cookies in Italy. I am speaking solely about what I have noticed on the internet, through Facebook groups and Instagram in the past two years. I am seeing more cookies decorated with royal icing – not just fondant - prepared for birthdays, weddings, baptisms, and confirmations, and coordinated with cakes and cupcakes on sweet tables. There definitely seems to be increased interest in adding something special and different, like cookies, to these bigger life events.
However, simple designs without much food coloring seem to be the favorite decorations in Italy. People are still getting used to decorated cookies. They find them cute, but they don’t understand the amount of work required to make them, and many people are not yet ready to pay what decorated cookies are worth.
There is also a growing offering of, and demand for, cookie classes (using both royal icing and fondant), especially with Christmas now approaching. And I see a larger variety of cookie cutters offered in Italian shops, especially in those that specialize in cake design, but also in shops that sell general kitchen tools. One can also now find a variety of 3-D printed plastic cutters offered by Italians on the internet. This all being said, the space dedicated to cookies in brick-and-mortar shops is still small compared to that reserved for cake design, which has become very popular over the last 10 years.
Despite these signs of growth, cookies in Italy, in my humble opinion, still lack the depth of interesting designs that one sees in markets where the selling and decorating of large quantities of cookies is more routine. Italian cookiers also don’t collaborate to the same extent, as, for instance, they do in the US.
JMU: Same questions for the Dubai/UAE cookie decorating market . . . Go!
MP: I have only seen decorated cookies among many other beautiful artifacts sold at a local handcrafts fair that takes place twice a month in different malls. The fair provides an opportunity for artisans to let people know about their businesses and to distribute business cards for future orders. I met two cookiers at this fair! One of them makes mostly cakes and other treats, and keeps the decorations on her cookies very simple. They both told me that many people in Dubai/UAE think that decorated cookies are too pricey (like everywhere in the world, I suppose).
I have also had the chance to visit some cake design shops when looking for supplies for future projects. Although there is good space for cookie tools, the shops are more focused on cake design. I still haven’t seen a “cookie supply paradise” in person like I have seen on the internet. Wilton cookie cutters are less expensive in Dubai (than in Italy), and many brands of food coloring are easily available in different sizes and colors. There are stencils, but, like in Italy, mostly for cakes. And when you can find them for cookies, they have very simple designs, mostly in round shapes.
Lastly, I want to touch on cookie classes, which, when offered in a market, indicate that there is interest in cookies. Last spring, both Aixa Zunino (aka @Dolce Sentire - Aixa Zunino) and Marta Torres (aka @Marta Torres - Royal Icing Cookie Art) gave cookie classes in Dubai, which makes me hopeful that many other cookie decorators will pass by.
JMU: Fascinating! Thanks for all of those details about the various indicators of cookie interest. And, BTW, I absolutely love your handpainted cookies patterned after Islamic mosque interiors (pictured above), surely inspired by Dubai! You’ve also mentioned to me that you’ve encountered some very specific differences in ingredients (especially flour, I believe) and tools in Dubai, and that these differences have forced you to experiment and adapt recipes in order to achieve your usual results in Italy. Could you please elaborate on what some of these differences have been and how you’ve adapted your recipes or practices in response?
MP: Part of the difficulty stemmed from my lack of experience (not being a professional baker), and part from the settling-in process. Even in Italy, it took me some time to bake perfect cookies without them burning or spreading too much. It has been a learning curve, but thanks to practice and the tips of various cookiers, cookie-baking, at some point, just became natural.
Flour here in Dubai is classified in a different way than in Italy, and there were plenty of different brands, both local and from abroad, from which to choose. I needed to research, study, and test various flours, and to consider the percentage of protein in each. In Italy, I never had to worry about the protein content. In the beginning, I also bought the same brand of butter that I used in Italy, but I didn’t properly read the label, and later discovered it was a spreadable type not intended for baking. I eventually found out that the regular butter for baking is sold frozen and from a different counter! The hotter temperatures and higher humidity have also affected results, not to mention getting used to two new ovens! One of them is a gas oven, which is now my best friend. But initially, I was scared to turn it on, as I had never used one before.
JMU: Have you discovered any cookie specialties, or other sweets, that are unique to Dubai/UAE that you think our readers ought to know about? I always love to hear about (and try) new things!
MP: I am still in the exploring phase. I recently had an Arabic meal, and tasted so much good food that, when the desserts came, I barely had any room left! But I tasted a light milk pudding flavored with rose water, which was a very good close to the dinner.
Dates are typical in the UAE. There are many varieties. They also come covered with chocolate or stuffed with almonds or different fillings, all beautifully presented in gourmet packaging. It is a pleasure to look at them, wondering which to taste first, as they are very special.
JMU: Yum, I love dates any which way, both stuffed and unstuffed! What a food lover's paradise! Now, a few questions about writing tutorials. What distinguishes a “great” cookie decorating tutorial from just a “good” one, in your opinion?
MP: Tough question . . . Writing a tutorial is not easy. If there are too many steps, a tutorial can become boring to read or hard to follow. Conversely, if a tutorial is too quick, the reader can be left with many questions. There are also people who read every detail, because they are eager to learn (I am one of these people) and others who prefer to get everything from the pictures (me again!). The pictures play a role, for sure. The title picture is very important. It should catch readers’ eyes, and spur them to read the tutorial and try the project. After this point, the pictures should complement the writing, and easily take the reader by the hand from the very first step through to the end.
A “good” tutorial shouldn’t be boring and should provide useful tips and tricks; a “great” tutorial is one that lights a spark and inspires readers not only to make a specific project, but also to develop that project into a brand new idea of their own. I really hope to write that tutorial one day!
That said, there are many “great” written and video tutorials, and cookiers who, through sharing their knowledge, have inspired me and played a role in my cookie journey. I always make a point of giving deserved credit to them.
JMU: You do! And, BTW, you have already written several “great” tutorials! Still on the topic of tutorials . . . What tutorial-writing tips (top three) would you give to those interested in starting to write them?
- Always remember what you were looking for in a tutorial when you first started decorating. Those things are probably the same things that those reading your tutorials are looking for.
- Don’t just show or describe the decorating techniques that you use (there is plenty of this on the internet), and don’t take basic steps for granted (beginners probably won’t know them). Instead, try to explain the challenges or difficulties one may encounter at every step, and the common mistakes one can easily make.
- Convey your enthusiasm and explain how you got a certain idea. Doing so will inspire readers to develop your project into other beautiful things.
Below is a picture of the project in my very first Cookie Connection tutorial. I’m not sure that I followed all three of my tips , but the tutorial was another little milestone for me.
JMU: Ahh, yes, I remember that tutorial well! You most definitely mastered your points 2 and 3! Last, my usual parting question: Where would you like to see yourself in the cookie world in the next three years? What are your dreams and aspirations?
MP: I am not used to looking so far ahead; I just live year by year. Cookies are truly a passion for me. They are part of my life; they have filled gaps during the past two years and brought me a lot of joy and satisfaction. My biggest fear is losing inspiration and running out of ideas! I hope to keep trying new techniques and designs, and to continue to be inspired by what I see around me.
One of my dreams is to go to CookieCon one day, and to meet all those cookiers who have inspired me so much. I’d love to have the chance to see their cookies “in person”, to watch them at work, and to participate in the seminars and classes. I would also like to meet those cookie friends with whom I am in contact online.
And, to close the circle, I would like to attend one of your classes one day, as one of your videos and Cookie Connection triggered the start of my cookie adventure.
JMU: Well, I would most certainly love to meet you one day soon too! You have enriched my life and site in so many ways! Thank you for that, and for this wonderfully in-depth and candid interview!
All cookie and photo credits: Manuela Pezzopane
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!