Yes, it’s Cookier Close-up time again! These interviews are indeed one of my favorite parts of this site. It’s so interesting and rewarding for me to connect with fascinating cookiers from far and wide. In this Close-up, we’re getting to know our March 2021 site artist, Svetla Petrova aka @Vanilla & Me, who hails all the way from Sofia, Bulgaria!
As you might remember from her March site artist intro in our forums, Svetla is a 34-year-old mother of two girls, who, since childhood, has been in love with fine and applied art. In 2007, she graduated from university with degrees in fashion and graphic design, which she pursued as a career until she found the world of sugar art and baking in 2016. Shortly after, in March 2017 to be precise, she joined Cookie Connection and has since been pursuing cookies and cakes with great passion! In 2019, only a short time after starting to decorate, she won Gold Awards for her cookie entries at the highly acclaimed Cake International in London and Birmingham. We’ll certainly want to hear all about those experiences and these very impressive accomplishments.
So onward to the interview!
JMU: Hi, Svetla! Thank you again for so generously contributing your stunning cherry blossom cookies, pictured below, for use as site art in March – they were the perfect cookies to welcome in springtime on the site! Thank you too for participating so actively in Cookie Connection since 2017, and for agreeing to this follow-on interview even though English is not your native language. I am most grateful for the extra effort that translating and re-translating these interview questions and answers takes.
I want to start at the top, with how you got into cookie decorating in 2016. How did you find this world, and what or who spurred you to pick up your first piping bag and start decorating?
SP: First, I would like to thank you, Julia, for this interview. I have admired your work ever since I started with cookie decorating, and your videos on YouTube were very helpful to me at the very beginning! And so, it was Christmas 2014 when everything started. I was at home with my three-year-old daughter and a baby and was scrolling on Facebook. I came across my friend’s post of her Christmas cookies. They were gingerbread, just with white icing outlines. I thought they were the most adorable thing I had seen recently. At that time, I was trying to eat healthy, avoiding any sugar stuff, doing exercises, and so on. So it was very unusual for me to bake anything. But, it was love at first sight. I found some recipes for cookies and icing, waited for my kids to fall asleep, and started. It was a complete disaster – over-baked cookies and too-thin icing. Everything was a mess, so I thought that cookies were not for me and forgot about baking for a year. Next Christmas, I decided to try again. This time I watched some videos, and the result was better. So I bought some baking stuff and started exploring this new world for me.
JMU: Well, I am so glad you jumped on the cookie bandwagon! After you got started in 2016, how did you go about learning cookie decorating, and how were you able to advance your skills so fast? What tools or resources did you most rely on, and why?
JMU: What’s your typical week look like in terms of your baking and decorating activities? For instance, how much time do you spend making and decorating cookies versus cakes? And why? Do you have a preference for cakes or cookies, and, if so, which one and why?
One of Svetla's striking cakes! (Cookies aren't her only talent!)
SP: My older daughter Raya was diagnosed with an autistic disorder, so I am not able to have a full-time job. My husband provides for our family, and I take care of our children and home. It was very depressing for me to find out that our child is different and to realize that I would not be able to work as before. But it was a blessing that I found the sugar world at that moment. I started learning and improving my skills, which makes me happy and complete. Nowadays, I make some cakes and cookies in my spare time. What I do all depends on what kind of orders I have.
JMU: I am so sorry to hear about your daughter, but I am glad that the sugar world brings you some solace. And how do you participate in cookie decorating, meaning do you only sell your cookies, or do you also teach cookie decorating or do other cookie-related things? Roughly what portion of your time is spent doing each of these things, and why?
SP: As I alluded to in my last answer, I take some orders, but I don’t have a big business. Before Christmas, Mother’s Day, and Easter, I make mostly cookies; during the other times of the year, I do birthday cakes, cookies, cupcakes, and cake pops. In 2019, I started teaching cookie decorating classes, but, with the COVID pandemic and the lockdown, I have stopped them for now. I have a few online classes in Bulgarian, which are available.
JMU: Yes, this past year has certainly posed challenges for those who did any amount of in-person teaching. But it sounds like you’ve successfully adapted to the times.
All it takes is a quick review of your Cookie Connection portfolio to see that your work is characterized by the use of delightful animals and florals, all in vibrant colors and often accented with delicate painting. How did you arrive at this dominant style? What or who inspired you to adopt this particular content and technique focus?
SP: I have tried different techniques and been to a variety of classes (modeling, sugar and wafer paper flowers, etc.). At a certain point, I found out which techniques worked best for me. I realized that I am not so good with modeling and decided to decorate my cakes with drawings and royal icing cookies instead. The same was true for sugar flowers. It was hard for me to make them, so I started using wafer paper.
JMU: It’s truly astounding that you received Gold Awards at Cake International (for the mouse and birdhouse sets posted below) after only decorating for a relatively short period of time. Can you tell us how you went about preparing for this competition? Also, how large were these pieces and how long did they take you to make?
Svetla's Gold Medal Entry at Cake International, Birmingham
Svetla's Gold Medal Entry at Cake International, London
Close-up of Svetla's Gold Medal Entry at Cake International, London
JMU: What were your biggest challenges in getting these pieces onto the competition floor, and how did you overcome those challenges?
SP: The biggest challenge was to transfer everything to Britain without any damage. Fortunately, everything went okay.
JMU: Phew! Yes, I know full well from my cake delivery days how hair-raising it can be to transport items you’ve spent tens or hundreds of hours decorating. One false move and . . . If you could do over anything about your Cake International competition experiences or pieces, what would you do over, and why?
SP: I doubted I would win anything. I was surprised that my cookies were so highly judged. That was a great experience for me. It made me more confident.
JMU: It’s nice to have no regrets! Now, one last competition question: what advice would you give to aspiring competitors about how to be successful in competitions (i.e., how to create a winning cookie piece)?
SP: First, I believe that you have to have a unique idea and concept. Then, you have to use as many techniques as you can and pay attention to details.
JMU: Great advice! As a judge of many competitions, I concur that winning pieces must score high on many dimensions. But I would add that it’s not enough to use many techniques; they must also be used skillfully and in such a way that they work seamlessly together. Too often, entrants try to load their pieces with as many techniques as possible, without pausing to step back and ask themselves if those techniques are actually working well together. Knowing when to edit is key to a winning piece too.
Now, let’s talk more about your personal cookie journey and experiences in Bulgaria. What moment, beyond Cake International, has been your highest point (or greatest accomplishment) in your cookie decorating history, and why?
SP: I don’t think there has been a highest point. I love my cookies and enjoy every step of creating them. That’s my passion: to make beautiful things! I am proud that many Bulgarian girls want to attend my classes and learn from me.
JMU: Okay, then, on to the corollary question . . . What’s been your most trying or challenging moment in your cookie decorating history, and how did you get past it?
SP: Maybe icing consistency in general. It took me years to know how to handle it. I overcame the challenge with a lot of practice.
JMU: Nothing replaces lots of practice when it comes to enhancing skills!
I asked this next question of Di Art Sweets, who is also from Bulgaria, in her recent Cookier Close-up, so I’ll be interested to see how your answers compare! Is cookie decorating as popular in Bulgaria 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?
SP: I think the interest has grown during the past few years. More customers want themed parties with decorated cakes and sweets bars. This leads to market development in the cookie area. We now have a lot of talented decorators [in Bulgaria], and a Bulgarian group participates in Cake International every year with great results.
JMU: Do you have any special cookie traditions, recipes, or ingredients in Bulgaria that you think members should know about? If so, please describe them.
SP: Hmm, I don’t know that we have any [cookie decorating ones], because cookie decoration is not a Bulgarian tradition, and we learn mostly from American and Russian decorators. But we have many desserts influenced by Turkish cuisine, like baklava and other syrupy pastries. One of our national dishes is banitsa (something like a pie), which is made with rolled-out crust, cheese, and eggs. It has its sweet equivalents, which are pumpkin banitsa and apple banitsa.
JMU: Mmm . . . sounds delish! And, last but not least, 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?
SP: It’s hard for me to say. In 2019, I was planning to teach more than take orders, but it became 2020, and then everything changed. So now, I don’t want to make any plans. I would just like to have more time to try new techniques and improve my skills.
JMU: Well, I can certainly appreciate the desire to avoid planning; even my most well-laid plans got disrupted (or completely halted) this past year! I wish you well with the continued honing of your skills, and I look forward to seeing more of your lovely creations on Cookie Connection. Thanks again for taking the time for this interview!
To see more of Svetla's cookie work, please visit her Cookie Connection portfolio and Facebook and Instagram pages.
Cookie and photo credits: Svetla Petrova of Vanilla & Me
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!