Hi, everyone! My apologies for taking so long to interview our August site artist, @Zeena, aka Zeena Mohammad! I’ve been dying to get to know her better myself, so I’m quite relieved that my schedule has calmed enough to allow me to get her interview questions drafted and posted.
As you may recall from her forum intro back in August, Zeena was raised in Sri Lanka before she migrated to New Zealand, but now lives in Los Angeles (LA) with her husband of 35 years. She is mother to two boys (ages 19 and 22), who have pushed her to become a better decorator. Zeena began with cake decorating in her early teens, and now enjoys making cakes and cookies for her family and friends, in addition to taking orders and working in a library. She joined Cookie Connection back in July 2016 after seeing some of my cookie videos (thanks for watching, Zeena!) and has been an active participant in all aspects of this site, including our challenges where she’s often been featured.
So, let’s learn more about Zeena! But, first, a reminder of her pretty floral wreath that was in our banner and backdrop in August:
(Sigh. So lovely.) Now, onward to the interview!
JMU: Hi, Zeena! Thanks for your patience while waiting for these interview questions! I’m going to start at the very beginning for you, and ask how you started out in Sri Lanka and then landed in New Zealand en route to LA. What was the reason for those very significant moves? How long have you been living in LA? And what did (or have) you most enjoyed about living in each place?
ZM: Hi, Julia. Thank you for taking time out of your hectic schedule to do this interview.
I was born and raised in Sri Lanka. In 1983, a civil war broke out in Sri Lanka, sending the country into an abyss. Education was interrupted, and daily life was filled with fear and routine bomb blasts. It was hard to continue our education or pursue careers. My dad who was a successful businessman lost his shops to looting and fires set by mobs. By 1990, the war was still going on. At that time, New Zealand was recruiting teachers, and my husband applied for permanent residency. In a matter of months, we moved to New Zealand, making it our new home. New Zealand is a beautiful and peaceful country. I truly loved the peace after all of the chaos back home. I loved New Zealand with its clean green image, stunning beauty, and friendly people. During our decade there, we travelled the whole of New Zealand, never thinking we would be leaving it. New Zealand was also the springboard for me to access libraries with great cake decorating books, cake shops with tools, and cake decorating clubs. These things were never accessible to me in Sri Lanka.
My husband always wanted to come to America. He got the opportunity to come for training here and soon got a job offer at a private school. I first came to Santa Barbara and soon moved to LA. I have been in LA since 2001. LA is a power-packed county. I love the weather, the beaches, the different cultural foods, and its diversity. Living in the US has been a blessing. I enjoy the freedom and the opportunity to learn and do anything I want. While raising my boys, I was able to attend college, something I believe I could never have done in Sri Lanka. I am thankful for that.
JMU: We here in the US sometimes take our liberties for granted. It is eye-opening and saddening to hear of situations such as yours in Sri Lanka. But I am grateful you seized opportunities when you could to forge a more peaceful and productive life for your family.
You mentioned that you work in a library in addition to selling cakes and cookies. Can you tell us what your typical work week looks like, i.e., how much time is spent in the library versus decorating? How many orders do you take per week, and are they mostly cakes or cookies? What does your work at the library entail?
ZM: I hardly get to take orders for cakes on a regular basis, although I continue to make cakes for my family for special occasions and for others who request orders. (Some of my cake photos are shown below.) Before the pandemic, I would do large cake orders at least every few months for the school my husband works at. I did more cake orders than cookies. My library work mainly entails customer service: helping library patrons locate materials, doing checkout and check-in of items, processing materials, answering questions, and cash-handling.
JMU: Fun cakes! Thanks for sharing them! Now, more on your library work, which fascinates me! How long have you been doing that, and how has it changed over the years? I imagine that the digitization of just about everything has seriously altered the shape of that work over time.
ZM: Here in the US, I have worked in libraries for 13 years. I have had the opportunity to work for city, county, and college libraries. In the past, libraries were quiet places to study (they still are) or to borrow books. However, the present-day library is much more. We provide computer access, passport services, tax forms, and various programs for kids and adults. Libraries have also become the babysitter for after-school kids. Libraries are a safe place for kids to be until their parents pick them up. Libraries are also used as cooling centers when the weather gets hot! The major difference I see between then and now is, in the past, libraries were places to acquire knowledge on any topic. But borrowing books is declining. Children still do borrow lots of books, but not so much among adults. There is a higher demand for computer access and quiet rooms for studying or to have meetings. I never had the access to such books and materials when growing up, and I feel saddened that these materials are not used as they should be.
JMU: I hear you. The library was one of my favorite hangouts in college, but, with so much info online (of dubious quality, however), it’s all too easy to avoid the trip to the local library.
You started out making cakes as a teen . . . what or who first turned you on to them?
ZM: Growing up in Sri Lanka, almost every girl took a cake class at one time or another. My parents were very encouraging. They wanted me to have an education and artistic skills. A birthday in Sri Lanka was never complete without a beautiful cake decorated with sugar flowers. We had great teachers in Sri Lanka, and I was fortunate enough to take their classes. These teachers often held exhibitions once a year, and I loved visiting and looking at those works of art. After marriage, my husband encouraged and supported me to make cakes, and my sons are my sincere critics.
JMU: I had no idea there was such a developed cake culture in Sri Lanka – interesting! When did you first start decorating cookies? And do you have a preference for cookies or cakes, and, if so, which one and why?
ZM: Only about four years ago, after watching your videos and joining Cookie Connection, did I begin decorating cookies. I now seem to love decorating cookies a little more than I do cakes, because a cookie is quick to bake and decorate. Cookies are small in comparison to cakes, and I find I can apply my cake decorating skills to any cookie.
JMU: Yay – another cookie convert! Can you tell us a little more about your cake and cookie work? Do you operate out of your home or a rented or purchased space? Why have you chosen to operate this way? How have you gone about marketing and building your cookie business, if at all?
ZM: I operate from home. Because of my [library] job, I do not take orders on a regular basis. I operate this way because I can have a job and do cookies as a hobby. I take orders for friends and people who have heard of me and my work by word of mouth. These days almost everyone decorating cookies is on social media and promoting themselves. I really have not gone about marketing my cake and cookie work as a business just yet. Hopefully in the future.
JMU: You’ve been particularly active in our Cookie Connection challenges (I always eagerly await your entries!) Which challenge was the easiest for you, and why?
ZM: I would say the easiest was Challenge #41 (Flowers), since I have had so much practice making sugar flowers. In this challenge, I had the opportunity to learn about wafer paper flowers. A big thank-you to Christine and you. I love learning, and I find the challenges force me to learn something new and to try out new techniques.
JMU: I guessed that challenge was your easiest! Conversely, which challenge was the hardest for you, and why?
ZM: I think Challenge #42 (Stained Glass) was the hardest. I had never worked with isomalt before. The challenge helped me read more about this medium and educated me along the way. My entry to that challenge is pictured below.
JMU: Stunning! You certainly nailed that challenge! If you could do any Cookie Connection challenge over again, which would it be and what would you do differently?
ZM: I think that challenge would be Challenge #40 (Brush Embroidery). I did not use the correct icing consistency, therefore the brush embroidery kind of blended in rather than remaining defined. Again, see the photo of this entry below.
JMU: Icing consistency is king, as I like to say! And, if you don’t make mistakes, you’re not pushing yourself hard enough to learn new things, IMO! Congrats to you on testing your limits in so many of our challenges.
Now, let’s turn to your cookie decorating style for a bit. You seem to have an affection for flowers, which perhaps stems from your cake decorating experience. Apart from flowers, what cookie decorating techniques are your favorites, and why? Which are your most challenging techniques, and how are you working to improve your skills in those areas?
ZM: Apart from making flowers, I love to do intricate piping. I loved Challenge #44 (Stringwork), as it gave me the opportunity to practice fine piping. I love brush embroidery and wet-on-wet techniques too. Drawing faces or characters is a challenge for me. Even in my cake decorating, I am not good at molding features on a character or a person. This skill is something I really want to overcome. I also need to practice painting on cookies.
JMU: It’s always great to have stretch goals! On another note: I love trying to find uses for other craft tools in cookie decorating. In your forum bio, you mentioned that you also enjoy cross-stitch and vegetable and fruit carving. Can you think of any tools used in these crafts or cake decorating that ought to be applied to cookie decorating but haven’t been yet? If so, which tools, and how would you envision using them on cookies?
ZM: OMG, Julia, how clever of you. I never thought of this question until you popped it. Many of the tools in vegetable carving are like chisels. I think it would be hard to use them with royal icing unless the royal icing was semi-dry. However, these tools could be used to imprint patterns on fondant. They would also be great for decorating edges of fondant-covered cookies. Most of the tools used in fondant decorating are used in cookie decorating too. I think the Wilton novelty cake decorating pans would be great for baking a large birthday cookie just like a cake.
JMU: I’ll have to take a look at those vegetable carving tools now – I’m always up for repurposing challenges! While we’re on the topic of other crafts, I’d love to see some examples of your cross-stitch and fruit and veggie carving, if you’re willing to share?
ZM: I am so happy to share these photos. These photos were taken a few years back . . .
JMU: Wow – so impressive! I am especially in awe of the carved red flower arrangement! Now, along the same vein as my previous question: Are any of the skills or techniques used in cross-stitch or carving transferable to cakes and cookies, in your opinion, and, if so, how?
ZM: I think cross-stitch is easily transferable. The SugarVeil Needlepoint Mat and Confectionery Icing make it easy to do a cross-stitch pattern on a cookie. As for transferring vegetable carving techniques, the tools can be used to imprint patterns on fondant, gumpaste, or even on not fully dried royal icing, as I suggested above. Also, these tools could perhaps be used for imprinting patterns when decorating gingerbread houses.
JMU: Great ideas! You’ve lived in some very interesting places (I’m envious!). Can you share with us any sweets traditions or specialties from Sri Lanka or New Zealand that you think ought to be transported to the US? And what’s been your favorite sweets-related discovery in LA?
ZM: From Sri Lanka, I would like to incorporate ghee into cookies to give them that rich buttery taste. Sri Lanka uses a lot of rice flour instead of plain flour to make their traditional sweets. Making sweets with rice flour helps people with gluten intolerance, and rice flour would also add a different texture. Many sweets unique to Sri Lanka use treacle or jaggery (palm sugar) which are products made from the sap of the palm tree cooked down to a thick syrup. These sweeteners have a low glycemic index, making them a better replacement for white sugar. The Chocolate Mille Cake, layers of thin chocolate crepes filled with a truffle mixture, is one of the light, not-so-sweet desserts I discovered here in LA.
JMU: Ooh, that cake sounds incredible, and I’d love to experiment with jaggery as well! A couple more questions . . . What’s been the most exciting or enriching aspect of your cookie journey so far, and why?
ZM: Ever since I watched your videos and joined Cookie Connection, my journey has been exciting and enriching. The cookie challenges on Cookie Connection have helped me learn techniques and made me more confident in decorating. Seeing all of the creations done by other cookie decorators motivates me to fine-tune my skills and be better at what I am doing.
JMU: It’s so validating to know that Cookie Connection is fulfilling its promise to you as a place to learn and grow. Yay! 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?
ZM: I will still be participating in the challenges. In the back of my mind, I still hope to establish a cake/cookie business. My dream is to publish a Sri Lankan cookbook. I love to teach, and I think sharing one’s knowledge helps others and ourselves.
I would like to thank you, Julia, for giving me the platform on your site to learn, share, and also feature my work. I appreciate it very much. I am so delighted to be here on Cookie Connection with all of the wonderful artists.
JMU: And I am so delighted to have you here, Zeena! I can’t wait to see your contribution(s) to our next challenge! Thank you for sharing so generously of yourself in this interview.
You can see more of Zeena's cookie work by checking out her Cookie Connection portfolio. Trust me, you'll enjoy what you see!
Cookie and photo credits: Zeena Mohammad
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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