Cookie blogs. They come in all shapes, sizes, and readership. They contain wonderful information on everything “cookie” and give you a peek into another cookier’s world. For me, however, there is just one hiccup with blogs: I don’t read them. (And yes, I see the irony in this.) But please, don’t get me wrong - I want to read them all; I just know that if I start religiously following one, it will then become 20 and so on and I will never, ever leave my computer. I’m sort of obsessive that way. Up until now I’ve been able to visit a blog, take a peek at the photos, peruse the topics, and leave before I become addicted. However, doing the research for this article proved to be my undoing.
I had planned on purposefully skimming through Sweet Hope Cookie’s blog like any other, but that was the problem. It’s not like any other blog. It is more. It is about cookies, but also love, loss, hope, determination, and laughter. After an hour of reading posts, I was a snotty mess with a tear-soaked face, laughing out loud and smiling at my computer screen. You see, Sweet Hope Cookies is all about a woman who found a way to support a cause so close to her heart and to remember her brother with every cookie she bakes. Plus, she’s really funny and inspirational, but that will become obvious as you read on. And if you don’t already follow Sweet Hope Cookie’s blog, start reading it from the beginning with a box of tissues nearby.
Somewhere between creating delicious new cookie flavors and putting the finishing touches on some of her edible art, Anita took a break to talk to me about Sweet Hope Cookies and her part in the cookiesphere.
ACH: Karen, thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to share more about my brother Randy and what Sweet Hope Cookies is all about, but on top of that, to be able to talk about cookies to a site full of cookiephiles. Well, it just doesn’t get better than that!
KA: When asked why they started decorating cookies, most cookiers fall into two main categories. They either wanted a new hobby where they could create for family and friends or they wanted to start a small business to make extra money. Anita, you started Sweet Hope Cookies for a very different reason. When did Sweet Hope cookies begin and why?
ACH: Sweet Hope Cookies began on Valentines Day 2011, a time when I was watching ALS* take my brother from me bit by bit and there was nothing I could do to stop it. While I was powerless to stop what it was doing to him, I made a promise that, as relentless as ALS was in destroying Randy’s life, I’d be just as relentless in honoring his memory and fighting against this disease. Consider Sweet Hope Cookies less an altruistic act than a sister’s revenge. *(ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis referred to as "Lou Gehrig's Disease," is a progressive neurodegenerative disease.)
The truth is that, from the start, Sweet Hope Cookies was as much for me as it was for any noble intention. The day after Randy received his final diagnosis, we buried our mom and, shortly after, my mother-in-law. The grief was overwhelming and the only way I coped was when I’d head into the kitchen to roll out cookie dough and get lost in the rhythm and movement of decorating cookies. There were so many late nights when I wanted to cry out to God, but I had no words and so decorating cookies became my prayer. In those quiet hours with my whole being focused on the simple movements of flooding and detailing cookies, I’d feel God’s presence near to me. Wow. How’s that for a little self-disclosure?
KA: Thank you for being so open with us. You obviously loved baking prior to Sweet Hope Cookies, but how did you decide to choose cookies as a way to raise funds and support for Randy and ALS? Who inspired you to bake?
ACH: Of all the popular baked goods, cookies were less expensive to make and easier to ship. I did, however, make a valiant attempt at cake pops, but ours was a relationship doomed from the start. I eventually abandoned the siren sound of Bakerella and fell under the magical spell of Sweet Sugarbelle.
My grandma inspired me to bake. Every memory I carry of my grandma has her in the kitchen with flour dusted over her face and hair and her loud floral dress stiff with splotches of drying dough. Grandma baked cookies five days a week in the big commercial kitchen my grandparents had in the basement of their farmhouse; cookies that were then given to busloads of school children who passed through our family dairy each day on school field trips. She was my inspiration for baking, but more than that, she helped me understand that a cookie or a cake was more than a cookie or a cake when done out of love.
KA: When did you realize this was a passion and the perfect combination of supporting your cause and satisfying your creative side?
ACH: I knew it had all come together the first time I decorated cookies and I was not only given a check made out to The ALS Association, but the person was delighted with the cookies. I enjoy the process of decorating cookies, but I wouldn’t say decorating cookies is a passion of mine. What I am passionate about is the power of cookies to make a difference in the lives of people. Whether it’s the money raised in selling cookies that in turn provides resources for those living with ALS or that simple, but exquisite moment of delight a decorated cookie can bring to the person who receives it.
KA: It is well known in the cookie world that you are a very charitable person. Recently, in honor of your brother’s 65th birthday, you put forth a challenge to Facebook and blog friends to participate in random acts of kindness. It all started with some great little coffee bean cookies, a surprising outcome to the people who entered your giveaway, and you sitting in your local Starbucks with a huge smile on your face. Tell us about it.
ACH: What a blast that all turned out to be! On a whim I made some chocolate espresso cookie dough, decorated little coffee bean cookies, and decided to give the cookies away to two people. The only stipulation was instead of entering the giveaway for themselves, people would enter to win the cookies for a person who mattered in their lives. Over the next few days people left the most amazing comments about people in their lives, and it just came to me that everyone needed to win. I announced on what would have been Randy’s 65th birthday that I’d spend the day baking coffee bean cookies for each of the 57 special people in my readers' lives.
Then I had another idea. I couldn’t help imagining how awesome it would be if 65 readers of my blog would each agree to do one small random act of kindness on my brother’s birthday. When I proposed the idea, 65 people signed on within hours and, by the next day, 100 wonderful, amazing, generous, and good people had jumped on board. And so, on May 1, 2013, 100-plus people each took time out of their day to do a random act of kindness in the name of my brother, a collective action of generosity and love that makes me tear up to this day.
On the same day, I packaged and shipped out 57 boxes of coffee bean cookies across the country and then I headed to Starbucks where I sat in a corner for one hour and watched while customer after customer went to pay for their coffee and instead were given a card that read:
“Today would have been my brother Randy’s 65th birthday had he not died from ALS two years ago. In celebration of my brother’s life and to honor all those living with ALS, I’m committed to doing 65 random acts of kindness today so enjoy!”
And by the way, as much as I’m genuinely moved by the comment about me being known in the cookie world as a charitable person, I’m just one of many and I could not be more honored to be included among all of you. The collective compassion and giving spirit among the cookie world knocks my knees out from under me time and time again.
KA: I agree, but suffice it to say you remain an example of a truly charitable person and it is inspiring to those who meet you. I’ll take the spotlight off you a bit and change the subject to something delicious! Sweet Hope Cookies has become well known in the cookiesphere for your inventive recipes and unique flavors. As of now, how many flavors have you come up with and what are your top three? Do you have recipes posted on your blog for all the cookie flavors?
ACH: Over the past year I’ve come to love experimenting with flavors. While everyone else is cookie thinking, it seems I’ve branched off into flavor thinking. I have about 25 flavors at this point that I’ve tested and tweaked and another 50 or more that I’m working through on paper. Any time I nail a flavor combination, I share it on my blog and I have six new flavors I’ll be adding within the next couple weeks. The most popular flavor among cookiers seems to be Cinnamon Roll; among my customers, it’s a tie between lemon and coconut; and my personal favorite outside of those would be the Toasted Sesame Seed Honey.
Giving credit where credit is due, no foundation is better than LilaLoa’s Vanilla Variation or her End-All Chocolate Cookies recipe when it comes to building cookie flavors. I can’t thank Georganne enough for being so generous as to allow me to use them for my own cookies.
KA: You recently made two sets of incredible diner and soda pop cookies. The realism of the French fries, hot dog, and corn dogs were amazing! What was your inspiration for these sets? How long did it take you to create them and what were the challenges?
ACH: It actually started with the idea for making crinkle-cut French fries and from there I wanted to make something to go with them. Hamburgers seemed an obvious choice, but there were already a bunch of amazing dimensional hamburger cookies out there, so I went with the hot dog and corn dog. Well, it’s not like you’re going to eat a hot dog and French fries without having something to drink, so I decided to make a couple soft drinks. And as long as I was making soft drinks, why not make the flavor match the cookie? So now I’ve got soft drinks, hot dogs, and French fries, but wouldn’t you need a napkin to wipe the catsup off your chin, which means you need a napkin holder, right? And how would you have any catsup, if you didn’t have a catsup bottle? But since some people prefer mustard, then you need a mustard bottle. And who eats French fries without extra salt? But if you’re going to make a salt shaker, then you better have a pepper shaker close by. And as long as there's everything for a diner table setting, I might as well finish it up with a sugar shaker. Who knows? Someone might want to order coffee after dinner. Oh wait! Coffee? Coffee cup? Creamer? Somebody, stop me.
KA: I think the coffee scenario sounds like another perfect set of cookies for the future! Anita, you create wonderful photographs of your cookies. Obviously a lot of time and effort goes into creating the photos. What photography and placement tips can you give cookiers who struggle with creating great cookie photos?
ACH: Okay, photographs. My biggest challenge in photographing cookies, aside from getting them to smile, has been getting the right lighting since I don’t get much natural light into our house. A few months ago I bought what can best be described as a one-sided bath tub with overhead natural lighting and white reflecting boards. For the first time I’m getting photos that pop even before they hit editing. The other piece of equipment that’s cranked up the quality of my photos is a selection of vinyl backdrops. If you’re only photographing a couple cookies, then the 12 x 12-inch ones are more than large enough; but I prefer the 24 x 24-inch variety since I tend to photograph cookies in sets rather than individually. I also have several 4 x 4-foot backdrops that I put on top of my kitchen counter so it looks like I’m rolling out dough on wood.
In terms of offering any tips, take photographs from every angle and take multiple photographs. When posting my soda cookies, I used 10 to 12 photos out of the nearly 100 I snapped. It’s so easy when checking your images on the camera not to notice the image is slightly blurry or you positioned the cookie with the biggest icing crater in the front!
KA: Lately you have included some unique props in your cookie photos which appear to be isomalt decorations. Is this something you have just recently learned? Should we all experiment with isomalt to create cool props?
ACH: Oh, if you haven’t played with isomalt, you don’t know what fun you’re missing! You also don’t know the searing pain of a drop of melted isomalt hitting your skin, but that’s another story. I used isomalt for the first time at the beginning of the year when making glass windows for a gingerbread house cookie, but recently I’ve used it to make the campfire for my s’mores cookies and the cactus in the photo shoot for my taco cookies.
KA: Do you have a large selection of props for taking cookie photos?
ACH: Dana (my partner) laughed and just said, “Oh, let me answer that!” The answer would be "yes." I have a couple shelves in the garage and a huge storage container filled with photo props stacked in the dining room on top of a matching container filled with flavor ingredients. As it happens, my taste in home dÉcor makes for great cookie props too, even if it makes for questionable taste in home dÉcor.
KA: What icing do you use? Is it a simple royal icing or your own recipe? Have you experimented with glaze or other icing?
ACH: Gasp. Do I use royal icing? Could you just pull the dagger out of my heart? I need a moment to collect myself . . . Okay. I’m ready to continue. I am now and always have been a Glaze Geek, a Glazer, a loyal member of the Gals of Glaze. Glaze, the perfect medley of corn syrup, powdered sugar, water, vanilla and almond extract, and the invisible sweet nectar of heaven.
KA: Sorry about that! I feel the same way about my royal icing. I’ve never mastered glaze, but considering how great your cookies look, I might try it one more time. Besides your glaze, what are your “can’t live without” tools for decorating?
ACH: Oh, I love this question! Okay, so in no particular order, I can’t live without . . .
- Rikon wide-mouth icing bottles. I originally used the more common and less expensive narrow-mouth bottles, but I was this side short of losing my mind trying to get glaze in and out of those pea-sized openings.
- A washing machine lingerie bag. Throw your used piping tips inside and then toss the bag in the top of the dishwasher. Done and done.
- Microplane or zester. The perfect tool for smoothing the edges and surface of cookies, especially when adding nuts, coconut, or other little bits of tasty things to your dough.
- A mini hand broom and dustpan for cleaning up the dining room table before my wife sees the mess I’ve made.
- A six-pack of Diet Coke and a Netflix account. Essential.
- And toothpicks, toothpicks, toothpicks!
KA: Your Game of Thrones cookies were excellent and had a very distinctive look to them. They looked old and weathered. How did you achieve the look?
ACH: Oh thanks, Karen! Originally I was going to flood each cookie in a different color and then add the black insignias to the center of each, but the sample I did looked too stark and much too tidy for the theme, so before adding the insignias, I dipped a paintbrush in black airbrush paint (about the same as using thinned coloring gel) and flicked it on the flooded cookie. To do the edging, I ran a line of black glaze around the edge and then pulled the glaze in using a paintbrush. I was really happy with the finished cookies, and the guy I made them for was over the moon!
KA: Do you use a KopyKake (KK)? If so, is it irreplaceable now? Do you think a KK is necessary for a cookier wanting to go into business?
ACH: I have a KK and, while I wouldn’t say it’s irreplaceable, it’s definitely nice to have when doing a large amount of writing on cookies or duplicates of a more detailed design. The KK is an amazing tool, especially for cookiers who are running a full-scale business with corporate accounts and orders in the hundreds. At the same time, in a way I wish KK's didn’t exist at all. It just seems to me they’re feeding into this excessive drive for perfection so many among us have, and I can’t help but wonder if creating a hundred perfectly identical cookies doesn’t defeat the whole idea of custom-designed handmade cookies? Maybe customers who are demanding carbon-copy cookies would be better served by printed edible images rather than hand-iced custom cookies. You might have noticed I have some pretty strong opinions on the topic, so let’s move on to the next question. Why look! There it is.
KA: Anita, I find it refreshing you feel that way about KK’s and carbon-copy cookies. I don’t own a KK and I am proud to say my cookies are shining examples of imperfection. It’s all on purpose. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.) So, how long does the average cookie take you to decorate?
ACH: That’s hard to estimate with glazed cookies. So little time is spent in actually decorating the cookies when compared to waiting for the icing to dry between applications to prevent color bleed or to build up dimension. I spent a total of 13 minutes decorating the blue “mommy’s boy” cookie and more than 26 hours waiting for various layers to dry. Score one point for royal icing.
KA: What are your favorite sets of cookies you have done and why?
ACH: My favorite set out of the hundreds I’ve made over the past two and a half years was the first set I decorated after Randy died. They were for my niece Rosie’s first birthday. It had only been three weeks since Randy had died, so when it came time to make Rosie’s cookies, I taped the photo from Randy’s memorial service on the kitchen wall next to my standing mixer (where it remains to this day) and proceeded to pour my heart, soul, and tears into her cookies.
My sweet buttered corn cookies were about as close as I’ve come to having any of my cookies go viral, with more than 20,000 views and something like 80 shares. I had so much fun coming up with the design for the photo shoot and I knew it made for a nice photo, but I just had no idea how much it would catch people’s attention. Naturally, it was a nice moment for my ever-so-fragile cookie ego, but even more so I was thrilled beyond words at the number of people who saw it and liked my page, which gives me the opportunity to share ALS awareness with a bigger audience.
KA: What direction do you see Sweet Hope Cookies going in the next year? Are there any special projects in the works?
ACH: Over the past two and a half years, I’ve raised 20,000 dollars for the ALS Association and spread awareness about ALS to thousands between my blog, Facebook, Flickr, and other social media. For that I’m truly grateful, but considering what it’s going to take to find a cure that will rid the world of ALS, it’s hardly anything at all. To raise a million dollars and spread awareness to a million people is where my dreaming takes me. I’m shaping my dream, and next month I’m taking it to the ALS Association to see if, with their knowledge and help, it can happen.
I also have a plan to complete a book that could potentially bring in more money to the ALS Association than I’m able to raise by doing one order of cookies at a time. The book will include stories about Randy and information about ALS told through words and cookies, while the other half of the book will include flavor recipes and simple and fun ways for the rolled cookie novice to decorate cookies. All the money from the sales of the book will go to The ALS Association.
KA: What would your brother Randy say to you about all you’ve done with Sweet Hope Cookies . . . all the money and awareness you’ve raised for ALS and the people you’ve inspired?
ACH: “I love you too, Sis,” and that would be more than enough.
Photo credits: All photos by Anita Cadonau-Huseby
Karen Anderson is a cookie and cake decorator located just outside of New Orleans, LA. Since the passing of the Louisiana Cottage Food Law, Karen is now enjoying the freedom of being able to bake from home. After spending four years as a columnist and writer for the New Orleans Times Picayune, she decided to combine two of her passions: creating edible cookie art and writing. Visit Karen at www.facebook.com/sugardeaux and follow her here on Cookie Connection.
Photo credit: Karen Anderson
Note: How DID You Do That? is a regular Cookie Connection blog feature, written by Karen Anderson, which reveals the inside scoop behind inspiring cookie designs. Its content expresses the views of the author and interviewee, and not necessarily those of this site, its owners, its administrators, or its employees. To catch up on all of Karen's past posts, click here.