Over the last three years that I’ve been decorating cookies, I've become a member of a club of sorts; I’d even go as far as calling it a sorority of cookie sisters. Those of you in this sweet sorority can attest to how wonderful it is to spend time sharing tales of cookie successes, cookie woes, and basically anything related to the cookie world with your sisters in dough. There aren't many areas in the baking and cooking arena where women are not only the majority, but completely dominant. If you see a beautiful cookie somewhere, your first thought is probably, “Wow, she is really talented.”
Well, that’s about to change and, in this case, change is good! This cookie sorority, which wraps around the globe and then some, needs to step back and welcome the boys. Leading this new fraternal cookie order is none other than Mike Tamplin, otherwise known as Semi Sweet Designs. He has been in the cookiesphere now for about two years and is rapidly becoming a favorite with his inventive, tongue-in-cheek designs and wonderful tutorials.
Meet Mike Tamplin of Semi Sweet Designs
KA: I’m just going to come right out and say it. I love that you have chosen to create in an area of baking completely dominated by women! There are a lot of men who are cake decorators and pastry chefs, but very few who excel in the decorated cookiesphere. Tell us how you first became interested in cookie art and how it feels to be one of the few men in the cookie area.
MT: Being one of the few men who make decorated cookies doesn’t feel so different. Well, that’s not entirely true; it was funny in the beginning. When I was just starting out, I would be commonly mistaken for a woman. I would get comments on my blog along the lines of, “Love your cookies! You go, girl!” Or when someone would share one of my posts, “Check out Semi Sweet! She has mad icing skills.” It never bothered me, though. I totally understood it was rare for a guy to being doing this type of hobby.
The cookie community has always been wonderful, supportive, and encouraging. When I started to interact with other decorators, I always felt included, never like an outsider in a female-dominated world of cookies. I’m so appreciative of that fact.
I began making cookies with my first batch of royal icing after trying to personalize a gift for my friend, Micah, who loves cookies. I wanted to make a cookie of his favorite University of Oregon hoodie that he wears all the time, so I searched the Internet for tutorials. I became hooked right from the beginning.
KA: I believe that your talent and success with cookies will ultimately open the door to more men decorating cookies as a hobby or small business. What do you think?
MT: Definitely. The world of custom decorated cookies is constantly growing, which means there’s higher likelihood more male cookiers will come along. I’ve already seen it, actually. On occasion, I've had men contact me through my blog asking specific questions about how I did something or wanting more information on a certain technique or tool I used. They are out there.
KA: Currently Semi Sweet is a hobby for you. Have you considered turning it into a small business since Washington has passed a cottage food law?
MT: I have considered it, but after a few months, abandoned the idea. I dabbled with a few customer orders in the beginning, but I couldn’t balance a full-time job while completing orders on the side. I had no free time to do the cookie ideas I wanted to do. Also, it didn’t help that I’m such a spaz. I stressed out over what the customers would think of the cookies once they saw them. After completing a few orders, I realized it wasn’t fun for me. Now I make cookies of what I want, when I want to make them. I’m much happier this way.
KA: You are an aerospace engineer. You also seem very precise in your decorating. How do you come up with your ideas and translate them to cookie form? Does your left-engineer brain dominate the design or do you tend to become more right-creative brain as you roll out your dough?
MT: I get that assumption a lot - that I’m precise due to my engineering background. Honestly, I’ve always been picky about how things looked. As a kid, my school art projects had to be perfect or presented in a certain way. (Yes, I was THAT kid.) Even now, outside of the kitchen, I’m the same way. You should see my Christmas trees. I go nuts with holiday decorations.
But back to engineering, I guess it has influenced how I plan a design. I have to draw everything out, and to size, exactly how I think things should look on a cookie. There’s no winging it for me. I need a plan of action before I move on to the icing stage. Also, engineering might have contributed to my often nerdy or geeky designs. I do a lot of sci-fi and fantasy-themed cookies. (Not that all engineers are sci-fi or fantasy fans. I just don’t know many who aren’t.)
KA: I’ve noticed you create a 3-D effect on some of your cookies with the character’s eyes, mouth, and more. A good example is the eyes on Mickey and Minnie from your Star War set (above). Another example is the eyes and mouths on your recent Halloween ghosts and pumpkins (below). How do you do that?
MT: That’s all credited to Marlyn of Montreal Confections. She did this YouTube tutorial on doll eyes that blew my mind. I’ve applied her technique every time I need to do eyes, but it also proves useful when I need to do mouths. Eyes and mouths can be tricky. For instance, if you’re doing a familiar character design and the eyes and mouth features are off in the slightest, it could make the overall design a bit wonky. Marlyn’s technique, I feel, gives you more control during the icing process.
The technique is simple. Apply a very thin layer of very thinned-down flood icing to the surface of the cookie using a food-only paintbrush or an offset spatula. After that icing dries, which is fairly quick, outline the edges of the eye or mouths; then flood the outer sections of the cookie. Once that dries, add the inner details like the pupils, teeth, and/or tongues. This leaves a neat dimension to those features on the cookie.
KA: People love that you provide tutorials on many of the cookies you design. How do you feel about sharing your ideas and techniques? Do you welcome people recreating your designs?
MT: I love sharing tips and tricks on my blog. I guess it’s my way of giving back to the cookie community. I would have never attempted making decorated cookies myself had it not been for the informative cookie blogs out there putting together awesome step-by-step tutorials. The cookies I make and post on my blog are free for anyone to recreate. In return, I only ask for a quick mention or a link back to my post if that’s where people got their inspiration.
KA: Speaking of tutorials, the Halloween ghosts were incredibly cute and used several techniques on each cookie: (1) you used two cutters to create the design; (2) you re-purposed an acorn cutter for the ghost; (3) you airbrushed a background pattern on some; (4) you painted on a flat coat of color for eyes and mouths to create a 3-D effect as you explained above; and (5) you used a food color marker to trace the design. Did I miss any? Do many of your cookies involve so many techniques?
MT: I think you left off making royal icing transfers for the inner white plaques.
Ha ha! I guess I did get a little carried away with that set, but there was a reason for that. Those Halloween ghost cookies were my contribution to Jill FCS’ GO BO bake sale, so it felt appropriate to go the extra mile with making them.
Looking back through my archives, I guess I do use a lot of techniques when I design cookies. I say if you have the tools and the time, why not use them. However, when I put together a tutorial, I try to keep it simple, while also giving the reader some more challenging options afterwards if they want to give the cookies more oomph. Some good examples of cookies with different options are my Star Trek Valentines, Hobbit Doors, and Star Wars Ewok tutorials. I like showing the range of possibilities you can take with cookies.
KA: Many cookiers use a Kopykake projector (KK) to help with corporate logo orders or detailed designs on cookies. Do you use a KK or work freehand?
MT: Yes, I have a KK and I love it. Mainly because I don’t think I could do writing on cookies if I didn’t have one. It is the only reason my script work is centered and straight. Also, a KK greatly speeds up the decorating process. A lot of prep work (making detailed templates, marking on the cookie, etc.) is needed that could be skipped if you have a KK. I did manage fine without a KK most of my first year, but I do remember how much quicker I decorated cookies after buying one. I would highly recommend a KK to anyone who has a cookie business for productivity reasons alone.
When I make tutorials, I try to avoid designs that utilize my KK because I realize most people new to the cookie world don’t have one. It’s not a necessary tool to make great looking cookies, but it is nice to have if you’re willing to make the investment.
KA: A favorite question: What are your “can’t-live-without” tools for baking and decorating, and why?
MT: I love PME tips, especially the #1.5 size. I own Wilton brand tips and use them in emergencies (like when I run out of clean PME tips), but PME just makes the piping experience so much better. I feel can get into really detailed designs due to their longer tips lengths.
I also love having an extra KitchenAid mixing bowl. I store my royal icing in the bowl after mixing a batch, so having an extra one around is nice when I need to make something else at the time. Hmm . . . what else? Oh, toothpicks! Parchment paper!
KA: I was fascinated by your Game of Thrones dragon eggs (below). How long did it take you to make the eggs? The scalloped, raised scale effect on the eggs looks very difficult to create. Did it take more than one attempt?
MT: They took the better part of a day to finish. To get the effect of the puffy scales, I had to flood every other scale one row at a time, working my way from the bottom to the top. To speed up the drying process between rows and prevent possible cratering, I placed the cookies in front of an oscillating heated fan.
These cookies weren’t that bad to do because they only required one color each, unlike most of my other cookie designs. Actually, making the grid sketch of the scales took longer, like two days, to get the round perspective right. The sketch took multiple attempts, but after I had a grid I was happy with, the cookies were no problem at all.
KA: Airbrushing seems to have played a large part in creating a more realistic portrayal of the eggs. How long have you been using an airbrush and do you find it easy to use? What tips can you offer to achieve the effect on the eggs?
MT: I randomly won my airbrush from a blog giveaway by Ali Bee’s Bake Shop, and when the package came in the mail, I didn’t open the box for months! I was just too intimidated by the machine. Once I got over my initial hesitation, I found it is kind of fun to use. I’ve only used it a handful of times, so I could still use more practice.
My advice would be to always go light and go over it again if needed. You can always add color, but taking it away is a challenge. Apply a heavier coat on the edges to give it a rounded highlight. Oh, and keep your hand moving as you press the trigger to avoid unsightly blotches.
KA: The nautical sea life cookies you created (below) by using fondant on top of a royal icing base were stunning. How do you feel about using fondant on cookies? Have you used it again? Would you recommend royal icing or glaze users to branch out and give fondant a try?
MT: I had fun using fondant and have plans to use it again on future cookies. To me, it’s like playing with Play-Doh. Fondant and molds are great for adding structured detail and dimension to an otherwise flat cookie. It’s quick and easy, perfect for when you’re crunched for time.
KA: You are very generous in recommending other cookiers' pages and blogs for inspiration. Who inspired you when you first started?
MT: The tutorials of Sweet Sugarbelle and Bake at 350 were the very first blogs I found. Those ladies really inspired to me give cookie decorating a try. They were very generous with recommending other cookiers’ work, too. That’s how I later found The Bearfoot Baker’s and LilaLoa’s blogs, which later led me to more cookiers' pages on Facebook.
KA: What are your favorite two sets of cookies and why? What challenges did you face creating them?
MT: One of my favorites was my steampunk New Year’s Eve set. It’s probably the set that took the most planning because there were a lot of designs in that batch. I was just really pleased at the outcome after I was finished with them. I found it challenging to come up with a New Year's Eve theme that was unique and hadn’t been done before, something that strayed from the party confetti and noisemaker designs.
My other favorite has to be my Fathers' Day hanging neckties. It was just so out of the box for me, and gratifying to see the idea actually working as planned. The challenging part was getting the mechanics of the idea to work. The tie portion had to be simple and light enough for the hook to hold it up, and the hook portion had to be sturdy enough to hold up the tie. It was a yin-yang type of construction.
KA: What are your cookie plans for the future? Do you see yourself expanding into teaching or possibly tackling other forms of baking and decorating?
MT: For the near future, I plan to continue to do what I’m doing now - just keep posting ideas on my blog and seeing where that leads. I would eventually love to branch out and try my hand at decorating a cake. I always wanted to attend a local cake decorating class or view online course options.
KA: When all is said and done, how do you feel when you have finished a set of great cookies, you have written an informative post on your blog, and someone is going to get a delicious surprise?
MT: I don’t breathe a sigh of relief until I get my first form of positive feedback from someone. It’s horrible, I know. I’m so critical of myself during the decorating process. The typical thoughts running through my head when I make cookies: “Ugh, I think I hate it. I think hate it. Oh, you like what I made? Thanks! I love it too! It’s my favorite set of all time!” This is why I don’t do customer orders.
Photo credits: All photos and cookies by Mike Tamplin
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.