My apologies, it's now been more than few weeks since the results of my 2020 cookie art competition at That Takes the Cake Show were announced! But, promptly on the heels of that show came CookieCon and then . . . the dreaded coronavirus, which has thrown most of our lives into a tailspin. While I had every intention of sharing the incredible winning entries much sooner, I am rather glad to be doing it now. We could all use an injection of inspiration and excitement to brighten these quiet days at home, and, I assure you, there are few things more exciting in cookies than these winning pieces! In this Spotlight, I showcase the first-, second-, and third-place winners in the 2-D cookie category, and then I'll return next week to do the same with the 3-D category.
As with the recap from my show in Missouri last summer, I asked each of our winners to answer a series of questions about themselves, their entries, and the challenges they encountered along the way in getting their piece from design concept to show floor. Below, I've strung together each person's answers into one longer narrative about his/her competition journey, with the hopes of inspiring more of you to compete in the future, and to learn and grow through that experience.
But, before the big reveal, a couple of words about the competition . . . The theme this year was "mythology", which had to be expressed with no less than 12 flat (aka 2-D, unconstructed) cookies that could be laying down or standing up, but not overlapping or obscuring one another. Judges were asked to evaluate each entry across seven criteria ranging from number and difficulty of techniques to mastery of those techniques and overall appeal.
So, here's who caught the judges' eyes, starting with the third-place winner . . .
Third-Place Winner, 2-D Category
Elizabeth Boyd, MomsCookieArt, San Rafael, California, USA
First, here's a beauty shot of Elizabeth's winning entry:
The judges loved Elizabeth's color choices and how seamlessly the pieces of her cookie puzzle fit together to create a larger-than-life picture. And here's what Elizabeth had to say about her cookie journey and the particular experience of making this piece . . .
"I’ve been decorating cookies for almost four years. So far, cookie decorating has been a hobby. I mostly decorate cookies for my kids' birthdays, for the school bake sale, for a holiday or two, and, if my time allows, as an occasional entry in the county fair. My mother inspired me to be creative artistically, and, not to sound like a cliché, but Julia Usher inspired me to decorate cookies. My mother passed away when I was seven years old, and I remember she made our birthday cakes using molds (Tweety Bird and R2D2) . . . in typical 70s-style, they would be piped entirely with a star tip. She also sewed clothes for my siblings and me, made dolls, and cross-stitched. Being that I enjoyed her creativity for a short amount of time, I wanted to experience those creative moments with my girls, now ages six and eight. When my girls were much younger, we would bake cookies together in our pajamas (why waste the morning getting dressed!), and the girls would decorate them with M&Ms or frosting using a spoon.
Before becoming a stay-at-home mom, I was a commercial interior designer. When my girls were around ages two and four, I was searching to fill the void left behind by that job; I wanted to be able to use my design skills again and have it be enjoyable. I saw a flyer for a gingerbread contest open to professionals and non-professionals. I was curious, "Could I do it?" I saw the contest as a chance to tackle the challenge of designing and building something completely edible while making it aesthetically pleasing. I decided to try and, since I’d never decorated artistically with royal icing or any medium before, I knew I didn't want to spend a lot of money on supplies (piping bags, tips, etc.) in case it turned out that I couldn’t decorate at all. So I started my research, and the first thing I came across was Julia Usher’s video on YouTube about how to make a parchment cone. I watched it and was amazed! Then I researched the cookies she created, and I thought, "WOW! The cookie world is incredible!" Truth be told, I probably watched all of Julia Usher’s videos that were available in 2015 to understand the basics of cookie decorating. This experience opened my eyes to a whole world I didn’t know even existed, and I was inspired for the challenge! I didn’t win that gingerbread contest, but I didn’t care. I created something that people could see and enjoy, which was similar to my past career life, except no building codes were necessary!
I have entered four cookie competitions and won three of them, including this one. I also won at the Marin County Fair in 2016 and 2017, both times first place, Best of Show, and their fair theme award. The most special win is the Julia Usher competition, because I've been a fan of her cookie art ever since I watched that first video about parchment cones. [EDITOR'S NOTE: I am blushing. Thanks so much for all of your very kind words!]
It turned out that everything that I did for my cookie entry [for Julia's competition] was something that I had never done before. I usually bake sugar cookies, but I was worried about the humidity in Texas, so I researched high-humidity gingerbread and royal icing recipes. I knew I wanted my entry to look like stained glass as much as possible. I did not want it to look like all the elements were outlined in black, and then flooded. I had tried this method once before and, to me, the matte finish on the icing is not a good representation of stained glass. So, I researched painted stained glass cookies and came across a method similar to painting with watercolors that used a mixture of light corn syrup, vodka, and food coloring as a paint. I decided to use almond extract instead of vodka, because I have small children who are curious about my experiments and like to do what I am doing. I experimented with the corn syrup-to-almond extract ratio to determine the best sheen, and the quantity of added food coloring to control the color intensity. I also experimented with texture. Glass comes in many textures: smooth, rippled, ribbed, bubbled, etc. I wanted to apply texture to areas to show dimension and movement.
My cookie entry consisted of 12 cookies, and I put in three weeks from start to finish. I mostly worked on it while the girls were in school and on one or two Saturdays. I made about two dozen rectangular cookies, each 3 1/2 x 4 1/2 inches; then picked the ones that were closest in thickness and filed down the sides to make them square. As I filed them to square the edges, I laid them out in order, touching side to side, to ensure the entire display would be straight. Although I planned on having a 1/8-inch gap between all of the cookies in the finished display, I still wanted them all to be as straight as possible to complete the concept.
My design process always involves lots of sketches and key words. I thought the best way to communicate a story with a 12-cookie minimum and a 2-D entry would be in stained glass panel format. I love the way that the imagery on a stained glass panel series is slightly interrupted by the frame that each image sits in, and how you have to visually connect the interrupted lines. When I first started, I didn’t know what my image would be, but I knew I wanted to portray it through a stained glass concept.
I was excited about the theme, because "mythology" is a broad subject and there are many cultures from which to draw. With the stained glass panel format, I thought a creature that showed lots of movement would work best and so I chose a dragon from Japanese mythology. These dragons are often associated with the sea.
What was the most challenging part of my design? Well, I used a number of new techniques, so I had to make sure to keep on schedule, and be careful not to spend too much time experimenting with new methods. I had to allow myself some time to rework things, but also know when to stop.
As for advice to others hoping to compete . . . Just go for it! As I tell my girls, "Nothing ventured, nothing gained." Win or not, the process is what matters: the courage to enter the contest, the excitement and creativity that develops from designing and planning, the curiosity of experimenting with new methods and loving what develops (or not loving the outcome, but problem-solving how to change it) . . . Then, once at the competition, meeting wonderful new people and seeing everyone’s amazingly creative entries are very inspiring and rewarding too." ~ Elizabeth Boyd
Now, on to second place . . .
Second-Place Winner, 2-D Category
Maythe del Angel, maysugarlady.weebly.com, San Antonio, Texas, USA
First, here's a partial picture of Maythe's winning entry! This quartet of cookies, all portraits of Mexican goddesses, is just one-third of what she placed on the judging table! (You'll see some solo shots of the other pieces in the interview that follows.)
The judges were particularly impressed with the wide range of techniques that Maythe so expertly employed, and the interesting depth and dimension she achieved in each of her 12 portraits. Here's what Maythe had to say about her experience making these pieces.
"I've been making sweets since 2011, but cookies only since last year. I moved to Texas from Mexico in 2016, and have been a full-time cake decorator since 2018. I've been doing different kinds of art for most of my life, but, since I discovered sugar as a medium, my life has changed completely. I was first inspired to explore cookie decorating by watching Julia Usher's videos and the amazing art work that she develops.
Since I have spent most of my time as a cake decorator and sugar artist, working on big showpieces, the challenge with cookies is their size. You don’t have a big canvas to express yourself!
The first cookie competition I entered was last year's Gingerbread Cookie Competition by Ripley’s Museum in San Antonio, and I won first place. This competition was just my second time competing in cookies!
However, this year was my fourth time attending That Takes the Cake. I always compete in cakes and special techniques at this show (and have been placing!), but, in 2020, it was super hard to get big pieces done, since I was both an instructor and a vendor at the show. But . . . I knew that I HAD to do Julia's competition! I do not consider myself a cookier, but art is art!
I tried a lot of different techniques for this competition. Since I had to present 12 pieces, I tried a different technique on each cookie. My main skill is painting, so I did it with different mediums like cocoa butter with powdered colors and powdered colors with my special liquid medium to make watercolors. My other skills are sculpture and hand-modeling, so I hand-modeled some of the cookie dough itself (photo below). I also used modeling chocolate, fondant (a mix of both white and painted), isomalt, hand-modeled wafer paper (second photo below), and even embossed cocoa butter! I used gingerbread cookie dough specifically for construction just to have a more stable canvas.
I put less than 15 hours into my entry. I baked the cookies on Sunday, but I didn't start decorating until Tuesday and then worked through Thursday, but just after work at about 7 pm until 2 or 3 am in the morning.
The "mythology" theme was hard because there were a lot of options from which to choose. But I wanted my cookies to represent me, my ancestors, my culture, and my art. My ultimate inspirations were Mayan and Aztec goddesses - all the colors and textures that I could use blew my mind and expanded my creativity.
The most challenging part of my entry was the number of cookies that I had to present! I didn’t want to be bored doing the same design 12 times, and I wanted my design to have a sense of history and a story. If you put your soul and all your effort into a design, and people like your art - even if the techniques aren't clean enough - then you're a winner. The techniques can be improved next time.
As for advice to other potential competitors in Julia's competition: DO IT! Go for it! It's worth it, not just for the prizes (BTW, they are amazing!), but for the experience to create, to be brave and share your art with the world, and to express yourself. Just try that technique, that color, or that design that has been in your mind, and enjoy it!" ~ Maythe del Angel
And, last but certainly not least, the first-place winner . . . drum roll, please . . .
First-Place Winner, 2-D Category
Alicia Arbaugh, www.royalravencookies.com, Round Rock, Texas, USA
This stunning Mother Earth composition was Alicia's winning entry . . .
The judges were wowed by Alicia's meticulous piping and hand-drawn details, as well as by her sublimely smooth and precise flooding on top. Read on for Alicia's story!
"I started decorating cookies about four years ago. I took a class locally at Make It Sweet in Austin and only made cookies for my running group at Christmas. They looked terrible, but people loved them. When a friend offered to pay for cookies in exchange for a donation to my marathon fundraiser a year later, a business was born! The orders (and donations) rolled in, and they haven’t stopped since. They helped distract me after the death of a dear friend and gave me something to turn to during a really difficult time.
I am a part-time physical therapist assistant in my “real life” and a part-time cookie decorator. I love working on cookies because they allow me to be creative and explore my artistic side. Making something beautiful on a smaller scale is challenging, and seeing the completed project is rewarding.
I’ve entered the That Takes the Cake cookie competition for the past four years (prior to Julia bringing her competition to Austin). I didn’t realize cookies were a “thing” and was completely mortified by my first entry. I still managed to win second place at that first competition, and I was hooked. That’s when I discovered the rest of the cookie world on Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook. I’ve placed at That Takes the Cake each year that I’ve entered, with another second place in 2018 and third place in 2019. I’ve also placed at CookieCon (in the Advanced Games category, 2019) and on last year’s Cookie Rehab Ahoy cruise (third place in Advanced 2-D). This first-place win is the most special to me, as it’s taken a lot of hard work to get here! It’s also a great feeling to be recognized by cookie judges. I admire all of them so much!
I had so many ideas that did not pan out for this year’s competition. I tested out baking flower and leaf cookies in molds (photo above), which went well, until I tried to color them. I used my regular recipe, and the dough absorbed airbrush and petal dust coloring in a way that didn’t mesh with the crispness of the large centerpiece. I tried dipping the molded cookies, but lost the delicate floral and leaf detail. I finally tried painting thin royal icing on the cookies and decided that it wasn’t clean enough to add to the project. After revisiting the rules, I realized my vision wouldn’t work as the cookies could not overlap. I then decided to do small, detailed flowers and leaves in the style of the centerpiece. The bark base was made of a giant cookie, as were the wedge, sun, and moon. The sun and moon were dipped cookies (photo below), and they were very challenging as they were very thin. I probably made 20 of them before I had two clean enough to use.
I put at least 30 hours into this piece, as I had to redo the Mother Earth cookie a week before the show. I completed the bulk of it long before the show, but I was not satisfied with her face. And if you are creating a cookie with a person, the face is critical! I also spent a lot of time waiting for sections to dry. There are no redos on cookies with this many layers of icing.
I decided to go with this Mother Earth piece when I saw the original piece of art that inspired it. It was so detailed and beautiful. I knew it would be a great challenge. I reached out to the artist, who granted me permission to recreate it after lots of discussion. The Earth is top of mind right now with climate change and all the difficulties we are currently experiencing on this planet. Across many different cultures, the Earth is a beloved figure in spirituality, and I felt it fit perfectly into the "mythology" theme of the show.
The 12-cookie requirement was the most challenging aspect for me. I generally like to do one very intricate cookie for a competition entry and that’s hard enough! 2-D cookies that don’t overlap didn’t lend themselves to a ton of creativity in any way that my brain could figure out, other than the obvious. If I had to redo this entry all over again, I would try to add in other elements of the earth and nature, like fire and water, in some way. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with those flowers around the cookie as that wasn’t my original idea, so I would maybe keep plugging away on a technique that would have worked on the molded cookies. I would also have been more precise with my greenery piping.
In the next three years, I see myself continuing to enter cookie competitions and improving my skills. I love entering competitions to challenge myself, to learn new things, and to admire the work of other incredible cookie artists! The best part is all the friends I’ve made along the way.
My advice for anyone interested in entering Julia Usher's Cookie Art Competition™ in the future is to go for it! Go into it with an open mind, a willingness to learn, and just have fun!" ~ Alicia Arbaugh
And that's a wrap! I hope you enjoyed learning more about these incredibly talented cookiers and their work process. I know I did! I'll be back again at this same time next weekend with the recap of the 3-D category! Stay tuned, and stay safe out there!