Hey, all! Once again, apologies to all, particularly the 3-D winners of my cookie competition. This special edition of our Saturday Spotlight was supposed to post last weekend (or even earlier), but with my YouTube hijack on last Saturday and my general stay-at-home malaise, I've had a hard time getting much meaningful work done. But, as the saying goes, better late than never, which is certainly the case here . . .
You are about to see some truly astonishing 3-D cookies made by the winners of my competition (officially called, Julia M. Usher's Cookie Art Competition™, BTW ) in February at That Takes the Cake Show. Not only that, but you'll get rare glimpses into each winner's design process and decorating and construction methods
As in the 2-D category recap of two weeks ago, I asked each of our three winners to answer a bunch 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, all with the aim of celebrating their remarkable design paths, as well as inspiring more of you to compete in the future.
But, before I draw back the virtual curtain and reveal the winners, just a few remarks about the competition for context . . . The theme this year was "mythology", which had to be expressed with no less than 12 flat, curved, carved, embossed, or otherwise shaped cookies, all assembled into a 3-D construction. Judges were asked to evaluate each entry across nine criteria, which included those from the 2-D category, as well as other criteria relating specifically to 3-D cookies, such as difficulty and mastery of construction techniques, and scale and 360-degree viewability of the construction. About $5,000 in cash and gift certificates was awarded in this category (as well as in 2-D Cookies). The stakes were high, and everyone rose to the challenge, though only three rose to the very tip-top.
And here are those three, starting with the third-place winner . . .
Third-Place Winner, 3-D Category
Stacy Frank, The Frostitute, Austin, Texas, USA
First, here's a collage of Stacy's winning entry, Medusa, from various angles:
The judges marveled over the entire piece, but especially the head, and how beautifully layered, sculpted, and smooth it was, with the seams perfectly accentuating Medusa's eyes, cheeks, and other facial features. But, let's hear what Stacy had to say about how she conceived of and executed this brilliant construction.
"I’ve been decorating cookies “seriously” (albeit not always very regularly) for about three and a half years. My mom has a knack for delicious desserts, so, when I was growing up, we rarely went to an event empty-handed. When I went off to college, I tried to adhere to that standard with some yummy-yet-run-of-the-mill baked goods and the occasional valiant attempt at a fancy birthday cake (which I should probably post sometime for a good laugh).
Fast-forward to Thanksgiving a handful of years ago . . . I thought it’d be cute to make turkey cookies with a "why I’m thankful for you" note baked into each. As luck would have it, I found piping tips, couplers, bags, and what turned out to be the world’s worst off-brand gel coloring on Craigslist for $25. SOLD! No one choked on the notes, and the cookies were a hit . . . but then the supplies sat in my pantry for another year. Eventually, another cookie-decorating occasion arose, so I dug out my loot and gave it another go. The reaction was my inspiration . . . turns out people really like getting personalized cookies. I realized that creativity + sugar = power! (** Insert evil laugh here. **) At first, it was the power to spark joy in recipients, but it’s since evolved into the power of expression, a unique platform for my voice. An occasional platform, at least . . . My full-time gig is as a front-end developer (that is, I code websites). That job pleases the analytical half of my brain, but bores the artistic side, so I pick up a lot of creative hobbies to keep both lobes happy. No profitable cookie business, just a fun outlet . . . FOR NOW! ( ** Insert another evil laugh! **)
Julia's competition in Austin was my ninth competition (#mindblown!!), a few of which I’ve won, and ALL of which are special in their own ways. When I was a kid, I gifted my high school sweetheart a picture I had drawn of us. He said I made him look like a pig. Though he wasn’t WRONG, it kind of turned into a mini-complex. This win was special because I went BEYOND drawing and CARVED a face that is DEFINITELY HUMAN! SO TAKE THAT, KYLE! (For the record, there are no hard feelings; I’m just dramatic.)
My piece was built with 34 cookies (head = 23, snakes = 7, and base = 4), and I gave myself two weeks to work on it (so, two full weekends plus the four “sick” days I took . . . sorry, boss!). Prior to that was a month of sporadic planning and experimentation, a CRUCIAL part of the process when you have no idea if it’s even possible to get the vision in your head into your hands.
I’d been entranced by Medusa’s story for quite some time (the snakes I used for reference actually came off an old Halloween costume), so, the second I heard the theme, my gut screamed MEDUSA! My brain, however, took a decent amount of convincing (see previous story about pig faces). Upon re-familiarizing myself with the details of the myth, it became clear how closely her tragedy parallels feminist struggles today, so my brain had no choice but to get on board. My main source of inspiration was the #NastyWoman movement, a route I chose to follow because I, too, am a fervent feminist taking a stand against misogyny.
I had a grand vision for my snakes . . . they were ALL supposed to be cookies, covered in snakeskin (edible lace) textured by a silicone mat that I MADE. My testing on this element was minimal. I had bigger fish to fry and told myself that, by the time I got there (they were the last step), my brain would have worked them out. With gift-wrapping skills akin to those of a toddler, I am not exactly sure why I thought I’d be able to wrap ROUND, CURVED snakes CLEANLY (?!?) . . . but I could not. Upon starting, I very quickly realized there were a plethora of obstacles I hadn’t bargained for, but my ego wouldn’t drop the all-cookie approach. So rather than commit to a time-cognizant solution (modeling chocolate), I blew a SOLID day trying to force it . . . which forced an all-nighter and rushed craftsmanship aaaand led to bald spots. If I could do it over again, I’d accept the “defeat” of an idea with more graciousness toward myself.
My cookie-goal is to do something that matters . . . though I’m still trying to figure out exactly what that looks like. For example, I originally planned to auction off Medusa and donate the money to Planned Parenthood (the #NastyWoman movement’s charity of choice). But I got lost in the details, because, I mean, if someone DID want her, how would such a thing even be shipped? Sigh . . . so, right now, I’m working on an accompanying "sister piece", if you will, something simple and transportable that I hope to test the giveaway waters with. On the flip side of this aim is my selfish goal of hitting 1,000 Instagram followers by the end of the year.
As for advice I'd give to others who are considering a competition . . . JUST DO IT. TRY. Don’t concern yourself with who else is competing, whether or not you think you measure up, what the judges might say, etc. Make something you’re proud of . . . and SHOW IT OFF!" ~ Stacy Frank
Thank you and congrats again, Stacy! Now, on to second place . . .
Second-Place Winner, 3-D Category
Thomas Blake Hogan, Thomas Blake's Cakes, Kansas City, Missouri, USA
And what, pray tell, did Thomas come up with? A Lamassu! And what, pray tell, is that?! Glad you asked! It's an Assyrian deity - sort of a hybrid human-bull or human-lion with bird's wings. Here's Thomas' cookie rendition of it . . .
Wow, right?! The judges were not only impressed with the super challenging construction, which involved a lot of intricate hand-carving, but also the choice and application of colors. With little to go on other than images of ancient gray stone sculptures, Thomas picked a color palette that gave the piece a modern spin and really made it pop.
Here's what Thomas had to say about himself, this masterpiece, and his work process . . .
"I began entering sugar art competitions about 15 years ago. I have been focusing particularly on cookies for the last three years. My sugar art is still only a hobby for now. I have worked most of my life as a professional entertainer in musical theatre. I first started exploring cookie decorating as a teenager competing at the Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show. However, Julia’s competition is what catapulted me into my full journey with cookies.
A big challenge with cookies, particularly 3-D cookies, is the amount of steps involved. When sculpting a cake, you can always easily carve away or add more cake, but when making 3-D cookies, if something isn’t shaped correctly, there is very little you can change once it’s baked. You generally have to scrap it; then roll, cut, shape, and bake your dough again.
I’ve made several cookie competition entries over the years, but I would say I gained the most recognition when I was awarded first place in Julia M. Usher’s Cookie Art Competition™ in 2017. I’ve been associated with cookies ever since. A few highlights include winning Best of Show at SoFlo Cake & Candy Expo 2019, a Gold Award at Cake International 2019, and first prize in Julia M. Usher’s Cookie Art Competition™ (3-D Category) at the Show Me Sweets Show last year.
I used classic gingerbread to build my piece. I utilized several contoured cookies that were baked using my own molds built out of aluminum foil. This piece was my first attempt at carving stacked cookies, which I did on the legs, because I really needed them to be solid and sturdy.
I’m sure I spend hundreds of hours on my competition entries. I started the process about eight weeks before the competition. I stayed up and worked three consecutive nights before I set the entry on the competition table!
When researching for the theme, I wanted to explore mythology from a lesser known culture, as compared to the Greeks or Romans. When I was visiting England for Cake International, I went to the British Museum. I discovered the Assyrian culture of ancient Mesopotamia, and was taken by a particularly common motif in their sculptures - the Lamassu.
The Lamassu is a mythical creature in that culture, which commonly features the head of a man, the body of a bull or lion, and giant wings. These intimidating sculptures were often placed at the entrances of city walls and palaces to be protectors and guardians. While most of these iconic sculptures are pure stone, I decided to recreate the Lamassu with my own interpretation of how it could have looked in full color and opulence.
The most challenging part of this competition, besides simply just trying to finish on time, was coloring the Lamassu. Since I had no examples of painted statues off of which to base the coloring, I really struggled to figure out how exactly I wanted to paint it. I wasted a lot of time being indecisive about which color combinations I wanted to use.
Looking back, I would definitely redo my royal icing piping. Because there were so many piped details that I was using to replicate the texture on the real statues, I rushed through it. I should have known better. Never use a technique on a competition piece unless you do it precisely!
I have a personal goal within the next year to hopefully get the ball rolling on teaching some classes. I would also love to use my many years of competition experience and become a judge at a show or two. And who knows, maybe I’ll even finally get paid to do a real cookie order one day! Ha ha!
I’ve chatted with many cookiers who are afraid of the potential “failure” and criticism that comes with competition, but if you don’t put yourself out there, you are never going to grow as an artist or as a business. There is so much more to competition than winning or losing. It allows you the chance to challenge your creativity, and experiment with your techniques. You get to showcase your work in a safe environment. There can be a wonderful camaraderie amongst competitors. I LOVE getting to admire each other’s work and to share techniques. The judges for Julia’s competition do a wonderful job of writing insightful personalized notes and score sheets that not only praise for what you do well, but also give constructive feedback on the areas in which you can improve. It’s a wonderful outlet for a goal-oriented person, and the best part about competing is you can do it repeatedly and give yourself a new goal to reach for each time as you get better." ~ Thomas Blake Hogan
Kudos again to Thomas! And now, what you've all been waiting for . . . the grand reveal of the first-place winner . . .
First-Place Winner, 3-D Category
Laura Saporiti, Laura Saporiti SugarLand, Parma, Italy
Drum roll, please . . . here's Laura's winning piece . . .
"Impeccable" and "exquisite" were some of the words that the judges most often used to describe this piece. The piping and painting were as close to perfect as they get, and the judges were universally impressed with how evenly the cookies were baked (not a bit of discoloration on the edges, which is important if those edges remain exposed in the final piece)! And, now, let's hear from Laura about her background and competition preparations . . .
"I’m based in Parma, Italy, but I travel the world so much that sometimes I just prefer to call myself a world citizen! I started to get interested in cake decorating approximately eight years ago, taking it up from a professional point of view after a couple of years. However, I really started to focus on cookies only a couple of years ago.
I am professionally involved in sugar art and cake and cookie decorating as an international visiting teacher. At the beginning of my involvement, I was focused on creating and selling through my partner’s restaurant business (he happens to be a chef too), and I totally refused to teach because I thought it was not my thing. But, after the numerous requests and some pushing from my husband, I decided to give it a go and discovered I was really appreciated by students, with everybody saying I had a natural talent for teaching.
I LOOOOVE royal icing in all of its forms, and I wanted to find a way to share my passion about it that was more modern and attractive than the traditional old style. Also, I adore the fact that, with cookies, there’s a lot of baking involved, and no styrofoam. I can therefore better combine my artistic background with my pastry education when working with cookies. I also have a natural predilection for details and miniatures, so cookies are a wonderful means of expressing those things. In cake decorating, the details frequently get overlooked, or are less noticed in favor of general balance and harmony, especially in this social media-oriented world of ours.
Frankly, Julia's competition in Austin was my very first cookie competition. I have previously entered and won several cake competitions, both national and international, but I had never competed with cookies before. This competition was very special to me because of the worldwide reputation of Julia Usher, but also because of the theme, which I immediately felt within me as soon as I read it. I have a Ph.D. in History of Art, with a specialization in medieval times, and particularly in illuminated manuscripts, therefore I really felt a call for this theme!
To tell the truth, my decision to register in the competition was a last-minute one, less than a week ahead, so I didn’t have any time for tests or new techniques. I did have something totally innovative in mind, but thought it would be better to reserve it for next year. Even for the cookie recipe, I decided to stick to my usual one. I was quite scared by the transport issues (I flew from Europe), since I normally use a shortbread recipe that is not only buttery, but also very fragile. I, therefore, opted to assemble the piece locally. I did prepare some spare pieces, but I ended up using the first batch (no spares), even though I experienced a little breakage in transit.
I worked on my cookie piece for about four full days (well, three days and two half-nights!), so I would say that I put in approximately 35 hours in total. My project included four supporting button legs at the base, two triangular overlapping bases, six supporting griffins that formed a tripod, three molded ornaments or "brackets" on the plate, and 1 big round plate on the top, for a total of 16 pieces.
I always start my design process by collecting inspirational images of things that are in harmony with the theme (blessed Google search!), and, in this case, I mainly used Italian Renaissance majolica ceramics as my "thought pond", even though I did also make use of a lot of later Baroque and Neoclassical motifs typically found on vases, pedestals, and clocks. After letting the images sit in the back of my mind for a while, I picked the motifs that I liked the most and reduced them to a small group; then I started to adapt given the technical difficulties posed by the transposition of these motifs into a cookie structure. Other important elements that I needed to consider were the feasibility of actually creating the design in the time slot I had available and the transport issues.
My competition piece took inspiration from stylistic features mainly coming from the Renaissance time, a period that was fully infused with mythology in every aspect of its cultural and artistic thinking. In particular, I used a classical representation of mythological griffins as supporting figures of my tripod composition, topped by an ornate plate with the characteristic blue outline of majolica and an ornate border with typical Renaissance dolphins - a symbol par excellence of spiritual renewal and rebirth.
I would certainly say that the most challenging part was the creation of the top plate. Being so large and curved, but quite thin at the same time, it was extremely delicate from a structural point of view, easily breakable both during baking and decorating. I was quite nervous every time I was handling it. I did also create a flat backup piece, but it didn’t have the same appeal at all, and I am pleased I was able to place the original one on the competition table.
As for the planning for the competition, I would certainly TRY to allocate more time to work on my piece, but I also know that I’m a natural procrastinator and tend to work better under the pressure of an approaching deadline. As for the design, I perfectly agree with the suggestions I was given by the judges that I could have incorporated more 3-D construction techniques and that my brackets (on the plate itself) could have benefitted from some kind of shading for more definition. But, the truth is that they were a last-minute solution to hide a small breakage of the plate border, and I needed to invent something pretty fast with what I had available at that moment in my B&B room.
I’m enjoying the 3-D cookie style a lot, and I have several ideas in mind that I want to experiment with. I just hope to find the time to do this. I always try to look for different and innovative techniques to share. I also have a dream of launching my own line of handmade decorated cookies to ship internationally, along with keeping up my traveling for teaching. I know that online tutorials and classes are every day getting more popular, but the satisfaction and joy of interacting with people is incomparable.
As for advice to those thinking about competing . . . Just do it, because it’s a great learning experience - that's exactly what competitions are made for. You learn through the experience; you learn through your mistakes; you learn through judges' advice; and you learn through your feelings." ~ Laura Saporiti
And so concludes my 2020 competition recap! I sincerely hope you enjoyed getting to know these amazing cookiers and hearing about how they prep for competitions. I also hope they've motivated you to enter next year! Speaking of which . . . my competition takes place on February 27-28, 2021, once again at That Takes the Cake Show in Austin, and the theme is "cakeopoly" (or "cookieopoly" in the case of cookies), meaning "family game night"! I leave you with the show's 2021 banner as a little food for thought. More competition info will be posted in a few months, so stay tuned!