Blog - Superhero of Sweets - Julia M. Usher

Blog - Superhero of Sweets - Julia M. Usher

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a….cookier!

We have had the tremendous pleasure of collaborating with incredibly talented cookie decorators (referred to as "cookiers") who have seemingly magical abilities to transform their cookies into works of fine art. Perhaps you've seen their creations on the Ann Clark Facebook page or within our website. These women each put a unique spin on cookie decorating, and their creations are so beautiful, complex, detailed, and elegant, we'd almost feel guilty eating the cookies!

With that in mind, we present a series of cookiers' profiles. In each "Superhero of Sweets" blog, you'll learn about a particular cookier's style, influences, favorite tool, and more. We hope you find inspiration for your current or next project within these blogs, and we hope you'll enjoy getting to know these cookiers as much we have! We're still trying to figure out if they're superhuman…

We are going to kick off this series with Julia Usher, one of the foremost authorities on 3-D Cookie Construction.

How did you get started in cookie decorating?

Julia Decorating with Mom

Photo courtesy of Julia Usher.

I started cookie decorating as a very young child alongside my mom in our family kitchen; it was always our Christmas tradition to make lots of decorated cookies for neighborhood cookie swaps and the inevitable family indulgences! Cookie decorating really took off for me though when I launched my bakery, AzucArte, back in 1996. Though my bakery's specialty was custom-designed wedding cakes, we often made decorated cookies as favors for weddings and other special events. Since then, I've written two books, several e-books, and an app on the subject of cookie decorating. I also produce weekly cookie decorating tutorials for YouTube and teach cookie decorating classes all over the world.

What is your training in baking and cookie decorating?

4 Tier Cake Cookie & Cookie Topiaries

Photo courtesy of Julia Usher.

While I went through a short culinary program at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts (Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA) from 1994 to 1995, my formal training there was very broad-based with little time left over to delve into the intricacies (and peculiarities!) of decorative sugar arts. Most of my decorating skills were learned on the job, through much trial and error, during the eight years that I had my bakery. I devoured decorating books and magazines (remember: this was back when the internet was just taking off!), and practiced many of the techniques that I discovered in those resources.

My customers also had a way of pushing me to expand my skills through their sometimes curveball requests! In fact, when I started my bakery, I was primarily serving wholesale customers (restaurants and clubs) with plated desserts and small cakes. It was only after one of my retail customers asked me to make her wedding cake that I made my first one! Transporting a four-tier chocolate-wrapped cake for two hours in 100°F weather immediately put me on the steepest slope of that learning curve!

Do you have a signature style for cookie decorating?

3-D Christmas Ornament Cookies

Photo courtesy of Julia Usher.

Yes, many cookie decorators do, in fact. Every decorator has a unique perspective and distinctive touch that eventually manifest themselves, with time and practice, as an identifiable style. I tend to favor elaborate 3-D cookie constructions now. Perhaps this is because I was an engineer in one of my past lives (two careers before my bakery), but I tend to believe it has more to do with the personal challenge that comes from taking cookies out of the 2-D plane and elevating them (literally and figuratively!) into something that one never thought was possible. I love creating an element of surprise with every cookie project I do.

Do you have a favorite decorating tip you can share?

3-D Cauldron Cookies

Photo courtesy of Julia Usher.

Of course, I am always happy to share advice, solicited or otherwise! If you find yourself getting frustrated with cookie decorating, chances are good that you are using the wrong icing consistency for the task at hand. In my opinion, there is an ideal consistency for almost every technique (i.e., flooding, outlining, stenciling, etc.), and it is critical to understand these subtle differences in order to get the best results. Icing consistency is king in cookie decorating!

Can you share any trends in cookies you envision in the near future?

3-D Castle & Dragon Cookies

Photo courtesy of Julia Usher.

In the last few years, interest in cookie decorating has grown exponentially, and I think this growth will continue at a rapid pace. Why? Primarily because cakes and cupcakes have had many years in the spotlight, and people are ready to embrace the next trend. Cookies also have an advantage over cakes and cupcakes, especially for beginning decorators – they're smaller and, if you mess one up, it's easy enough to scrape off the icing and start all over again. Not so with a large layer cake! They're also not as perishable, so the decorating time is easier to justify insofar as the end result can be appreciated much longer before it must be eaten. I guess you could say that the risk and intimidation factors are a lot less!

With this growing interest, decorators' overall skill level will continue to advance, with more and more cookiers elevating simple cookies to sophisticated works of art. (Already, amazing creations appear daily on my site Cookie Connection.) We'll also witness more tools and classes being designed and marketed to support the specific needs of this consumer segment.

My ultimate hope is that cookies hit mainstream media, in the way that decorated cakes and cupcakes have been popularized by the Food Network. It would be wonderful if more members of this talented community got the widespread public recognition they deserve.

How has social media influenced your cookie decorating?

Honestly, I try not to let social media influence my decorating or design process that much. I find that looking too much at others' cookie work is a sure way to end up with a creation that looks or tastes derivative, or, worse, to feel unproductive and inadequate. The collective cookie community is posting, sharing, tweeting, and re-tweeting thousands of gorgeous cookies each day, which is a wonderful thing in many ways! Yet, the flip side is: the sheer volume of content makes it easier than ever to get overwhelmed, and to feel like you're not measuring up, either in terms of volume or quality of output - or both. That said, I try to avoid potentially defeating comparisons by minimizing the time I spend surfing the web with the specific intent of looking at cookies.

But this doesn't mean I've quit social media cold turkey, because that's far from the truth! In many ways, it's the very heart and soul of what I do – the engine that keeps me and Recipes for a Sweet Life going. I'm on many social media platforms many times a day, but I'm answering cookie decorating questions, managing my community-based cookie site Cookie Connection, posting videos and tutorials, and so on. Not browsing. Social media has been a wonderful marketing tool for me and has opened up many doors in cookie decorating. Without YouTube, I probably wouldn't be teaching as many hands-on classes as I do, and I definitely wouldn't have met so many talented cookie decorators from across the globe. I am deeply grateful for the connections I've made through social media.

I guess you might say I have a love-hate relationship with social media; sometimes it fuels me and other times it consumes me. Finding the right balance can be a challenge.

How do you get inspired for creating new designs?

Cookie Cradles and BBQ grills

Photo courtesy of Julia Usher.

Usually, I get out a sheet of paper, look around the room (or into my head), and decide on an object (usually an everyday item) that I'd like to cookie-fy. (My most recent projects were cookie cradles and BBQ grills!) Then the pencil comes out and I start sketching possible configurations, making use of cutters or molds that I already have on hand or know I can easily find.

Despite the popular belief that artists only work when inspiration strikes, my creative work process is a very disciplined, seemingly never-ending full-time job (albeit a fun one!). When I am not sketching new projects, I can be found in the kitchen either testing them or producing them in larger quantities for YouTube tutorials or classes, shooting those videos, planning or giving those classes, or creating products to support my work. (Stay tuned for my new line of stencils this fall!)

Fun Facts:

Favorite decorating tool:

My trussing needle. I use it to clean up errant icing blobs, to make marbled icing patterns, to pop air bubbles in topcoats, to hold down stencils as I spread icing with my other hand . . . the list goes on!

Favorite cookie cutter shape.

Simple rounds, ovals, squares, and plaques, often in graduated sizes in nested sets – these are the easiest shapes to morph into 3-D cookie designs. The nested sets also give me a lot of flexibility when trying to fit pieces together, or when scaling a project up or down.

Favorite decorator who inspires you:

The decorator who has inspired me the most over my career harks not from the cookie world, but from the cake world, and is none other than the venerable Ms. Kerry Vincent! When I first started my bakery, her cake decorating book was my go-to resource. Her techniques were innovative, and her cakes, which used fondant here in the US before anyone else's did, were truly cutting edge. She set the design standard for me. Today, nearly fifteen years later, I continue to learn from her, although in different ways. With her annual Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show, she once again sets a standard, but, this time, for leadership and mentorship within the sugar arts community. I can think of no one who works as passionately and as selflessly as she to cultivate the skills of our next generation of decorators and to bring them the visibility they deserve.

Other favorite:

My husband who puts up with an endless stream of cookie debris around our house (think: boxes, cutters, stencils, stamps, spent parchment cones, old projects from past video shoots, new projects for future video shoots . . . ). He's also constantly having to fend for himself when I'm too tired to make dinner (or go out) after a long day in the kitchen. Many have said he has the patience of a saint, and this might be an understatement!

Cookier Handle:

Recipes for a Sweet Life

Website: (Julia's site); (her community-based site, Cookie Connection)