Can cookie decorating be a life-changing experience? Yes, say the thousands of people across the United States who identify as "cookiers," a movement that includes an annual CookieCon gathering.
HOLLADAY, Utah — Ten years ago, Georganne Bell was a lonely Army wife stationed in South Korea with two small children and an oven so small she couldn’t fit a 9-by-11-inch cake pan into it.
Baking cakes had always been her creative outlet, but without a decent oven all she could make were cookies. They quickly became her obsession. She found solace in cutting patterns from stiff dough, stirring color and water into powdered sugar, and rhythmically applying royal icing to the blank face of a sugar cookie.
“There’s something about the way the royal icing settles that is intensely calming,” she said, in her home kitchen in this Salt Lake City suburb. “You can forget everything else for just a minute.”
Cookies saved Katy Metoyer, too. The mother of two started making them when her younger son went off to school six years ago. Then her father, her biggest champion and inspiration, died unexpectedly.
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For the next 10 months, Metoyer, 47, barely left her house in Hermosa Beach, California. Instead, she decorated what she guesses might have been 10,000 cookies. “I would make 50 of them at a time and look at them, and then throw them away,” she said. “It was my addiction, my therapy.”
What began as a way to feel better ended up making both women stars — at least among the tight, congenial subset of home bakers who refer to themselves as cookiers.
There are tens of thousands of people across the United States who may identify themselves as cookiers, and even more if you include ambitious parents who attempt to customize sugar cookies as an inexpensive way to mark a child’s birthday, and those who ponder cookie decorating only now, as Christmas nears.
Some sell cookies to neighbors and friends. Others have turned their garages into commercial enterprises. Many just give them away as gifts. And at the top of the heap are the bakers who might best be described as cookie famous: women like Bell and Metoyer, who can command $7 per cookie and $450 for a daylong decorating lesson.
The cookie elite have websites with tutorials and advice that draw enough traffic to bring in thousands of dollars a month. Their signature cookie-cutters are coveted and their Instagram accounts flourish. Videos, in which cookies are piped and flooded with icing with mesmerizing precision, pull down millions of views.
Ben Clark runs Ann Clark Cookie Cutters, a company in Rutland, Vermont, that his parents started by selling pig-themed cutting boards and ornaments at craft fairs. He came on board and helped grow the business into the largest manufacturer of cookie cutters in America.
Even though the company sells more than 4 million cookie cutters a year — including designs by star cookiers like Bell — Clark had no idea how big the cookier community was or how elevated the art form had become until he attended its convention, CookieCon, a few of years ago.
“The cookiers there are the very top of the game,” he said. “If you are making football cleats, they are the NFL.”
A golden age
The cookier’s art begins with a simple canvas: The base is always a rolled sugar cookie, usually vanilla, although Bell has made her mark with a soft cocoa-powder dough that tastes like a brownie’s trim cousin and doesn’t need refrigeration before it’s rolled.
Most of the cookies have a crisp, slightly powdery texture, underscored by the crunch of dried royal icing. Certain cookiers — maybe 20 percent, by some estimates — advocate glaze or buttercream. But you can never get the surface as smooth with buttercream as you can by flooding a cookie with royal icing, and artistic expression is limited with glaze.
For the real pros, it’s all about pushing the limits of design with an arsenal of tools that can include food-coloring pens, edible silver, airbrush guns, fondant or wafer paper.
There are cookiers who specialize in 3-D images or sculpture. There are realists and traditionalists. Some designs are distinctly modern, others more whimsical. Students of cookie culture can look at one and know who made it.
American cookie decorating stretches back to colonial days, but there has never been a golden age like this one. Corporations looking to promote their brands are turning to logo-bearing cookies instead of pens and stress balls. One family ordered cookies bearing an image of their father’s vintage Mustang for his funeral. Last year, Food Network introduced “Christmas Cookie Challenge” with Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman, as lead judge.
Behind all those little iced art pieces is a distinct community of like-minded people which rose up on the shoulders of cookiers who were feeling isolated, and who valued supporting each other over competition.
“It formed because — and I don’t know a better way to say it — we needed to find people who were as crazy as us,” said Callye Alvarado, 37, a cookier from Lubbock, Texas, who goes by the online name Sweet Sugarbelle. Alvarado, whose husband works in the oil fields and who has four children at home, is by most accounts the founder of the modern cookier community.
“We call her the queen,” Metoyer said. “Seriously, I worshipped her when I started all of this.”
The two have since become close friends and teaching companions. Metoyer runs a cookie shop in a former Chinese restaurant in Hermosa Beach she named Sugar Dayne after her oldest son.
Alvarado graduated from making cookies as gifts for friends to selling cookies from her home kitchen. Now she has given up large-scale baking altogether, and instead spends her time designing a line of food-coloring pens, cookie cutters and other tools that she sells at craft-store chains and on the Home Shopping Network.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the latest wave of cookie decorating began, but it was likely about 10 years ago, when crafters and other hobbyists began to find each other in large numbers on platforms like Flickr and Facebook.
Now, Instagram is the cookier’s playing field (Alvarado has 173,000 followers), although there are more than 100 Facebook groups organized by cookiers.
The people who kicked off the trend were, for the most part, DIY mothers who didn’t work outside the home but had little interest in scrapbooking or other crafts.
There are straightedge moms in Michigan and gay doctors in Georgia, Mormons in Utah and surfers in California, all bonded in the creative pursuit of cookie. Pam Sneed, whose Instagram handle is Cookie Crazie, is a self-proclaimed Jesus-following vegan grandmother.
The only time many meet face to face is at CookieCon, which began in 2012 when 200 cookiers gathered in Salt Lake City. The next one will be in March in Reno, Nevada. The 800 slots were filled in less than a day, and the waiting list continues to grow.
“It’s a bright spot in a world that sometimes is a little negative,” said Karen Summers, who sold cookie-making equipment online until she started running CookieCon full time with her husband, Mike.
CookieCon became one of Arlene Chua’s most life-changing experiences, which is saying a lot for a senior treasury analyst on Wall Street who immigrated to the United States from the Philippines as a child.
Chua, 40, is one of what might be called the next wave of cookiers. Her designs are less whimsical and more technically driven. They are intended as art, not snacks. She’s had two go-rounds on a Food Network cookie show. She took second place last year in the “Christmas Cookie Challenge,” losing, she thinks, because she used a chocolate cookie as her base.
Like many of the cookiers before her, she came to the craft during a crisis. Her mother died of cancer at her home on Staten Island. On one of the many sleepless nights that followed, Chua found a cookie-decorating video on Facebook.
“I went downstairs and used a Ziploc and decorated my first cookie that night,” she said. She spent the next year decorating cookies whenever she could. She won a ticket to CookieCon in a contest Metoyer organized.
Cookies, she said, have brought her close to people she would otherwise never give the time of day, like her roommate at CookieCon, who was an ardent Trump supporter. Chua can’t stand the president.
“We just pushed it aside,” she said. “I can’t explain it. We are all connected by cookies, and that’s all that matters.”
Chocolate Sugar Cookies
Makes about three dozen 3-inch cookies
1 cup slightly softened unsalted butter (not quite room temperature)
¼ cup vegetable shortening
1 ½ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¾ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
3 cups flour, plus ½ cup if baking cookies immediately
1. Heat oven to 375 degrees and line baking sheets with silicone baking sheets or parchment paper.
2. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or by hand, cream together the butter, shortening and sugar at medium speed, about three to five minutes. (The mixture needn’t be fluffy.) Scrape down the sides with a silicone spatula and mix in the eggs, vanilla, baking powder and salt. Combine well. Scrape down the sides and stir in the cocoa until well blended.
3. Add the flour, and mix until the flour is completely incorporated and the dough comes together into a ball. At this point, you can refrigerate the dough up to two days or freeze it up to three months, tightly wrapped in plastic. (The dough will seem soft, but that’s OK. If you are going to roll out the cookies and bake them immediately, mix in the other ½ cup of flour.)
4. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to ¼-inch thickness and use cookie cutters to cut into shapes, rerolling dough scraps as necessary and arranging shapes ¼-inch apart on prepared baking sheets. Bake for seven to 10 minutes. Smaller shapes will cook more quickly. Because these are chocolate, it can be hard to determine when they are done. Err on the side of underbaking. You can tell the cookies are ready when the surface changes from wet- or glossy-looking to dry. Remove cookies to a rack and allow them to cool completely before decorating.
The Fluffiest Royal Icing
Makes about five cups, enough for about five dozen small cookies
1/3 cup meringue powder
2/3 cup warm water
7 ½ cups powdered sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract, or other flavoring, like coconut or almond extracts
1. Place meringue powder and water in the bowl of a standing mixer and swirl them together. Using the whisk attachment, mix on high for three minutes until the mixture is frothy. Scrape down the sides.
2. Add powdered sugar and mix for two minutes, being careful to start slowly and then gradually increase speed to high so the sugar doesn’t fly all over the kitchen, scraping down the bowl as necessary. Add vanilla or other flavoring (and gel food coloring if desired), and mix on medium speed for about 30 seconds. Transfer to an airtight container until ready to use. The icing will keep, refrigerated, for about two weeks.