When 'Cookiers' Take Holiday Cookie Decorating To A Whole New Level
For many people the holidays wouldn't be the holidays without baking and decorating cookies. But a growing number of creative bakers, known as 'cookiers,' are taking their art to a whole new level.
Mary Thode of Chittenden, Vt., is one of them. This time of year, she bakes all sorts of cookies — some of the recipes were her mother's, she says, which bring back nice memories.
"But I do like a painted cookie," she says, nodding toward the nine coffee cups on her dining room table that are each filled with different colored frosting.
"That's meringue icing," Thode says, picking up a spoon. "Made with meringue powder and it hardens up really nice."
"I just stir them, because the color tends to go to the bottom a little bit," she adds.
The cup of red frosting becomes much brighter and creamier as she stirs. If it's too thick, she thins it with water until the consistency is just right.
Once the frosting is ready, Thode reaches into a nearby Tupperware container and selects a plain, heart shaped cookie. Using a fine tipped paint brush she picks up a dollop of frosting and with a few careful strokes, covers the shape with a shiny red glaze.
"I don't go to the very end of the cookie — I like to have a little edge so that it sort of frames it. I just think it makes it look nicer," she explains.
Then she takes a tooth pick, adds a tiny dab of blue frosting and creates an intricate design.
Thode makes cookies all year — baby-bottle shaped ones for shower gifts and pumpkins at Halloween. But during the holidays, she'll bake about 700 cookies, half of which she'll paint, often with many layers of different colored frosting.
"I know my husband says I'm like obsessed with this," she laughs. "But those little details I think make it, I don't know, nicer. It makes it my cookie."
Cookies as an art form
Thode is among a growing number of people, who've changed bite-sized treats into an art form.
Many, like Thode, are hobbyists, who give their cookies away as gifts.
But it's also big business. Some of the most elaborate designs by top artists sell for $150 per dozen, or even more.
Ben Clark makes cookie cutters for a living, and he says some of the cookies he's seen are unbelieveable.
"Literally, they're like art gallery quality. And it's a cookie," he says, shaking his head.
Clark works with a number of elite decorators — people like Elizabeth Adams, who's known in the cookie world as Arty McGoo. McGoo has made a career out of cookies. The California resident has more than 80,000 followers on Facebook and now devotes most of her time to teaching others her craft.
"I was kind of a hobby hopper until cookies, because I think it satisfies so many different areas of art for me," she says. "From the design process and the colors that you choose, and then even photographing the cookies later."
"And it doesn't matter to me that it's going to be eaten, or you know, basically destroyed," adds McGoo, laughing. "It's kind of beautiful to think, you know, someone's eating a piece of art."
McGoo will be the keynote speaker at the upcoming CookieCon in Reno, Nev. The three-day conference in March will bring together 800 avid cookiers and accessory manufacturers from all over the world.
Event organizer Karen Summers says interest in cookie decorating has exploded in recent years. "It's really big in Australia and Spain and South America," she says, adding, "We've been contacted by a few people in Japan who want to start a CookieCon-type thing there."
Summers says the 500 tickets they had for last year's CookieCon in Indianapolis sold out in 20 minutes, which she says completely crashed the event's website.
"After the fact, the software guy said, 'Well you didn't tell me it was going to be this popular,'" Summers says. "He said they were getting 1,800 hits per second when the tickets went on sale."
Cookies as big business
The popularity of decorating cookies has been great for companies like CK Products, which manufactures and distributes things like edible glitter, sprinkles, meringue powder and piping gel.
Kelly Pineda, CK's vice president of sales, says they can't make enough ready-made frosting.
"As soon as we produce it and put it on our website the business, we're literally chasing it," Pineda says. "We can't keep up with the demand."
Ann Clark Cookie Cutters, a family-owned business in Rutland, Vt., that began in 1989, has also ramped up production. CEO Ben Clark says 52 employees work two shifts and their assembly line churns out 22,000 cookie cutters a day.
"We worked really hard and got it so our cost to manufacture is the same as the cost to import cookie cutters from China," explains Clark. "So then it became a marketing game. Since then we've roughly quadrupled our business."
Part of their marketing strategy is to better harness direct sales through Amazon. But Clark says they've also worked hard to satisfy the growing number of cookiers, who want new and different shapes.
He says their plant currently makes about 2,300 different ones, adding new shapes each week.
For instance, Clark says llamas are big this year: "We immediately said 'let's do a llama.' And are our creative director said we're going to do two; we're going to do one that looks like a llama and we're gonna have one that's more of a cartoony llama."
"Ten days later," Clark continues, "both of those products were dominating Amazon as the llama cookie cutter. So by the time our Chinese competitors' product got to the United States, we already owned the market for llamas."
Clark says his company's relationship with cookiers is vital. So they too will be at the cookie convention in March ready to hear about what new shapes they need to make next.
Copyright 2018 Vermont Public Radio