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The Cookie Sculptor

To Julia Usher, a cookie is more than an edible object: It’s a blank canvas for stunning, three-dimensional sculptures

Julia Usher pipes icing onto a cookie sculpture. Mattea LinAe

Since learning that three-dimensional cookies are “a thing,” and that their “thing-ness” isn’t a novelty, but rather an art form practiced by experts, I’ve seen the following inanimate objects “cookie-d” into 3-D models: Fabergé eggs and picture frames, baby rattles and jewelry boxes, cocktail glasses and tea sets (complete with saucers, spoons, cups, and pot), typewriters and pizzas dripping with sugary pseudo-cheese so convincing it could pass for the real thing. These cookies aren’t so much desserts as they are palatable sculptures, held together by thick royal icing and wrought out of fondant or gingerbread or marzipan. And if a baked good can have a moment, then the three-dimensional cookie is most certainly in one.

Part of the 3-D cookie’s recent rise is thanks to one of the most prolific and influential cookie artists out there (and yes, there are several): Julia Usher, who calls educating people about the art of 3-D cookies “kind of everything I do.” On her popular YouTube Channel, “Recipes for a Sweet Life,” Usher records instructional videos that can stretch over an hour, patiently guiding prospective decorators on how to replicate her designs: vases and topiary and candelabras; edible simulacra almost indistinguishable from their authentic counterparts. Her insistence on demystifying the decorating process has become her hallmark, much like Martha Stewart’s ability to make the ornate and seemingly out-of-reach accessible.

“I guess I did do it purposefully,” Usher said of her instructional persona. “When I started that YouTube channel five or six years ago, I didn’t want to do these short little tidy videos. They tend to go viral because they capture people’s limited attention span, but I don’t think you teach in those short little videos, you show and you entertain. I really wanted to teach … I don’t hold back on anything.”

Over the years, Usher’s YouTube presence gained such a following that viewers started hiring her to lead multi-day workshops across the world (last February, when I’d first learned of Usher’s work, she was in Kuwait for a seminar). And along with her videos and workshops, Usher runs the world’s largest online cookie decorating community, Cookie Connection, which has over 14,000 members, many of whom joined in the site’s first few years. It’s a space where decorators can seek out tutorials, view live chats with professional decorators, or just browse the “Top 10” decorated cookies of the day. Recently, Usher has used the space to survey decorators on their business policies as a means of helping others establish best practices. She says she relies on “members to educate each other and not just me.” Maintaining the site is laborious for Usher and her small team, but it provides a needed sense of community. “I work solo (in my basement) on most days,” Usher wrote to me over the summer, “which can sometimes be lonely. But the online connections I’ve forged become real, more palpable and more meaningful when we are able to connect in person, at shows, [and] competitions.”

In other words, delicately stenciled, chandelier-draped cookies aren’t just challenges to discuss when they appear on The Great British Bake Off; they’re a community, with Usher at its center.

“It’s taken a long time for cookies to take off,” Usher says. “I wrote this first cookie decorating book 11 years ago, and I feel like cookies are just now really getting mainstream visibility.”

At the beginning of Cookie Swap, her 2009 book about the tradition of hosting a cookie potluck, Usher assures her readers: “Read this chapter, and my cookies will never throw you any curveballs.” Inside, she provides week-by-week instructions of how to host your own event in such granular specificity as when to send out your invitations (week four, and make note of any food allergies!), what supplies to use (“Elevate your swap by avoiding paper plates and plastic wrap whenever you can”), and what to serve (“It’s best not to let fragile cookies dominate your offerings”).

Usher’s second book, 2011’s Julia M. Usher’s Ultimate Cookies, featured a few basic 3-D designs, but it was her YouTube channel that ignited an interest in the form, prompting sugar art shops and cake decorating schools to contact her about leading workshops. Both books are currently out of print; their sales figures are likely dwarfed by the audience Usher now has online. “I can show much more in a 20-minute video than I could ever explain clearly in a multi-page book,” Usher says. “Plus, I can put out videos much faster than books, and people have a voracious appetite for online content these days.”

Relative to another baked canvases, Usher finds the cookie to be an un-intimidating entry point for beginner decorators. They’re smaller and less perishable than cakes (“If you make a mistake,” Usher notes, “you eat it — often literally — and move onto the next cookie”). The icing doesn’t need to be refrigerated, the dough can be prepared well in advance, and the final product can last more than a week. Usher got her start in cakes: In 1995, after a stint as a mechanical engineer and management consultant and degrees from Yale, Stanford, and UC Berkeley, she enrolled in the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, where she graduated valedictorian and then opened a bakery serving cakes made to order. But the margins were low, business unpredictable, and Usher, motivated by precision and control, pivoted again to cookies.

What might save the 3-D cookie from the fate of other passing trends in sweets, like the cupcake, is the very thing that could discourage casual home bakers to the form: its difficulty. And a 3-D cookie is so time intensive (Usher told me her designs can take anywhere from tens to hundreds of hours to complete), that it’d be nearly impossible to base one’s entire business model only selling these creations.

“Oh you can’t make money selling 3-D cookies, unless you don’t care about not making any money,” says Patti Paige, another central figure in the cookie decorating world. “It takes too long. To be honest, I’m not sure why someone would want to buy [one]. I guess it’s like giving somebody a gift of a handmade ceramic teapot, except that it might not last forever.” Paige’s cookies are more akin to an animated drawing, a style she calls “a little crude” but are equally as time consuming and difficult to produce. Many of Paige’s clients are corporations happy to shell out several thousand dollars for a 3-D cookie as part of “a big push” or splashy launch. The draw for them, she says, is “wanting something spectacular that they cannot get anywhere else.”

Of course, the use of a cookie centerpiece is not new. “3-D stuff’s been happening for quite a long time if you go back to gingerbread houses,” Usher says. (Paige herself first attracted followers with her ornamented gingerbread brownstone houses, and her work was featured regularly in major magazines and newspapers across the country.) “I think what’s different now is you’re seeing them take on other forms,” Usher says, “and being shaped in different ways, not just plainer flat 2-D cookies being built into a 3-D structure. You’ve got shapes that are curved or molded or carved or embossed, so a lot more happening with the treatment of the dough and the handling of it, the shaping of it.”

Near the end of my conversation with Paige, who a few years back built a gingerbread typewriter complete with an edible dispatch inside its carriage, she reflected on the unexpected moment the art form was having. “I guess now that you’re talking, I guess I didn’t know that 3-D cookies was now ‘a thing.’ ”

If I really wanted to understand what was happening with 3-D cookies, Usher insisted that I travel to Saint Charles, Missouri, in mid-July to attend her Cookie Art Competition, which was being filmed by the Food Network for an upcoming documentary. In past years, Usher’s competition had been held at the Oklahoma Sugar Art Show, hosted by Usher’s mentor and Food Network star Kerry Vincent. But after that show closed, Usher moved her competition to Show Me Sweets (Show Me Sweets recently closed, and Usher has moved her competition next year to That Takes the Cake, in Austin).

Inside the St. Charles Convention Center so many inanimate objects had been constructed out of dough and fondant that one person I spoke with confessed that she had (genuinely!) mistaken the white leather couch she was sitting on for one big cookie-to-scale. All of the entries for Usher’s competition were arranged along narrow tables to the left of the conventional hall’s entrance, and Usher and her judges spent the morning ambling from one entry to the next, scribbling onto clipboards while producers from the Food Network scurried around them helping the camera crew set up the perfect shot. The rest of the convention space had been reserved for booths where vendors hawked baked goods and decorating necessities like stencils for clean icing decorations and edible acrylic paint.

Usher ices the cookie on her kitchen countertop. Mattea LinAe

Usher had divided her competition into 2-D and 3-D entrants who would vie for cash and product prizes valued at over $10,000, and professionals and amateurs alike were welcome to enter. “In part that’s because I haven’t found that those things necessarily correlate with who wins,” Usher says. “I’ve been collecting some data on that.” Besides, if Usher delineated between pros and hobbyists, she might not have enough competitors to field a real show. “People are just beginning to start to compete in cookies, so the trouble of splicing that so finely is that I judge them at competitions where, again, there might be three or four entries hitting the table, and it’s like, How do you judge this?”

That weekend, first prize would go to “Antiquities of Mexico,” a project comprised of 50 individual cookies depicting the spoils of an archaeologist’s dig along with a toucan perched atop an ancient tome. Later, I would admire the toucan’s thick, full beak, which must’ve been no small feat to build: Molding cookie dough into a curved structure can easily become untenable and goopy. (Usher rolls her dough extra thin to prevent it from spreading too much and sliding off the curved surfaces — “Gravity doesn’t take effect quite the same way if you have less mass on top,” she says). The winning artist, Thomas Blake Hogan, a professional actor who’s won Usher’s competition in the past and has entered sugar art competitions since graduating college, worked periodically on his entry for eight weeks, estimating that in total he spent a couple hundred hours building it.

In retrospect, though, my favorite cookie of the weekend belonged to Jen Naslund, whose company Defiant Dough is one of the oldest edible cookie dough products in the nation. Naslund hadn’t intended to enter the competition; she was only at the convention to promote her company, which she hopes to make “the Baskin-Robbins of the cookie dough industry.” But a few days before the show she’d felt the pull to give it a try. She directed my attention to a plate with a set of six cookies molded into fried chicken legs and wings, and a hollow, self-supported 3-D gingerbread molding of a popular animated character (“Bob” from the movie Monsters vs. Aliens). Once Naslund saw what else was on display, she decided against competing; compared to other entrants, her offering was pretty primitive. She marveled at the other cookies in competition: “Dude, I’ve seen the gingerbread houses with the glass, but an eagle eating a squirrel? You just don’t see that stuff normally.” By her own admission she’d only spent about three hours on her cookies. “Next year,” she said excitedly, “watch out! Because I know what I’m competing with now.”

In the week after the show, Usher followed up with each contestant and answered any questions they had about the detailed feedback she and the other judges had provided. “Closing the feedback loop by making sure everyone has the info they need to learn and grow from the competition is one of my key goals with it,” she says. “It’s not simply who wins that’s important; it’s more important that people feel they’ve walked away having learned new skills and knowing what techniques they could work on.”

I was curious if Usher’s insistence on encouragement might also be fueled by a fear that 3-D cookies could just be a passing trend, a way to safeguard against people losing interest. “I think cookies overall might be a fad right now,” Usher says. “And so this interest in 3-D might be riding that … You know, if it is a fad it might almost be a blessing, because then I could move on to the next thing. I do change things up quite a lot.”

With her business now running (relatively) smoothly and her station among decorators stable, Usher says that she’s excited about the possibility of devoting more time to creating and teaching, or possibly even moving on to more television work: “I’d like to do formats that cast the sugar arts community and its artists in a realistic and positive light.” “For me,” she notes during our last conversation, “the fun challenge is starting something new.”

Hal Sundt is a writer from Minnesota.
Mattea LinAe is a Chicago-based content creator and photographer.

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