Tips for Decorating Cookies from Cookie Swap Book Author, Julia Usher

UsherHeadshot_PhotoKarenForsytheYesterday I posted the Fig & Chocolate Oatmeal Bars recipe from the new cookbook, “Cookie Swap” by Julia Usher. Today Julia shares some of her decorating tips for cookies and how her career path led her from engineer to that of cookbook author and food writer.

SARA ROSSO: Julia, you’ve had such an interesting career path: Yale, Berkeley, Stanford; from mechanical engineer to management consultant and MBA grad to bakery owner to food writer! Do you see any common themes to your career choices, and why did you decide to finally make the leap and change careers?

JULIA USHER: Well, Sara, my answer depends on which career change you’re talking about! I’ve certainly had more than my fair share. My internal logbook registers three fairly significant transitions over the years (engineer to consultant, consultant to bakery owner, and bakery owner to food writer), but let’s focus on the second one (consultant to bakery owner) since it probably appears the most radical and least explicable of the bunch.

Back in 1994 at the time of this shift, I had just moved from San Francisco to Boston to be closer to my former college sweetheart (now husband). While I was trading up in my personal life by making this cross-country migration, I unfortunately traded down professionally. I was working in a small entrepreneurial office of Bain & Company in San Francisco, but when I transferred with the company, I found myself in the much more unwieldy and bureaucratic flagship office in Boston. I suddenly had layers upon layers of bosses and much less decision-making authority. Basically, I fell off what was a fast-paced path toward promotion in San Francisco and felt lost without any senior-level support and advocacy in Boston. It became very difficult to justify working 100-plus hour weeks for the firm when the rewards were becoming increasingly fuzzy.

So, in a nutshell: I found myself pretty darn miserable, and decided that if I was going to work hard at something, it ought to be at something I love to do. I had always been an avid avocational cook and foodie, and I fortunately had some natural aptitude for baking that was cultivated from cooking alongside my mom from a very early age. With so much else changing at the time (new relationship, new residence, new outlook on life), I actually found it pretty easy to throw another ball in the air. In 1995, I quit Bain and enrolled in the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. Since then, I’ve never looked back or missed my work as a consultant – except for the nice pay, that is!

To the other part of your question about common themes: as radical as this change may seem, it really wasn’t because the success factors for each of these jobs are very similar in many ways. In order to be a great pastry chef, you need to be exacting and detail-oriented (winging measurements rarely cuts it); at the same time, you have to be resourceful when recipes don’t work out as planned, and in tune with outside influences in order to sharpen your creative edge. Likewise, with consulting, my recommendations to our corporate clients were always fueled by in-depth, detailed research. There was a lot of fact checking and re-checking involved. I was also constantly surveying and testing the marketplace to define sustainable strategies for my clients – exactly the same steps I took to develop the business plan for my bakery.

SARA ROSSO:Do you have any advice for people that find themselves at a similar crossroads?

JULIA USHER: Yes, look before you leap – that is, do your research, talk to people who have made similar forays in the past, and know what you’re getting yourself into. A transition, big or small, can be emotionally and financially unsettling if you don’t have the backing of a significant other or family members – or the money to support it. I used my savings from Bain & Company to fund my explorations at culinary school and also to jumpstart my bakery. Without these reserves (and the support of a very patient husband), my path to pastry chef would have been a lot more challenging.

On the other hand, resist over-analyzing the situation as that can lead to paralysis. Weigh the facts, but learn to trust your gut as well. You only live once. There’s no sense in going through the motions miserably or working in a job because you think it will bolster your resume or impress your friends. Work and happiness shouldn’t be mutually exclusive; the more you love what you do, the more successful and fulfilled you’ll be. Pardon me for waxing philosophically, but finding the courage to pursue my passion was a critical life lesson for me.

Moon & Stars - Sicilian Pistachio Cookies from Dolce ItalianoSARA ROSSO: The cutout cookies in your book are beautiful and exquisitely detailed – what tips do you have for someone on a) efficiently cutting / baking cutout cookies and b) using such intricate designs and color combinations?

JULIA USHER: First of all, thanks! It’s nice to know that this labor of love of mine is appreciated. You know, there’s not a lot that’s complicated about cutting, baking and decorating sugar cookies. Success with both tasks is largely dictated by proper time management and practice, practice, practice. A few technical tips can help though:

  1. Don’t rush the chilling time of the dough (this gets to my time management point). The dough will roll more easily and cut more cleanly if thoroughly chilled. Proper chilling will also allow you to get by with less flour on your work surface – a good thing, as excess flour can toughen the dough and diminish flavor. I frequently re-chill the dough during the cutting process to make sure it’s at the best working consistency.
  2. I also handle the dough as little as possible to keep the cutout shapes from morphing. Always transfer cutouts to a cookie sheet with a wide offset spatula that fully supports the cookie.
  3. I prefer baking on the backside of thick gauge baking sheets, and ideally on a silicone baking mat. It’s easier to slide the cookies onto the backside of the pan without the sides getting in the way; plus, I find that the cookies generally bake more evenly this way. Even heat distribution is also one reason I like to bake on a mat. The other reason is that parchment paper can buckle and misshape in the heat of the oven, sometimes distorting cookie shapes.
  4. As for decorating, I use royal icing for much of my work, as opposed to confectioner’s icing that others sometimes use. The protein content of the egg whites in royal icing causes it to dry much more rapidly. The egg whites also give it a higher tensile strength (here’s where my engineering background comes in) that allows the icing to stretch and behave in ways that confectioners’ icing simply will never do. Essentially, royal icing permits much finer, detailed piping work.Consistency is king, however. For best results, you’ll need to adjust the consistency of the royal icing, depending on the decorating technique you’re attempting (I describe 11 techniques in my new book Cookie Swap). Marbling, for instance, requires all icing colors to be at the same consistency. Beadwork requires a relatively loose consistency, outlining generally calls for a thicker texture, and so forth. I could go on and on here. My best advice is to check out my book, where I give recommended consistency adjustments for each of the 11 techniques.
  5. One last tip on tinting icing: because consistency adjustments can take time, I prefer to use liqua-gel, gel, or paste food coloring. All are concentrated and thick. A little goes a long way, so unlike liquid food colorings, these dyes are less likely to impact the consistency of your icing. However, my favorite coloring of all is the liqua-gel type. Because it gets dispensed through a dropper, I find it far easier to control the quantity of dye added than with paste or gel food colorings. (The latter colorings most often come in lidded containers and must be doled out with a toothpick – a much less precise and often messy endeavor!)

Cookies on the Table for Holiday Cookie SwapSARA ROSSO: What about organizing this sort of decoration in a group, or doing a group decoration party like Drop-in and Decorate?

JULIA USHER: Sure, decorating in groups is always fun. I regularly teach hands-on cookie decorating classes where I set up small work stations (about 5 people per station), each equipped with all the necessary tools. This makes sharing of scarce items a little easier. Each person decorates a dozen or more cookies to take home using the various tools and cookie trinkets (sanding sugar, luster dust, stencils, etc.) at their station. A lot of the fun comes in comparing what the different people and stations end up with.

I believe I’ve heard of Lydia’s concept (Drop in and Decorate); my only caution is that many food shelters will not accept food unless it is packaged or canned or made in a certified (DOH-approved) commercial kitchen. I’ve never been able to donate cookies made in my own home – or even my commercial bakery – to a St. Louis shelter, for instance. Here, they don’t want to receive unpackaged materials.

Thank you, Julia! Cookie Swap is available at Amazon and other independent bookstores.
Julia’s photo by Karen Forsythe.

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  1. says

    Sara, thanks for this great interview, and Julia, thank you for wonderful cookie tips. I hope that readers who are interested in the Drop In & Decorate cookies-for-donation idea will visit our web site to see that we’ve donated nearly 10,000 cookies to shelters and food pantries in 18 states and Canada. Yes, there are organizations that, by policy, will not accept gifts of homemade food. But there are also many who will, and gladly. We can help you find a match — in St. Louis, or anywhere else — and we’d love to do it!

  2. Lucia says

    So far I’ve had success in finding agencies willing to take cookies from Drop In & Decorate events. I just did a Drop In party for my birthday and a local food pantry was thrilled to get the cookies.

  3. says

    Hey Sara, so good to see your interview with Julie, a fellow St. Louisan. For what it’s worth, when I did Drop In & Decorate with my cookie swap group two years ago, we took our cookies to the Episcopal Cathedral downtown which hosts lunch for the homeless — they were more than glad to have home-caked cookies for their guests!

  4. says

    Nice interview…….I’m just a tad bit outside of St. Louis, and had no problem donating for Drop In & Decorate …..I donated to a food pantry in Pacific and to A.L.I.V.E.(domestic abuse)—-both happy to take home made cookie donations

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