I often get asked: how did you become a cookie artist? Why cookies? Why royal icing?
Buckle up for another installment of The Graceful Baker® story. This time, it’s all about how I got into royal icing cookies in the first place.
In my last post I shared about my story before cookies. Here, I’m going to dive into how and when I started working with royal icing cookies. And, the beginnings of how it evolved into where it is today…
Baking Runs In The Family
Not only did I grow up in an artistic family, but I also grew up in a family that loved homemade baked goods.
There are many signature desserts that my mom makes. Certain times of year just aren’t the same without them!
Like the cake she makes every year for my dad’s birthday: an apple cake with a caramel/brown sugar frosting. HEAVENLY.
My mom is an excellent baker and she learned from her mother.
Many of the recipes and tweaks she uses are from her mom, like this lemon pound cake.
It was one of those households where I’d often come home after school to fresh baked chocolate chip cookies on the counter.
And Christmas was never the same without her raspberry thumb prints!
The whole family loves a good baked good.
Every year for Christmas my dad makes an English pudding with hard sauce.
We also love pie, but we are VERY picky pie eaters.
A 1:1 (person:pie) ratio is a necessity at Thanksgiving. My sister, dad and mom all excel in the pie crust department, so my contribution is always just a crustless vegan pumpkin pie (it’s seriously SO GOOD).
Baking was an expression of love in my family (and a delicious one at that!)
My Love For Baking
I loved baking too, and I often used any excuse to bake some delicious goodies.
I love perfecting different recipes, but my specialities were definitely drop cookies and cake/cupcakes.
You’ve probably heard me say: I’d rather have a chocolate chip cookie than a rollout sugar cookie… gasp!
While drop cookies were all about the taste, I enjoyed working with cake because it was an art to present the icing.
At one point I was most proud of my chocolate cake with chocolate (American) buttercream.
I soon became a favorite to my colleagues at work, often bringing in goodies to share.
It lit me up to see how happy people were to indulge in a homemade baked good.
Baking for people was one way that I showed love and it was a therapeutic outlet for me.
It made sense that I was equally concerned with how the goodies tasted, but also how they looked.
People often didn’t believe I made them… they assumed I bought them! (Although the plastic cupcake containers I bought from Amazon to transport my mini cupcakes probably didn’t help LOL)
I guess you could say that piping buttercream was where my piping skills were born…
My Very First Royal Icing Cookies
The first time I decorated cookies with royal icing was Christmas of 2010. It was for my family’s annual Cookies and Carols Christmas party.
What’s a Cookies and Carols party? Well, the marriage of the two best parts of Christmas!
We sing Christmas carols (accompanied by my incredibly talented sister on the piano) and everyone brings a plate of cookies.
We all indulge during the party and then everyone is instructed to bring home a selection of cookies on the plate they brought with them.
The party is a cookie swap of sorts. No cookies are to be left on the table when everyone leaves!
Christmas of 2010 was the winter break of my senior year of college when I was overworked and depressed and lacking motivation (you can read more about that here).
(For the record: I did seek help for my depression at the time and am now in a much better place.)
This year, the Christmas of 2010, I wanted to do something extra special and somehow my Google search led me to royal icing cookies.
Clearly I am a glutton for punishment… it would be quite awhile before I attempted this beast again!
The Summer of Experimentation
The second time I attempted royal icing was almost 2 years later in the summer of 2012.
The occasion was my cousin’s birthday when I was living in my aunt and uncle’s basement in Bethesda, MD and working for free for a national security non-profit in DC.
I spent that summer playing with royal icing as much as I could. I was HOOKED!
Instagram wasn’t really a thing yet, so I learned everything I could from blogs and YouTube.
(Can you peep those EPIC craters on the blue and white dots??)
But most importantly: I just experimented as much as I could.
My favorite way to do a set early on was to come up with a theme and colors and have at it.
I did just about every cookie differently, experimenting with different techniques. Some worked and some didn’t.
And honestly… I think that’s the best way to do it!
In many ways, these first sets were inspiration for the shape series sets I do today: I give myself limitations (color palette and shape) and then I let my imagination run wild.
I give myself the space and permission to fail, which as an artist is invaluable. It’s in the space to fail that you grow!
I experimented as much as I could, and I saw my skills improve exponentially the more that I did it.
It was quite clear from the beginning I had a knack for this royal icing thing…as frustrating as it could be at times!
I was making them so often that I just didn’t have the patience to always bake the cookies first.
I remember one time when I bought pre-made cookies from the grocery store so I could easily crank out citrus slices for a church potluck.
During this time I caught the eye of a local chocolate vendor that wanted to sell my cookies at her market stand.
I very quickly latched onto this idea and made Halloween and fall cookies to try first.
And proof with these spider webs that I didn’t have the most steady hand in the beginning… 😉
But just about as soon as I almost sold these cookies at her stand, I didn’t…
This was my first experience having someone else direct my creative process. She wanted simpler cookies so they could be sold for less money.
I felt my essence as an artist was being taken from me and it no longer felt like my own. I knew right then and there that selling cookies, at least at this time, was not right for me.
Cookies For Christmas 2012
Then came Christmas of 2012 and I went ALL out yet again for my family’s Cookies and Carols Christmas party.
When I made cookies purely for the joy and fun of spreading love with a cookie, I poured hours and hours of backbreaking work into creating the most beautiful creations I could.
I think just about any artist can relate to how different it feels to create just for the sake of creating… can you?
It was so easy for me to get lost in cookies… in the best and worst ways.
I have a very mild case of lymphedema in both legs, which I’ve had since I was 13. In essence: I have an underperforming lymphatic system, which results in my legs and feet swelling. It’s not painful, but it can be quite uncomfortable.
Decorating cookies can easy result in a 12+ hour day of standing on your feet and then sitting for HOURS. Both the gravity of standing and the compression of the lymph nodes in the hip area during sitting result in a lot more swelling of my legs and feet.
I loved what I was creating, but the toll it was taking on my body made me start to feel a bit of resentment for a craft that I loved so much.
This budding resentment, however, didn’t stop me from continuing to experiment when I could!
The Cookies From 2013
Throughout 2013 I made some cookies sporadically for friends and family events, which were my favorite occasions to make cookies.
I made cookies for a colleague’s birthday:
I loved using the information I knew about a person to craft a set that represented them in cookies, both through the designs and the color palette.
One of my first idols and cookie “teachers” was SweetAmbs. I know her as being the OG cookie queen for filigree and brush embroidery.
I made cookies for my cousin’s baby shower:
I made a ridiculous amount of large cookies for a bake sale (for something I don’t even remember…):
I made cookies to celebrate another colleague’s birthday:
At this point my elaborately decorated cookies became a staple at our Cookies and Carols Christmas party.
I couldn’t let everyone down, so royal icing cookies made an appearance again for Christmas 2013.
A Break From Royal Icing
The next couple Christmases though I found myself burned out from work, which left me not wanting to attempt royal icing cookies.
Royal icing is hard to work with in the first place, but when you are doing it so intermittently every time is like you’ve never done it before… which tends to result in way more tears!
So, instead, my sister and I started a tradition of making elaborate gingerbread houses to be the centerpiece at the Cookies and Carols parties. Ironically it still used royal icing… but a fraction of the pressure for technical excellence and execution.
It would be another 3 years until I decorated another cookies with royal icing…
The Cookie Itch Struck Again in 2016
The next time I picked up royal icing was October 2016, just over one year into my job at The Juilliard School. (If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, check out this post here.)
I had always loved to bake for my colleagues in the various jobs I had, but for whatever reason royal icing called me this time around and I made a batch of Halloween cookies that I brought to the office.
They were a HUGE hit. In many ways, that was the real beginning of my cookie career. I caught the spark and kept bringing in batch after batch of cookies to my colleagues.
Christmas 2016 I went ALL out for the Cookies and Carols Party (duh!!!)
Soon my colleagues became my first paying customers and my biggest fans. After much encouragement and persuasion, I finally started an Instagram for my cookies.
But what to call my Instagram account?
The Graceful Baker® Is Born
In April 2017 The Graceful Baker® was born.
I have a vivid memory of the day I sat down on my colleague’s blue “collaborative cushion” to brainstorm ideas for my account name.
The name The Graceful Baker was a play on the name of his favorite bakery in his town (The Able Baker) and my first name (Grace).
I will forever credit the birth of the name to him (thank you!!) and to this day he jokes about where his 10% cut is…
By this point I liked to say that I finally found my medium: royal icing. I thrived with a piping bag in my hand and I spent all of my free time decorating cookies.
What Happened Next…
For the next year I made cookies as often as I could, even dabbling in taking orders and selling cookies.
It wasn’t until spring of 2018 when the first The Graceful Baker® cookie videos hit the Instagram scene…
But what about all those cookies in between?
Coming soon: a post all of the cookies I made after The Graceful Baker® was born, but before I started making videos. [And later: why AND how I quit my job to be The Graceful Baker® full-time]