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How I Got Into Royal Icing Cookies (Including My First Cookies!) [About Me: Part 3]

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.

Grace Gaylord decorating royal icing cookies
One of the very rare photos of me decorating!

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.

apple cake with caramel icing
The apple cake my mom makes every year for my dad’s birthday

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.

lemon pound cake with lemon icing
My Mom’s Signature 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!

raspberry thumb print cookies
Mom’s signature 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).

Pumpkin pie, cherry pie, pecan pie, mince meat pie, vegan pumpkin pie
Pumpkin pie, cherry pie, pecan pie, mince meat pie, vegan pumpkin pie

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.

peanut butter cookies
A mountain of mom’s peanut butter cookies I made for a bake sale

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!

snickerdoodle cookies
The best snickerdoodle cookies

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.

chocolate cupcake with chocolate icing
Chocolate cupcake with chocolate icing

I soon became a favorite to my colleagues at work, often bringing in goodies to share.

Pumpkin muffins with a cream cheese icing
Pumpkin muffins with a cream cheese icing

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.

raspberry chocolate layer cake
Raspberry chocolate cake

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)

Peanut butter cupcakes with chocolate frosting
Peanut butter cupcakes with chocolate frosting

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.

Gingerbread cookies decorated with royal icing
My very first batch of cookies!

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.

Gingerbread cookies decorated with royal icing

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!

Gingerbread cookies decorated with royal icing

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.)

Gingerbread cookies decorated with royal icing

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. 

royal icing sugar cookies: rollout sugar cookies decorated with royal icing
The second time I made royal icing cookies

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.

sugar cookies decorated with royal icing: royal icing cookies
My third batch of royal icing cookies

(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.

My third batch of royal icing cookies

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!

My third batch of royal icing cookies

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!

My ninth time making royal icing cookies

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!

My sixth batch of royal icing cookies

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.

My fourth batch of royal icing cookies

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.

My seventh time making royal icing cookies

And proof with these spider webs that I didn’t have the most steady hand in the beginning… 😉

My seventh time making royal icing cookies

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.

One of the rare photos of me actually decorating cookies!

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.

gingerbread cookies decorated with royal icing: royal icing cookies

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.

gingerbread cookies decorated with royal icing: royal icing cookies

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:

sugar cookies decorated with royal icing: royal icing cookies

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.

sugar cookies decorated with royal icing: royal icing cookies

One of my first idols and cookie “teachers” was SweetAmbs. I know her as being the OG cookie queen for filigree and brush embroidery.

sugar cookies decorated with royal icing: royal icing cookies

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…):

sugar cookies decorated with royal icing: royal icing cookies

I made cookies to celebrate another colleague’s birthday:

sugar cookies decorated with royal icing: royal icing cookies

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.

gingerbread cookies decorated with royal icing: royal icing cookies

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.

gingerbread house decorated with royal icing and candies

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.

sugar cookies decorated with royal icing: royal icing cookies

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]

No Spread Sugar Cookies: Recipe for Decorating with Royal Icing

Monday 5th of June 2023

[…] looking for more reading, check out my posts on my introduction, my life background before cookies, how I got into royal icing cookies and all of the cookies I made before I became a cookie video […]

Kathi Martin

Tuesday 23rd of May 2023

Loved this story on my fav Cookier! I love Graceā€™s vids. Her voice, her giggles and of course, stellar instruction, make it seem like Iā€™m sitting next to her.

thisisthegracefulbaker

Tuesday 23rd of May 2023

Awwww man thank you that's the best compliment!!!

Sunny S

Tuesday 14th of March 2023

Wow, what a great story! I love reading of how you fell in love with creating cookie art and all of the little details of how it fell into place! Looking forward to reading the next installment.

thisisthegracefulbaker

Thursday 13th of April 2023

thank you for the support!!! new things are coming soon promise :)

Kitty Kury

Thursday 9th of March 2023

Loved reading your story. You have had some amazing experiences. I believe I have watched every video you have posted. If not I am well on my way. I love your explanations and just watching your creativeness. I look forward to reading more from these future posts you mentioned. Coming soon: a post all of the cookies I made after The Graceful BakerĀ® was born, but before I started making videos. [And later: why AND how I quit my job to be The Graceful BakerĀ® full-time]

Thank you for sharing so much with us.

thisisthegracefulbaker

Thursday 13th of April 2023

yes!!! new things coming soon I promise :)

Kay V

Tuesday 20th of December 2022

I'm finally catching up on your blog posts, but this one gives me so much hope as someone who's just kind of getting serious about this! Reading your story, and seeing the pictures of your early work is all so relatable.

thisisthegracefulbaker

Wednesday 4th of January 2023

Thank you!! Anything is possible if you put the work into it :)

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