Thursday, February 20, 2014

Julie Usher's Sweet World of Cookies

2014 started out with some weird old weather.  We had Polar Vortexes, The Weather Channel started naming winter storms (weird and really necessary?), it was cold in really cold...and really snowy.  The majestic beauty of freshly fallen snow can sometimes take my breath away but by mid February I am OVER the majesty.  Especially now that I can't ski.

We have had to deal with snow piles like I have never seen in this town. My neighborhood seems to have the most snow in town. We get "lake effect" snow coming off Lake Michigan giving us around 70 inches of snow a year. Using the extremely accurate snow measurement system involving the height of the snow piles at the end of each driveway and my little subdivision has been hit the worst.  I have been joking about "lake effect" snow coming from our little local lake (the one we could walk across and not have the water reach our necks).  Nobody seems to be buying it!
Studio Update:  Soooo... remember when I had a little pipe burst and rain all over my basement?  My studio didn't get wet but the floor did and the guys that came to dry it out packed up a bunch of random items into big boxes.  So, instead of my latest and greatest work of art, I am going to share another amazing thing I've found online.

I realize this is a very long post.  That is because the artist I am profiling is a involved in many forms of media. You may want to skip down to find the areas you are most interested in- video, books, website etc.  I promise if you read it all you won't be sorry. She is that interesting and her work is divine.
Over the last few years it has been all about the cupcake.  If you've traveled to any big city in the last 5 years, you probably noticed little cupcake bakeries popping up all over. The sheer number of cupcake bakeries rivaling the local Starbucks...okay maybe that is a great exaggeration but it fives you some idea of what the cupcake has become in America.

But times they are a changing...and this year it is all about the COOKIE.  Whereas cupcakes are largely about the flavors, cookies are all about the embellishment. Cookies are no longer just your child's after-school snack, instead they have become miniature canvases for frosting artists. Using only a few basic tools, some skill and a lot of imagination, a cookie artist truly can create mini masterpiece. 

There is no shortage of cookie art blogs, videos, and tutorials online.  I could probably start blogging about cookie artists today and keep going for the next 6 months without running out of interesting examples to share with you.  I won't be doing that of course, but there are a few that I just have to share and the first is Julia Usher.
Julia Usher
I found Julia on her YouTube channel, Julia M Usher.  I can't tell you how that happened except to say that I have been watching a lot of YouTube while had been under the weather recently and her channel popped up as a "recommendation".  I hadn't considered watching cookie decorating videos nor was I even interested in decorating cookies but when confronted with the photo (below) of beautiful pink and red, highly detailed, gorgeous cookies, I was done.  My heart began to race and that part of my brain that LIVES for creativity started releasing endorphins faster than I could swipe over my track pad and click on the link.  I don't know about you, but creativity fills my soul in ways that nothing else can-whether it is an artist who works in paint, paper, frosting, makeup, nail polish, digital all fills my creative soul and I get so excited when artists like Julia, share their creative process along with their end product.  
Source: Julia Usher YouTube
So I clicked...I was INTRIGUED...I was CAPTIVATED...maybe even ENCHANTED.  I was all that and so much more.  I was INSPIRED.  And nothing makes me happier than being truly, deeply, it-touched-my-soul inspired.  Let's be honest, the chance that I will ever decorate a single cookie at the level anywhere near the level that Julia reaches...that chance is <10%. It is never zero because I never know what I will do next, but...I would end up eating too much of my art! And I really don't need to start a new craft that requires I buy lots of new items to get started.  Rick might just kill me...or file for divorce.

So back to Ms. Usher...
Playing at this level of cookie art takes a lot of imagination, a lot of skill, a lot of precision and a lot of patience.  I have the imagination down and I am sure I could learn the skills (with enough practice), but precision? Not so much.  Let's just say that precision and I will never be dance partners.  And patience?  (insert laughing font) HAHAHAHAHAHAHA I will never have the level of patience needed to make the cookies take-my-breath-away gorgeous.

We are still being frank here right? My name is Danee and I am a "close enough" kind of girl.  I eyeball...a lot... and then I spend a fair amount of time fixing the mistakes that come from "close enough"techniques.  While I often find covering my mistakes is what makes a piece interesting, it is also the most frustrating. And I doubt adding a cool Idea-ology metal charm or glob of Distress Paint will look as good on a cookie mistake as it does on a tag.  I'm just saying.... And while we are being frank and real here, we have to acknowledge that what makes these cookies so spectacular is just how straight, thin, and evenly spaced the lines or dots of frosting are.  Julia's cookies are so spectacular that I am having a hard time finding the words to accurately describe just how smitten I really am by her gorgeous pastries.  I am IN LOVE <3

If I was lucky enough to be gifted with a beautiful heart cookie box would I eat it?  UM....NEVER. But cookie art pieces don't keep any better than any other cookie does.  And we have reached the dichotomy of these new bakery-based art forms.  To eat or not to eat...that is the question.  I've always marveled at the cake artists who spend days carving, frosting, sugaring and fondant-ing a cake until it is a showstopper all while knowing that it will be end up being attacked by savage party guests until all that is left is a frosting-and-crumb littered serving plate and a ribbon-handled cake server.  A knife to my heart.  I suppose the beautiful cookie box would keep just as well as that top layer of your wedding cake did. YUMMY.

Artistry like Julia's requires accuracy, precision, and the type of care that doesn't come easy for me.  attention to detail I have  but slowing down and being precise just doesn't happen.  But none of this stopped me from watching ALL of the videos she has on her channel...nor does it keep me from checking for new ones daily.  Simply put, her gorgeous work speaks to me.
Source: Julia Usher
I realize with all my gushing, the in-depth coverage, and the length of this piece might give you the impression that this is a sponsored post.  In fact, it is not.  No one is paying me and no on ask me to write this.  I decided it was time to share some of my favorite artists and websites and we all know that I've gushed about Tim Holtz enough already.  Time to move on.  So, I decided to share to showcase someone else and Julia's stunning made her an easy selection.  I did notify Julia that I was writing this- just to be sure I had permission to use her photos and that I gave her proper credit.  She was very  humble and very gracious.  I hope you will read this long post in its entirety and then spend a little time checking our her YouTube Channel and website.  I know you won't regret it.
Julia Usher certainly has led an interesting life.  She has the artistic skills and the credentials to be at the top of the game, yet she holds college degrees in several non-art related fields.  In fact, she has collected more degrees than I have!  She holds two mechanical engineering degrees, an undergrad from Yale and a master's from UC Berkley (suddenly her passion for making 3D-cookie is making a lot more sense) as well as a master's in business from Stanford.  Anyone want to start an office pool over when she gets her doctorate from Harvard? Or maybe my alma mater, The University Of Michigan  (because we call it "The Harvard of the West").  A major career change came in 1994 when she attended Cambridge  Culinary School-I just like that she went to the culinary school with a name like that! Currently, Julia calls herself a pastry chef, food stylist, and author.  I would certainly add teacher to that list.  
Published Work
I'm not sure where to start exactly so I am going to just dive in.  Julia has published 2 books.  It doesn't come as a surprise that like her cookie work, her books are gorgeous and well organized. 
Cookie Book Cover
Copyright Gibbs Smith Publisher
More info here
Ultimate Cookies breaks down cookie making and cookie decorating.  You can see some of the pages here or watch her a trailers here.  This book starts with the basics in cookie making and decorating.  supplies required, supplies, tech and continues on to more advanced techniques.
Copyright Gibbs Smith Publisher
More info here
In Cookie Swap Julia argues that swaps need not be limited to Christmas anymore and honestly, I love this idea.  The holidays are so busy and so overloaded with sweets it is hard to appreciate the individual cookies and especially particularly beautiful cookies can be wasted as dozens of cookies invade our kitchens.  Moving the traditional neighborhood swap to another time is pure of those (slaps forehead) "Duh" moments.  In Cookie Swap, Julia presents not only amazing cookie designs but also fun and whimsical presentation and packing ideas.
Julia is a teacher who uses her YouTube Channel videos to demonstrate how she achieves the most amazing and intricate frosting work and how she makes her beloved 3D cookies.  You can certainly watch her videos and copy exactly what she demonstrates but Julia's videos are not just a quick tutorial intended to give the viewer a copy-me-step-by-step tutorial for that one project.  Instead, she teaches the fundamentals of what she is doing; the "how" and "why" of each step.  She wants to give the viewers a new set of skills rather than just enable one to copy her work exactly.  Here is where I see the mechanical engineer peeking through the most.  If you are interested in really innovative and intricate cookie decorating, you will love this channel.  Heck, I love this channel without being a cookie decorator!

I am head-over-heels in love with her 3D cookies.  They defy physics and logic....but they so much fun.  I love that they are both adorable and sophisticated, making them perfect for both children and adults. Children love the fun shapes and whimsical colors as well as the fact that some designs -like her baskets and stockings- hold other cookies or candies.  I love all that as well but I also appreciate the amount of work involved in designing and putting together a project like this.  Julia's 3D-Sphere ornaments  are so sophisticated they don't even look anything like a cookie.

Julia's videos show how to design, cuts and bake similar 3D pieces.  I suggest you grab a latte (or a cup of tea), sit in your favorite chair, grab your laptop or iPad and explore either Cookie Couture Playlist  or her Sweet Feats Playlist.  As you watch flour, butter and sugar become intricately decorated baskets, stockings, ornaments, and valentine's will thank me.
Julia places a high value on teaching the fundamentals of cookie decorating. maybe I like her because we both like to explore topics in depth...some call me wordy...I call me "comprehensive".  It appears she wants to show the basic baker how to achieve a beautiful cookie from inspiration to choosing the appropriate cookie cutter to which cookie dough works best for a design and the thing that has plagued my attempts at cookie decorating....the icing consistency.  The appropriate consistency of royal icing is the KEY to the success of beautiful intricate icing techniques and something I have found extremely difficult to grasp.  My frustration usually stems from difficulty envisioning the required icing consistency recommended in recipes.  Julia has a simple formula for the different consistencies and also is able to show in the video exactly what she is looking for.

Other topics covered so far:
I am a sucker for gilding.  Shiny, pretty, metallic gold...Sign me up....I'd gild anything...but a cookie? Yes, yes she did, and it is gorgeous.  Julia gilded a beautiful Christmas cookie.  Check.  It.  Out.  Julia is a woman after my own heart...throw in some glitter and I may be in love.

Not so much into cookie decorating?  Fear not... there may be something for you.  Learn how to make a chocolate lace cake wrap or how to stencil around a cake.  Just for fun- a whole lot of  "gee-wiz" factor watch how she made a cake's worth a moment to see just what it is.

Below is the video showing the Needlepoint technique on a 3D stocking take a peek at it and then head over to her channel to see more of her terrific work; 
Julia has a comprehensive website community at  The site includes:
  • Her Blog: There is a lot of great information on the blog.  Lots of bakers post their own projects providing lots of inspirition 
  • Project Gallery: A gallery of Julia's gorgeous work.  Julia is a chef as well as baker and the gallery reflects this.  She posts photos of her cookies, cakes, savory items, favors, tabletops and party props  
  • Store: Here she sells her books, cutters, videos, dvd's and an App! 
    • hardcopy books
    • over 20 ebook titles
    • 3 cookie cutter sets 
      • tiara
      • wreath
      • peacock
    • Julia's App
    • DVDs
  • Library:  This section is for her books, and a lot of info about the books including book tour info, press information, a newsletter, etc. 
  • Community: This is huge community (more below). 
This community kinda sorta blows my mind.  It is just so well done.  I see a lot of craft communities and most of the time they are just a big ol' hot mess.  But Julia has done a terrific job...not a hot mess to be found.

The community is called Cookie Connection and is very active.  As I write this, late in the evening on a Thursday, there are 489 people playing on the site.  If you are even remotely interested in cookie decorating, I suggest you check it out.  I suspect it is easy to get lost for hours checking out cookies, reading blogs (there is also a community blog), exploring how-tos, chatting, participating in forums and joining swaps.  This is a place to really discuss cookies and cookie decorating.  And this is the place for your cookies to see and be seen.
Eye Candy
When you look at the photos of Julia's work, keep in mind that everything is edible.  EVERY. SINGLE.  THING.  This woman is truly an artist.  She may use flour, sugar, flour and eggs rather than tempura, oils, acrylic and canvas but make no mistakes about it...this is beautiful and this is ART.  Using her unconventional supplies Julia uses her attention to detail, texture, color and shape to produce a uniquely beautiful cookie.  I will leave you with some eye candy ala Julia....


Always Add a Sprinkle of Glitter.....

1 comment:

  1. Wow - thank you for such a lovely post about my work. I am so honored that you did this.


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