Rebecca Weld of Potsdam, N.Y., makes her living as an architect. But during her free time, she's hunched over the kitchen counter, like an alchemist, dripping food coloring drop by drop into icing to achieve the perfect color.
"I use rich colors for that dated, antique feel," Weld says.
Antique? Perhaps. But certainly not old school. Weld's cookie designs are astonishingly intricate — including a scene from an Adirondacks lake that looks like you could dive right into it.
"A common comment is they're too beautiful to eat," she says. "But that's sort of the Zen part of it, like a sand painting. You make this beauty, and just put it out in the world."
We spotted Weld's works of art in sugar and flour online, which is appropriate, because Weld is part of a thriving virtual community of cookie virtuosos who take decoration to a whole other level.
"It's really just about sharing your art," says Weld, who goes by The Cookie Architect on Facebook.
And it's catching on: Around the U.S. and increasingly the world — from Japan to Spain to Brazil — thousands of bakers are posting images of their intricate designs online. Some cookies are cartoonish, or pointillist; others look like stained glass or real paintings.
And they're not just sharing online — next week, hundreds of cookiers are meeting up in Salt Lake City for the second annual Cookie Convention.
Occasionally, cookie masters will go head to head for bragging rights. For instance, Weld's series of Nantucket-themed biscuits recently nabbed the Oscar of the cookie world, coming in first in the Best Cookies of 2013 competition hosted by Cookie Connection, the biggest of the design sharing sites.
But the world of cookie couture is also about being supportive. Last year, Weld sent blank, puzzle-piece-style gingerbread cookies out to a few dozen of her favorite cookiers. Each returned a fully designed cookie, and Weld built them into a gingerbread house of cards — a meta-cookie, if you will.
Julia Usher is a pastry chef and award-winning author who runs Cookie Connection, which has more than 3,000 members around the world. She recently traveled to Spain and Portugal to give cookie design workshops.
Usher says cookies are catching on as high baking art because they're easier to handle than, say, a full-blown cake.
"The cookie is a great vehicle for creating an expression of yourself that is compact and small," says Usher. "It can be easily transferred to someone else. It's really an expression of you and [of] giving."
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Remember the gourmet cupcake trend? Well, move over cupcake. Here comes the designer cookie. Bakers all around the country are making incredibly intricate and artistic cookies and then they are sharing photos of them online. North Country Public Radio's David Sommerstein introduces us to one cookie designer in upstate New York.
DAVID SOMMERSTEIN, BYLINE: Rebecca Weld makes her living as an architect. But during her free time, she's hunched over the kitchen counter like an alchemist, dripping food coloring drop by drop and stirring to achieve the perfect-colored icing to decorate her cookies.
REBECCA WELD: So I don't think it's dark enough. I've got this other green that I'm looking at next to it.
SOMMERSTEIN: And these are not your Grandma's cookies. Unless your grandma decorated hers with psychedelic butterflies, mosaics and mandalas, even a scene from an Adirondack lake that looks like you could dive right into it.
WELD: It's a really cool way to - like if you see a graphic of something that you love, in like a Crate and Barrel catalog or something, like you can kind of play with design, as you see things. You can, oh, that would make a great cookie, you start to think.
SOMMERSTEIN: On the day I visit, just before Christmas, Weld is making a batch of cherry-pistachio cookies decorated as old-fashioned pickup trucks with evergreens in the flatbed.
WELD: I've decorated the pickup trucks. And now, I've got to decorate all the Christmas trees in the back.
SOMMERSTEIN: Weld rolls a plop of forest green icing in Saran wrap, then she loads it into an icing bag and delicately colors a tree onto a cookie. When it dries, she'll add ornaments the size of a pinhead and whisper-thin silver trim. Weld takes pictures of her creations and shares them with other cookiers on Facebook. She goes by Cookie Architect, and her page has 7,000 likes.
WELD: You post the pictures and everyone can see your pictures. And they can say, oh, you're pictures are great or not great or whatever, but it's really just about sharing your art.
SOMMERSTEIN: The biggest cookie design-sharing website, Cookie Connection, has 3,000 members based all over the world, each with her own style. And they are almost all women. Some cookies are cartoonish. Others look like stained glass or real paintings. Julia Usher runs Cookie Connection. I talked to her by Skype while she was travelling Portugal and Spain, doing cookie design workshops. Usher says cookies are catching on as high-baking art because they're easier than, say, a full-blown cake.
JULIA USHER: The cookie being a great vehicle for creating an expression of yourself that is compact and small and easily transferred to someone else. It's really an expression of you and giving.
SOMMERSTEIN: Cookie Connection does host competitions, like best cookies of 2013. Rebecca Weld took top honors for her set of Nantucket seaside-themed cookies. But while some of the most accomplished cookie designers do it for a living, for many others, it's a hobby. Weld gives most of hers away.
WELD: A common comment is, oh, they're too beautiful to eat. And I mean, I have saved a few of them. It's sort of a Zen part of it. It's like a sand painting or something, you know. Like, you make this beauty, put it out in the world. I mean, you take pictures of it. It's not like you can't remember.
SOMMERSTEIN: It is a cookie after all, just one you're not sure whether to hang on your wall or wash down with a glass of milk. For NPR News, I'm David Sommerstein in Potsdam, New York.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.