Interview with a Cookie Designer

Photograph by Aasulv Wolf Austad

Sure, we all like eating cookies but how often do we actually wonder who designed the cookie that you’re enjoying? Recently I came across cookie designer Mischief Mari Cookies website The cookies looked pretty good and seemed like there was a lot of thought and care put into what she did. So I emailed Mari Pfeiffer and asked if she would be interested in talking to me through email about her cookies, the way she designs and other things edible. Below is the ensuing conversation… If you’re one of those people that would prefer to read this interview on paper, you can download a pdf of the interview HERE.

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What goes into designing a cookie from scratch to the final icing? A lot of planning. A lot of back-breaking, labor-intensive work. Once I’ve decided on a design, then I have to make sure I have the ingredients. I always start with the icing, a simple white royal icing made of confectioner’s sugar, water and meringue powder, which I make the night before I start any new project. The next morning, I pull out the ingredients for the dough, and once my butter has reached room temperature, I mix everything together, roll it out, chill it, cut it and bake it. While I wait for the cookies to cool, I divide my icing into small batches, color each one, pour them into parchment paper cones and start decorating. Depending on the complexity of the design, I’d say that it takes between four and six hours to complete the whole process.

How do you decide on a color pallet? It really depends on the design, but generally speaking, my approach is to not use colors normally associated with the images I create. For example, last Christmas, I made square cookies with blue and yellow trees on them, and I used blues and pinks as the tree ornaments. My dog cookies, as you’ve probably seen, are in bright shades of blue, orange, pink. I guess I like the unexpected.

Do you make your own colors? About half of the time, I do. A friend gave me a color wheel not long after I started decorating cookies, which has been very useful. Gel paste coloring, which is a highly concentrated form of food coloring made for edible decorating, comes in very standard colors like red, blue, yellow, green and black. Those colors are fine, but I’m always more interested in making something different, unexpected. I use the color wheel as a guide to making different shades of each color.

For the shapes of the cookies, are all cookie cutters the same or are there different quality types? How do you decide on a shape? There are several kinds of cutters. I’m not deeply picky about what to use. Copper is the most durable and beautiful, and I buy one of those a year. Why one? I’m building a collection that will represent the animals in the Chinese Zodiac. So far I have the Sheep, the Rooster, and the Pig.

There are also aluminum tin cutters, and these are probably the most common. They are usually pretty inexpensive, and I like these the most. They cut very well, and the variety of shapes available is endless. They require a little more care, since they can rust.

Then there are plastic cutters, which are pretty good, too. They are the easiest to care for in terms of cleaning. I have a few of those.

I decide on a shape after I’ve decided on my design. I imagine it’s similar to the way a graphics designer works. I have a space and I need to figure out how to fill it, how to make it appealing to the eye and how to convey some kind of feeling or message in that space.

Are some shapes easier to work with than others?
Absolutely. The more intricate a cutter is, the harder it is to use. A few years ago, I was at Williams-Sonoma looking for a new tablecloth when a box of animal cookie cutters caught my eye. Naturally, I forgot why I was in the store and came home with just the cutters. I couldn’t wait to try them out. I can’t even begin to tell you how frustrating it was to cut those shapes only to break off a lion’s leg or an elephant’s trunk in the process. It took quite of bit of research and a few more trials before I got it right.

How does the look of the cookie affect the taste? For me it doesn’t. It’s essential that the cookies taste as good as they look. In 2002, when I was starting out, I tried numerous recipes for both the cookie dough and the icing before I got the right the combination. Friends and family acted as taste-testers and gave much needed feedback on each cookie. The biggest problem was the icing: royal icing is very sweet, lacks a distinct flavor, and hardens to a rock-like consistency. But the recipe I found and use is just right.

What’s the typical production time on a run – how many would you usually make for an order? I usually make a baker’s dozen (thirteen) at a time. But I’m such a nice gal that I often throw in extra cookies.

Are there other cookie designers that you look at for inspiration? There are a few cookie designers whose work I look at and wonder, “How on earth did they do that?” A good example of this is a guy named Gerhard Jenne, a German pastry chef who owns the Konditor & Cook bakeries in London. He wrote a book called Wacky Cakes and Kooky Cookies that blew me away the first time I read it. His work is filled with color and whimsy and his book taught me that mistakes or imperfections can be part of the overall design. This is wonderful advice, because when you work with perishables like icing and cookies, you can’t really erase what you’ve done. Though I hate to make mistakes, I often use them as an opportunity to try something new or go in an unexpected direction. Some of my best work has been the result of a few mistakes, like my blue dachshund cookie. As I was finishing him up, I ran out of black icing and had only pink left. That’s when I decided to give him pink toenails and have him stick his tongue out. In terms of new materials, what’s green that you’re considering? A lot of them are still in the early stages and aren’t ready for production yet. Often they’re being created in someone’s garage in middle America and are still being tested. People are reading about the materials, but they don’t work yet. It’s confusing for us b/c they’re available.

Where else do you look for ideas?
Actually, most of my ideas are born from stories. I’m a writer – a freelance journalist, copywriter and screenwriter – and usually I get my ideas for cookie designs from the stories I cover, from people for whom I write, from research I do for my screenplays or from my own personal experiences, and I chronicle most of how those ideas germinated in my blog. Years ago, my older brother and I went traveling through Indonesia where I saw and ate a hammerhead shark. When I heard that the area where we had traveled was hit by an earthquake last year, the memory of that trip gave me the idea of creating a cookie with a hammerhead shark.

When and why did you decide to do this as a business? In 2002, I gave cookies to everyone and anyone whenever I could to promote myself. One friend took some of my cookies to another friend’s party, and another guest, a very powerful and successful lawyer, called me the next day and asked me if I could make some for his girlfriend for Valentine’s Day. He wanted me to make a set of decorated letter cookies that spelled out a rather, ahem, raunchy message. I did it. He paid me. That was my first sale. (Oh, and by the way, he married that girlfriend).

At the time, I was working at a film festival and writing a screenplay on the side, so I didn’t have time to make a go of this as a real business. Then I lost my job, and with the blessing and encouragement of my husband, I worked on my screenplay full-time and took freelance reporting assignments when I could. Occasionally, I’d get some cookie business. I always write my stories at the public library because it’s quiet and there’s no internet to distract me. Before getting down to writing, I’d procrastinate a little by reading books about starting a small business or cookbooks and learned a lot about the business side of the pastry business. I also visited a Small Business Association center where the volunteers gave me a lot of advice; I talked to professional pastry chefs and bankers and came to the conclusion that if I were to make this a business that could support me, I’d have to really do it full-time, hire employees, and so on. I love baking and decorating but for now, not enough to do it full-time.

Where do you want to take your business? I’m going to keep my life the way it is. I am still a writer first, a baker second. And as I get more writing assignments, whether reporting or copywriting (and I’m starting negotiations for a possible screenwriting deal), I have less time to devote cookies. I’m also in the process of making some massive changes to my website that will better reflect all of the things I do (writing, baking, storytelling), so I’m very busy with that. I hope to get the new website up and running before the holidays hit, because that’s always a busy time. As a one-woman shop, the baking has been a very seasonal occupation, really. And honestly, if I added up the hours I put into baking and decorating, I’m certain my hourly rate would come out to less than minimum wage. I don’t know any chefs – cuisine or pastry – who do what they do for the money. It’s competitive and as I said before, labor intensive. And not worth it unless you do it full-time.

Thanks for doing this!

Photograph by Aasulv Wolf Austad

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