Nothing Cookie-Cutter About It
Julia M. Usher's life is the product of a precise recipe-a mix of hard work, persistence, creativity, and, above all, appreciation for the company of others. The shoreline native has always had a knack for distinguishing herself, first as valedictorian of Guilford High School's Class of 1980, then by earning a slew of advanced degrees from the nation's most prestigious universities, and eventually becoming a high-powered management consultant.
Even a self-proclaimed mid-career "burn out" didn't stop Usher. Instead, she used the moment to reexamine her professional path. She realized baking and food styling were more than just her passions; they were her calling.
Usher answered the call and hasn't looked back, embarking on a journey punctuated by opening her own boutique bakery, the former AzucArte. Along the way, Usher's styled food and written for publications including Bon Appétit, Fine Cooking, Yankee, and Better Homes and Gardens. She was a 2008 James Bear Foundation Journalism Award finalist for her monthly column in Sauce magazine, based out of St. Louis, Missouri, where she now lives.
Now, with her first book, Cookie Swap: Creative Treats to Share Throughout the Year, Usher is sharing her secrets for, as she calls it, "the sweet life." A cookbook meets lifestyle and entertaining guide, Cookie Swap breathes new life into the delicious activity that's often overlooked outside of the holiday season. Usher thinks there's never been a better time for cookie swapping events to come back into vogue.
"It's an easy and economical way to entertain," she says. "My hope is that there's a silver lining to this economy...that people do more baking and cooking on their own...The Food Network has broadened people's exposure to food...but it's really made us observers instead of doers...Cookie Swap offers a range of things that are easy and quick...but I fundamentally believe that things that are good and that are special take more time to make."
Cookie swapping, Usher muses, evokes warm memories of communal baking, of traditions like family dinner, and, most important, of the art of sharing.
"I'm hoping that the emotional underpinning of the book takes hold in society again," she says. "That's largely what my motivation is as a chef...to surprise people with something special...What I make is gifts to those I give it to...and it's not going to be easy [to make] and it's not going to be something you see every day...Everything is made from scratch, from high-quality ingredients, and I spend a lot of time on the decorative element."
When it comes to crafting cookies and the get-togethers that celebrate their sharing, there are no limits to Usher's imagination. Cookie Swap features more than 50 recipes for everyone from the beginner to the seasoned pastry chef, in addition to craft projects that complement the culinary creations (think unique party favors, invitations made from dishtowels, and "constructions" like cookie garden pots and birdhouses, gingerbread May Day baskets, and wedding cake cookie-toppers).
Cookie Swap isn't all artistic concept, though. True to her other, more analytical side (Usher's first job was as a mechanical engineer), Usher also breaks down the process of hosting a cookie swap. She offers a down-to-earth, one-step-at-a-time guide to sending out invitations, baking the goods, putting together the main event, and everything in between.
Usher advises the aspiring cookie swap host to take a three-pronged approach: "select a theme" for the event, "focus on the defining details," and "distinguish the details."
"After the theme is set, the work of over-the-top party preparation really begins," writes Usher in Cookie Swap. "Should your head start spinning at this stage, I suggest you limit your investment to the few details that guests are most likely to remember and, therefore, savor...Once you've identified the details you plan to develop, it's time to unleash your creativity. Don't forget: your party is more likely to be over-the-top if the details stand out as meaningful expressions of yourself."
For Usher, nothing may be more of an expression of her own self than Cookie Swap, a book rooted in the principles she first learned in her mother's kitchen in the family'scirca-1796 North Guilford farmhouse.
"I worked with my mom in the kitchen starting out as early as I can remember and she didn't permit anything that wasn't made from scratch in the house," recalls Usher. "I learned a lot about baking from her...When she was a young mom she really tried to replicate that lifestyle" evoked by the family's rural homestead.
Usher's mother reenforced in her daughter "that there's integrity to the ingredients...and maintaining the integrity of the ingredients" is important.
"She fell in love with the area and her home and the bounty that was there on the property...and wanted to preserve that" lifestyle, Ushers says of her mother, who still lives in the family's home.
Incorporating these lessons into her life and, now, into her book, is "really why I like doing what I do," says Usher.
Cookie Swap: Creative Treats to Share Throughout the Year (Gibbs Smith) by Julia M. Usher, illustrated by Steve Adams, is $19.99, paperback; available via www.juliausher.com and in bookstores.