When Baja Arizona asks, we do our very best to deliver. A few weeks ago, we received a couple pictures of beautifully decorated cookies from Edible Baja Arizona fan Janice Ward. She had seen the cover of our latest issue, featuring the image of a sugar skull photographed by Steven Meckler, and thought the eBA community would appreciate her husband John Ward’s hand-painted sugar skull cookies.
“Appreciate” turned out to be a bit of an understatement: pictures of Ward’s cookies are still the most popular post to date on the Edible Baja Arizona Facebook page, with over 1000 people liking and/or sharing the images. In sum, an estimated 26,000+ people saw his cookies, and many of those individuals wanted to know how he made them, and if there was any way to buy the colorful treats.
I finally managed to meet up with John Ward, and he allowed me to pick his brain for some answers to the many questions we received on our Facebook page, particularly how one goes about decorating such beautiful cookies. Lucky me, he had brought along a fresh batch of whimsically frosted Halloween and Dia de los Muertos cookies, and he gamely walked me through his process.
The most important part about decorating cookies, Ward says, is getting the consistency of the icing right. For his Halloween-themed monster, ghost, and mummy cookies, Ward uses homemade royal icing, an icing made from egg white meringue and powdered sugar (there’s an interesting recipe that uses meringue powder instead of egg whites for more consistent results over here).
How does he keep the icing from getting sloppy? He uses a system of damming and flooding, where he first outlines any area he plans to fill in with the same outline “dam” color as the “flood” color. Ward points out that it’s important to use a slightly thicker frosting for the dams and a thinned out frosting for the floods, to ensure that the frosting stays smooth and within its borders. Then, he waits – 30 to 45 minutes, usually – and allows the initial coat of color to harden. After that, it’s time to add the details with a very narrow-tipped piping bag.
Ward uses a different decorating technique for his Dia de los Muertos sugar skull cookies. He starts out by pressing the designs into his skulls, using the shapes that came with his sugar skull cookie cutter kit. After the cookies are baked, he mixes food coloring with a little bit of either vodka or grain alcohol, and begins carefully painting on the vibrant colors he prefers for his skull cookies. Once the base layer of color dries, he then traces the shapes’ outlines with an edible pen, and applies any raised decorations with a thin brush and a little bit of melted white chocolate, sometimes finishing each skulls’ pupils with a single sprinkle anchored by a dot of chocolate.
How did Ward get into decorating cookies? He credits his sister-in-law with turning him onto it a year ago. “I was horrible the first three or four times,” Ward recalls. He looked to the internet for help, and discovered Pinterest as an excellent resource for cookie decorating inspiration and advice. One year later, he estimates he can turn out a dozen carefully decorated cookies in under 3.5 hours – which fits conveniently into the time it takes for Ward to indulge in the great American pastime of football. “Generally, I [decorate the cookies] while watching a football game,” he says, citing his desire to make time spent watching the game more productive than him just sitting on the couch.
After posting the pictures of the sugar skull cookies to our Facebook wall, we were inundated with messages asking if the cookies were for sale and where they could be purchased. Despite the interest, Ward says he has no plans to get into the business of selling his creations. “I just do it for fun and give them away to people.” While he isn’t interested in turning his hobby into a business venture, he does occasionally make a few extra batches of his cookies in response to family and friends’ requests. He doesn’t mind spending the extra time, however. “Baking a cookie is not so hard,” Ward shrugs. “You just follow the instructions – it’s like changing a tire.”
I ask Ward if he has his eye on any future edible art projects, such as cake decorating. He shakes his head and laughs. “Nah, that’s a lot of work.” In the meantime, he’s already received some requests for his signature Christmas cookie designs – and should he ever run low on inspiration, there’s always Pinterest.
See more of John Ward’s process and the resulting cookies, below. (All images by Janice Ward.)
Cookie inspiration isn’t the only thing on Pinterest – did you know Edible Baja Arizona is on there too? We pin regular features from our blog and magazine issues, as well as cool things we find in our own ‘pinning’ sessions. Check us out!