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« Baker's Dozen: A Batch of Sweet Links! | Main | What a Brownie-Noser: A Sweet Recipe from Julia M. Usher's Cookie Swap »

Batter Chatter: Interview with Julia Usher, Author of Cookie Swap, With a Giveaway!

Win a cookbook, learn about cookies! 

Let's talk about cookies. More specifically, let's talk about cookie swaps, a tradition big in the 60's--and one that Julia M. Usher, author of Cookie Swap: Creative Treats to Share Throughout the Year, says is making a comeback in a big way. Curious? Here's the CakeSpy interview...with a bonus recipe for one of Julia's favorite recipes in the book...as well as a giveaway to win a copy!

CakeSpy: Important question: what was the last cookie you ate?
Julia Usher: The Brown(ie) Noser--we had some left over from a signing I did on Saturday. I had it for breakfast the next morning!


CS: So, it was through a magazine that your book came to be--how did that happen?
JU: What happened was that I had a bakery for 7 years; I closed it a few years ago. I thought that what might better suit me was to write books and develop the creative content without being tied to the bakery and production. So I closed the shop and wrote a proposal. And I got an agent, which is particularly key in thecookbook arena, because it's very hard to get access to publishers without one. My initial proposal was actually for a cake book; after going through 40 possible agents and narrowing it down to 4, I ended up choosing an agent out of Cambridge, MA who was very reasonable -- she began pitching the cake book, and we kept hearing the concept was too big to sell in this marketplace--but she had seen the article I had written for St. Louis at home, and asked if we could craft a book around cookies and cookie swaps: I said I'm sure I could do that, and wrote another proposal. We ended up selling both, but we decided to go forward with one to start.

CS: How did it go from a book proposal to an actual book? Did it change a lot?
JU: So, the book proposal did include a sample chapter, but really, it was more of a business plan, with audience, competition, analysis, and all of that. There were some changes with the page count and amount of photographs--which were 2-3 times more than originally contracted. We ended up having to cut the content, change the size of the pages and shift from hardcover to paperback, but ultimately we kept the book at the same price point as initially hoped for. All in all though, everything I wanted to be there was there--if slightly abbreviated.

I did take on some moonlighting during the proposal process because I was getting bummed about because it was taking a long time to sell the book, and I felt like I needed the validation of making money.

CS: It seems that you're currently embarking on a bit of a guerilla marketing scheme to promote your book. Can you tell me more?
JU: I have about 100 stops nationwide; about 10 major metro areas. It's something I put together on my own dime; I'm looking to cover a chunk of the cost with cooking classes and lining up some sponsorships. The reality of the publishing industry is that there are less and less tours; when you sign a contract you know what kind of tour and support you are going to get, so I walked into this agreement knowing that if I wanted to do any additional PR, I would have to do it myself. For my first book, I wanted to make sure I had thrown everything I had at it and hopefully launch another one, even if it means I don't make much money off of this first one; hopefully it will command a bigger advance and more marketing on the second project.

CS: How much attention have you been giving to online media--blogs, etc?
JU: Quite a bit--that is how I reached you! The way I approached marketing was first by approaching national magazines, and then after that, I tackled every lead sequentially, planning stops at independent booksellers for my tour--I was prohibited from calling any big chains--then after that I approached local media--newspapers, radio, TV--and then I started approaching online channels because I realized the turn time was shorter; I approached high traffic websites and food blogs.

CS: You started out as an engineer and business consultant--how has this played into your current role as baker/cookbook writer/food stylist?
JU: I always bakd and always had a strong interest, but I didn't express that professionally; in college, there was more of a cachet to going into the business side of things where you made more money. I became burned out on the consultant position when I got transferred to an office in Boston where I felt I didn't fit as well. That precipitated the change in my life: could there be a way to marry what I loved avocationally with the rest of my life? In terms of past jobs informing baking, not really in terms of artistry or technical or construction aspects, but I do feel that what factors in is a business background -- I am fortunate that I am able to maintain the creative end without getting flaky...about obligations.

CS: Any words of advice for people who want to make a change?
JU: Be realistic. Prepare yourself--financially, of course--walking into any kind of food business you have to walk in with a sense of the financial reality. But then, there's no sense in working at something you don't love, so look at it realistically but don't let that bind you, because there are always creative ways to make things happen.

CS: OK, on to the cookies! Cookie Swaps date back to 1963...so does this mean that cookie swaps are a bit of nostalgia prime for a comeback?
JU: I think it plays into where we are as a society...people are eating on the run, without family, without sharing, without talking...and I think that things go in cycles and that this economy will bring us back to baking at home--as well as things like canning and preserving, things we did a lot of growing up that virtually disappeared. They take a bit more time but they bring people together over food...and I think that we are beginning to see that again.

CS: You say that the cupcake has basked in the limelight for too long...tell me more!
JU: The cupcake wedding cake was just starting when I closed my bakery. I do enjoy cupcakes, but I think that cookies are less intimidating for some people to make than cupcakes. Some of the cookies are fanciful and I don't want to diminish that, but I do feel as if the trending toward the kitchen will make people feel as if they can spend the extra time and decorate the cookies as shown in the book...or they can just bake them and have them as they are! CakeSpy Note: although the time spent is worth it; the cookies in the book really are gorgeous!

CS: Springlerle: let's talk about it. Any tips for a beginner?
JU: Ideally, the cookie is slightly crusty outside and pillowy on the interior, but it gets harder as it ages. It's a very basic dough in terms of mixing and preparation; the part that is harder is getting a fine imprint and having them look lovely. With that, it will take a little trial and error--to get a good imprint, you may need a little extra flour. You need to generously dust them and there is an art to rolling it out; regular cookie cutter cookies I will roll 1/8 inch thick, these I will roll a bit thicker to make sure I get a good imprint. Once pressed, I will let dry at room temperature overnight or for a few hours before baking; the pattern will set a bit more. I prefer working with individual molds rather than a roller. It takes longer, but I feel as if it offers more control in the impression than using a roller. House on the Hill is a great resource--there really are pins and molds for every occasion.

CS: What are some of your favorite cookies in the book?
JU: I like gooey and rich, so that guides my responses. I have two: one is the Brandied Cherry Chocolate Sin Cookies; it's a globby type of batter, very simple but they have a lot of give with the bake time and are very yummy and easy. The other one I really like is the Brown(ie) Noser, which I like to glaze with a bit of ganache on top. Of course the sugar cookies (which I grew up baking with my mom; nostalgia definitely plays into baking.

CS: Back to the Brownie Noser. It brings up a serious point--are brownies really cookies?
JU: To me, they are fundamentally cookies: the have the same fundamental ingredients, they're just flat and transportable; they could just be shaped into conventional cookies; in a way, it's kind of a shortcut, where you just make one big cut at the end (unless you're layering lots of stuff). And you don't have to worry about as many multiple cookie sheets.

Want more? You can connect with Julia via her website or Twitter feed!
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
OK: Now on to the giveaway!
One lucky winner will receive a copy of Julia's book, Cookie Swap: Creative Treats to Share Throughout the Year! How do you enter? It's easy. Just leave a comment answering the following questions before 12pm PST on Tuesday, September 8:
  • What is your favorite cookie to eat?
  • What is your favorite cookie to bake?
UPDATE: The winner! Chosen at random,
Elaine takes the cake (er, cookie!) on this one!


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Reader Comments (191)

favorite cookie to eat...sugar cookies...the circular ones with colored sugar on top
favorite cookie to bake...christmas cut out cookies

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterAnn Y

Favorite to eat: chocolate chip, with toffee chips in them

Favorite to bake: shortbread, in my shortbread molds!

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterOwl Chick

I love love love to eat Peanut butter cookies!

I have tons of fun making peanut butter chocolate chip cookies because the smell of peanut butter and chocolate warm in the oven is the best smell EVER!

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterLiese

My favorite cookie to eat is a Snickerdoodle, but I love to make chocolate chip cookies. Something about the silkiness of the batter after just a little bit of flour is added after the eggs and vanilla...nice.

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterSi

I love making chocolate chip cookies and trying different recipes. My fave to eat is the peanut butter chocolate chip cookies at a bakery down the street.

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterGamecockDoc

This is tough!

My favorite cookie to eat is probably peanut butter cookies, but only if they're soft not those crunchy ones.

Favorite cookie to make, whoopie pies, just because everyone loves them so much!

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterTia

My favorite cookie to eat is probably the NYT World's Best Chocolate Chip Cookie, I also really like to bake that one because they're so good. My favorite to bake though is probably butter-flavored crisco's chocolate chip cookie recipe spread into a 9x13" pan because it's so easy and fast and still tastes great!

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterApril

I love soft and chewy cookies. My favorite to eat is probably the white chocolate macadamia nut cookies from Subway. To make my favorite is probably chocolate chip.

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

I love to bake chocolate chip cookies with toffee bits. That said, I prefer the batter to the actual cookie!

My favorite cookie to eat is a jam thumbprint at Christmastime. Reminds me so much of my childhood. And, it has to be seedless raspberry jam!

September 4 | Unregistered Commentermambada

What a great interview and a wonderful book! I can't wait to get a copy--I love cookie books. Favorite cookie to make would be sugar cookies with the kids. I'm always amazed and how many sprinkles they can get to stick on the icing. Favorite to eat soft chocolate chip. No snickerdoodles. Oh I can't decide!


September 4 | Unregistered CommenterLogo

I love making (and eating) chocolate chip cookies with peppermint extract instead of vanilla- and if I'm feeling wild, I crush candy canes into the dough!

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

I love to eat ANY kind of cookie (minus gingersnaps--yuck!). My favorite cookies to make are sugar cookies. I love decorating them!

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterJon and Angela

My favorite cookie to bake is definitely the Snickerdoodle, but my favorite cookie to eat has to be old fashioned chocolate chip cookies. Can't go wrong with a classic!

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer

My favorite cookie to make is Chocochip cookies....

My favorite cookie to eat is snickerdoodles!!

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterTiffany

Fave cookie to both eat and bake: Oahu gingersnaps, a recipe from Hawai'i! :9

September 4 | Unregistered Commenterjama

*mmm* when i could eat cookies + sweets my favorite would be a gooey chocolate chip cookie with oatmeal...to bake would probably be the same, also enjoy baking Hershey Kiss Peanut Butter Blossoms; too cute. *thanks!* diana

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterCupcakeSugar

My favorite to eat are chewy, slightly underbaked chocolate chip cookies.

My favorite to bake are my great-grandma's sugar cookies. I grew up baking and decorating them with my mom and can't wait to do it with my daughter!

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

There is no cookie I don't love to make (or eat), but my go-to cookie is always classic toll-house chocolate chip.

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterJessica

my favorite cookie to eat is Probably a snickerdoodle. reminds me of Gramma!
my favorite cookie to make is a Monster cookie that has Choc chips oats , and walnuts. they make the hubby happy
chellybelle77 @ yahoo.com

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterMechelle Johnson

potato chip cookies to eat and bake.

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterJulia

Favorite to eat: rainbow cookies from the Italian bakery! Favorite to bake: snickerdoodles, a classic.

modealapie at gmail.com

September 4 | Unregistered Commenterandrea jean

I love eating all cookies, but I would say my favorite are sugar cookies.

I also love to bake sugar cookies. One of these days I am going to master the cool icing designs that people do!!

kelgirl105 at yahoo dot com

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterKelli

My favorite cookies to eat are peanut butter cookies with peanut butter chips and chocolate chips and I love to bake Christmas cookies (sugar cookies, gingerbread men, my grandma's chocolate waffle cookies, Mexican wedding cookies, you name it.)

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterElisabeth

My favorite cookie to eat is shortbread. So yummy and buttery. And to bake I love death by chocolate cookies, or any cookie with chocolate for that matter. MMmmmm

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterLorrie

I love eating Nestle Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies best of all - but made w/ shortening instead of butter. That's the one cookie that I don't use butter in. Go figure. Love them!
I like to bake cookies that my kids will love. That usually means putting them on a stick or adding m&ms or sprinkles.

September 4 | Unregistered Commenteroneordinaryday
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