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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)

I like to eat any cookie with chocolate in it. And I like to bake drop and bar-style cookies - no rolled dough for me!

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterRose

to eat: a gigantic city bakery-style chocolate chip cookie, shared with a friends like it's cookie cake.

to bake: jam thumbprints! labor intensive, but fun. also banana oatmeal cookies for nostalgia's sake and the satisfying smush of mashing ripe bananas.

September 4 | Unregistered Commenteramelish

Great interview! And the book looks great...I'm crossing my fingers!

My favorite cookie to eat is a really yummy sugar cookie! My sister's recipe is my fave!

My favorite cookie to make is my grandmother's oatmeal cookies. They are really yummy and remind me of her.

Thanks for the chance!

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterLindsey

* What is your favorite cookie to eat? Oatmeal scotchies!! Love butterscotch

* What is your favorite cookie to bake? Sugar cookies with frosting because they are fun to decorate

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterR & S

*My favorite cookie to make is my oatmeal raisin cookie. I love the mix of old-fashioned oats, golden raisins, pecans and freshly ground nutmeg and cinnamon. If my daughter and her boys come over while I'm baking them, well, let's just say another batch is made to go!
*My favorite cookie to bake is, believe it or not, chocolate chip.
Last year I got caught up in the "bake right away or bake in two days + top with sea salt" discussion I read about in the NY Times. Since then I've tried different chips, different baking temps, butter v. shortening, etc. It's a wonderful discovery process!
Thanks for this giveaway!

September 4 | Unregistered Commenterdeede

My favorite cookies to eat are peanutbutter chocolate chip cookies that are ooey gooey and warm.

My favorites to bake are chocolate chip cookies. They're quick, easy and if you want something a little different, you can throw random candies in the batter. Yum.

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie

my favorite cookie to eat, is a delicious no-bake, chocolate-peanut butter oatmeal cookie.

my favorite cookie to bake is chocolate chip-oatmeal cookie! I love the flavors of my two favorite cookies married together. YUMMY!

September 4 | Unregistered Commenterjoaniebaby

My favorite cookie to eat is a chocolate mint dream.

My favorite cookie to make is a peanut butter cookie baked in a mini muffin tin. After the cookies are baked but still warm, you press a mini peanut butter cup into the center. I love how the soft dough swallows it!

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterKelly

molasses cookies, and there really good frozen, great summer treat!

there also my favorite to bake because then I can eat the dough to ;]

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

There are too many cookies to choose from! But, I love eating chocolate chip cookies, shortbread cookies, and sugar cookies. Also, I love Oreos, even if they're not homemade.

My favorite cookies to make is peanut butter cookies.

I suppose I'm a no-frills kinda gal!

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterJackie

my favorite to bake at this point in life is my double chocolate cookie recipe...my favorite to eat are iced peanut butter cookies!

September 4 | Unregistered Commentersarahe

Julia offers some very solid advice, and I admire her dedication and drive. The pictures look wonderful!

My favorite cookie to bake is biscotti. I like shaping the logs, then slicing and baking again.

And, yes, my favorite cookie to eat is biscotti. I cherish the early mornings when I wake up to a big steaming mug of coffee and a biscotti to go along with it.

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterChristina

My favoite cookies to eat unfortunately is store bought - Nabisco Nilla Wafers. I really liked them as a kid and love them more as an adult. I don't by them very often because I could SERIOUSLY eat en entire box in one sitting. I will of course feel sick afterwards but I don't care. Anything for my love of Nilla Wafers. Since I don't want to ruin that I have never attempted (and will never attempt) to make them at home. Instead I love making oatmeal cookies (don't like rasins) and throwing in the batter that ever I can find in my cupboard.

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterEliana

Favorite cookie to eat - right now? maybe shortbread with cranberries... mmm.

Favorite cookie to make - I just recently did my first ever batch of iced sugar cookies - and with my daughter. It's a LOT more labor intensive than any other cookie I've made, but the results were super cute and super yummy.

And any cookie with a cupojoe or glass of milk is good enough for me.

Peanut Butter is my favorite to eat. And to Bake. But I have yet found a cookie that I didn't like.

Jannett D.

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterJannette

I loved my Grandmother's homemade Honey Jumbles. I love to bake biscotti.

September 4 | Unregistered Commenterkitschinlogic

My FAVORITE cookie to eat are "Congo Squares" my mother till this day is the only one who can successfully make them... delicious...

My favorite cookie to BAKE would be "No Bake Cookies" can't go wrong with chocolate AND peanut butter... quick, fast... and horribly addicting...


September 4 | Unregistered CommenterHoneymarie

I luv all cookies but my fav to eat and make would have to be cowboy cookies because its like a mix between a chocolate chip cookie and a oatmel cookie. mmmm cookies

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterKristen

* Favourite Cookie: Lintzer
* Favourite to Make: Milk Chocolate Espresso

September 4 | Unregistered Commenternicole

My favorite cookie to eat is an adult version of chocolate chip with the added ingredient of instant coffee crystals to kick up the chocolate flavor. My favorite cookie to bake: oatmeal cookies. Nothing, nothing, nothing smells better than oatmeal cookies baking in the oven.

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterSunshine Mom

Wow...so many cookies to choose from. I think that my favorite to eat is a really big and soft chocolate chip cookie. My favorite cookie to make is peanut butter cookies with hersey kisses. Yum!!!

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterAmy A

My favorite cookie to eat is a simple chocolate chip cookie that is crunchy at the edges and gooey in the middle! But I lOve to bake oatmeal raisin cookies. They just scream Christmas to me.

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterTori

My favorite cookie to eat is any kind of chocolate chip! My favorite cookie to bake is a molasses cut-out cookie at Christmas time. Even better, if the grandkids help decorate them!

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterCarol

My favorite cookie to eat and bake seems to change a lot. Right now it's this peanut butter chocolate chip recipe from Magnolia Bakery.

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterDianna

Shortbread - uncomplicated buttery goodness!

Favorite cookie to make: any drop cookie that is quick and easy!

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterSitStayEat
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