Amber Fenton is a cookie artist. Amongst others in the world of royal icing masters, however, Fenton considers herself a "cookier," a title adopted by fellow bakers whose canvases of choice are the infinite shapes that can be formed into a sugar cookie.
Using a backdrop of white royal icing to showcase her signature neon "watercolors" made from food dye, Fenton's vivid palette translates to electric green cacti streaked with edible gold glitter. Half-moon shapes with scalloped inner edges become slices of hot pink watermelon with toothy bite marks. Chartreuse mermaid tails shimmer with golden scales, and five-pointed stars sport a patriotic ombré of red, white and blue.
This rainbow spectrum Fenton brushes onto each cookie using her trademark soft watercolor technique almost seems too colorful to eat.
"The draw is definitely the artistic side of it," she says, adding that since childhood, cookies have always been a favorite treat to bake.
The self-taught baker and lifelong creative type began elaborately decorating sugar cookies more than five years ago as a hobby. Though she still considers herself a hobbyist baker, Fenton turned the creative outlet into her part-time business, Electric Sugar Cookie, last December when she first sold cookies at a local makers market in Coeur d'Alene.
"I bought all of the packaging and really wanted to make it presentable, so once I got all that perfected and got a lot more confident — and I think that social media gives me a lot of confidence, too — I started posting and getting all these likes."
Now, Fenton bakes and decorates custom cookie orders several times a week from her home kitchen in Coeur d'Alene (Idaho has a cottage food law, which allows for certain consumable products to be made and sold from a person's home), both for local and faraway customers. She continues to share samplings of her cookie art on Instagram at @electricsugarcookie.
As with many other creative outlets, cookiers like Fenton have found eager fan bases on Instagram, Pinterest and other platforms, where photos of their beautifully decorated desserts have inspired others to take up a piping bag and try their hand at artistic icing techniques.
"It's just eye candy — people are like 'Oh my gosh, I can do that from home,' and so there's that accessibility, too," she says. "In the cookier community, a lot of these women — 99.9 percent are women — they are really helpful. It's a community, and I think since I'm an introvert there is that place I can go to and I can feel like, 'OK, I can do my thing,' and they get it."
It's largely thanks to the inspiration and support she found in the online cookier community that Fenton decided to take the leap and launch Electric Sugar Cookie. She says many of the bakers she follows online have taken their success as far as opening physical bakeries and offering teaching programs for aspiring cookiers.
Fenton, meanwhile, doesn't have plans to take Electric Sugar Cookie that far, preferring the freedom of running the business at home and only taking as many orders as she can manage each week. She's also leery of getting burned out from the repetitive process of baking huge batches to then individually frost and paint each cookie by hand.
"A few times I've stayed up all night doing these because I'm a perfectionist when it comes to my own art stuff, and I don't let anybody help me," she says, laughing.
Most customers buy one or two dozen cookies at a time, which Fenton sells for $3 each, regardless of order size. She admits that she could probably raise her prices to better compensate herself, but is worried she'd price herself out of the regional market.
"It's a labor of love," she says. "If I were to break it down, I'd be getting paid like a dollar an hour or something ridiculous. But it's pure enjoyment, and when it's not I scale back and don't search for more orders."
From mixing the dough to the last brush stroke, Fenton's process for each Electric Sugar Cookie batch is considerably time intensive. After putting cookie sheets into the oven, she mixes up some royal icing, typically made from egg whites (or meringue powder), powdered sugar and water. Royal icing is favored by pastry chefs and cookiers both because it dries in a smooth, hard coat that allows for other decorations to be placed on top. Fenton usually makes her royal icing without added color since she paints over it with diluted food dyes.
Once the layer of royal icing has completely set — Fenton usually applies this layer in the evening so it can set overnight — she mixes up her paint colors by diluting food coloring into high-proof alcohol. When applied, the alcohol evaporates, leaving the color behind. (She uses alcohol for this step because water can crack or melt the royal icing base.) Then, she paints.
Fenton also favors using a die cutter to make little shapes out of gumpaste paper that she can also paint and add to each cookie as accents with a dot of frosting as glue. Sometimes she uses icing pens to apply hand-drawn designs on the frosting that would be difficult with a paintbrush. Stencils and a mini light projector are other tools in Fenton's cookier box, both of which she turns to when applying repeat patterns, custom logos or hand lettering.
"A lot of my ideas come from my paper crafting background and trends, and then adding my spin to it," she explains. "There are always trends — like the unicorn or the llama or cactuses and watermelon and stuff like that; I see those everywhere — but my goal is for someone to see what I make and say 'Oh, that's Amber's.' I feel like that is important. I don't want to be a cookie cutter image. I want there to be a difference."
Find Electric Sugar Cookie on Instagram, @electricsugarcookie, and Facebook: Electric Sugar Cookie.