Jamie Roberts finds herself in a sweet spot as 2020's end nears.
The Spokane-based cookie artist and owner of Three Birdies Bakery has seen so much demand for her hand-decorated sugar cookies that her calendar is completely booked with custom orders into early 2021. Earlier this year, Roberts was able to leave a full-time desk job to focus solely on her home-based cookie business, launched as a passion project in 2018.
"It's what I've always dreamed of. My dream is here, and it's coming true and it still doesn't seem real," Roberts says over Zoom from the "cookie room" of her North Spokane home. (Washington's cottage food rules allow production of low-risk foods, like cookies, in a residential setting for direct consumer purchase.)
In an unexpected turn of events, the pandemic's work-from-home routine actually helped Roberts convince her husband that she could decorate and sell her highly detailed, royal-iced sugar cookies full time, while also overseeing their three daughters' home-based schooling. It turns out cookies are pretty pandemic-proof, too.
"I think the reason [business] has sustained so well is because people are grasping for some sense of normalcy, and I think cookies really give that," she says. "I think those calls back to comfort food really help people mentally."
That's not to say the pandemic has been a total boon for Three Birdies. In spring, Roberts saw a large slate of orders canceled as events from baby showers to birthdays were postponed. As time went on, however, and people figured out creative ways to host "virtual" events in place of in-person gatherings, Roberts says orders picked back up.
To supplement these custom orders, and with more time to focus on the tedious process of baking and elaborately decorating her cookies with colorful, dimensional royal icing designs, Roberts also launched a cookie subscription box service. "Anytime" cookies were a common request from customers, and the monthly service has options for a half-dozen to two dozen cookies in seasonally themed collections. Subscribers commit to signing up for three months at a time; regardless of quantity, the cookies are $3.50-$4.50 each, a $1 discount compared to custom orders. For the January through March subscriptions, more than 100 customers had signed up before Roberts even unveiled the box's themes.
To make cookie pickup easy and contactless for her customers, Roberts installed a small "cookie cottage" in her front yard, similar to the miniature structures that house Little Free Libraries.
The local cookier — an industry name for cookie artists whose main medium is royal icing — has also stayed busy with several massive custom cookie orders (including 600 cookies for Gonzaga, plus more than 900 to fill pre-ordered holiday cookie advent calendars), and a handful of side projects. One of the latter is a weekly social media spotlight of regional small businesses Roberts personally adores. In photos posted on Three Birdies' pages, she presents iced cookie versions of logos of area small businesses.
"I just want to help," she says. "We're all a community, and I want to help my fellow small businesses. It's not me making these to sell cookies—it's me doing it to get word out about these local small businesses."
Although you'll be hard-pressed to get your hands on any of Three Birdies' holiday-themed treats in time for Christmas this year (there may be a flash sale or two via social media), Roberts was gracious enough to share some of her top tips for making your own festive royal icing cookies at home.
The good news for casual home bakers is that you don't need any specialty tools, and Roberts' recipe for royal icing only calls for three basic ingredients: water, powdered sugar and meringue powder.
Store-bought piping bags for icing can easily be replaced with sandwich bags; the thicker, gallon-sized freezer bags work best, Roberts notes. For anyone who has browsed cookie artists on Instagram and noticed gadgets like miniature lazy-susans to rotate cookies while icing or fancy metal sticks (called cookie scribes, Roberts says) used to smooth out the icing, you don't need those either. A toothpick works in place of a scribe, and a paper towel or plate to rest each cookie while you ice also suffices.
To mix up royal icing, Roberts says a stand mixer is best, but a handheld mixer works, too. To know you've got the right consistency for the frosting, Roberts says to look for "soft peaks" like the consistency of soft-serve ice cream for the borders, which need to be a little thicker to contain the thinner "flood" icing that fills the area inside the outer borders. The flood should be runny enough that when dragging a spatula through the icing it quickly blends back together.
"The rule of thumb I use for flooding is however many cookies you have, divide by half and that is how many ounces of [icing] to make," Roberts says. "For piping it just depends. It's better to make less, and more if you need it, than to make an ungodly amount of frosting."
Any food colorings will do, and Roberts says local shop Carolyn's Cake & Candy Supply (3131 N. Division St.) stocks her favorite dye, Americolor brand gel. To keep the icing a crisp bright white, you may want to consider a white food dye. Avoid adding any dark flavorings like vanilla extract or your base will be brownish in color.
Roberts says any sugar cookie recipe will do, and that the cookies themselves don't need to be perfectly smooth after baking as the icing can help fill in and level surface unevenness. Simple shapes are best for beginners. Make sure to wait for your cookies to fully cool before icing to prevent it from melting.
For inspiration to decorate, Roberts suggests searching on Instagram or Pinterest as a starting point.
"As far as tips, the hard part isn't making the frosting, it's the time it takes to do everything and the art that you're essentially creating," she says. "Just keep it simple — simple is beautiful. Don't go in with the mindset that you have to create these elaborate cookies. You could have red, white and green and make beautiful cookies with basic shapes." ♦
Recipe: Royal IcingFrom Jamie Roberts, Three Birdies Bakery
1/2 cup meringue powder
1 cup warm water
7 cups powdered sugar
1. Mix water and meringue powder for 30 seconds on high in a stand mixer or with a hand mixer.
2. Then add all powdered sugar at once and mix on low until incorporated, then mix on high for four minutes.
3. Portion out icing into desired quantities and mix in any colorings/dyes, then scoop into piping bags for use.
Notes: This consistency works well to pipe edges of icing or for lettering/writing. For a thinner consistency to fill in or "flood" cookies add water a little at a time. A spray bottle works well. Icing can be stored in the fridge for up to a week or the freezer up to a month.