Rebecca Weld of Potsdam, N.Y., makes her living as an architect. But during her free time, she's hunched over the kitchen counter, like an alchemist, dripping food coloring drop by drop into icing to achieve the perfect color.
"I use rich colors for that dated, antique feel," Weld says.
Antique? Perhaps. But certainly not old school. Weld's cookie designs are astonishingly intricate — including a scene from an Adirondacks lake that looks like you could dive right into it.
"A common comment is they're too beautiful to eat," she says. "But that's sort of the Zen part of it, like a sand painting. You make this beauty, and just put it out in the world."
We spotted Weld's works of art in sugar and flour online, which is appropriate, because Weld is part of a thriving virtual community of cookie virtuosos who take decoration to a whole other level.
"It's really just about sharing your art," says Weld, who goes by The Cookie Architect on Facebook.
And it's catching on: Around the U.S. and increasingly the world — from Japan to Spain to Brazil — thousands of bakers are posting images of their intricate designs online. Some cookies are cartoonish, or pointillist; others look like stained glass or real paintings.
And they're not just sharing online — next week, hundreds of cookiers are meeting up in Salt Lake City for the second annual Cookie Convention.
Occasionally, cookie masters will go head to head for bragging rights. For instance, Weld's series of Nantucket-themed biscuits recently nabbed the Oscar of the cookie world, coming in first in the Best Cookies of 2013 competition hosted by Cookie Connection, the biggest of the design sharing sites.
But the world of cookie couture is also about being supportive. Last year, Weld sent blank, puzzle-piece-style gingerbread cookies out to a few dozen of her favorite cookiers. Each returned a fully designed cookie, and Weld built them into a gingerbread house of cards — a meta-cookie, if you will.
Julia Usher is a pastry chef and award-winning author who runs Cookie Connection, which has more than 3,000 members around the world. She recently traveled to Spain and Portugal to give cookie design workshops.
Usher says cookies are catching on as high baking art because they're easier to handle than, say, a full-blown cake.
"The cookie is a great vehicle for creating an expression of yourself that is compact and small," says Usher. "It can be easily transferred to someone else. It's really an expression of you and [of] giving."