Even though I’ve been food-styling for publications for a few years, it’s not everyday that a national magazine emails to say they want to photograph me doing my cookie thing.

Usually I’m hired to make someone else’s food or space look camera-ready. It’s fun, but there’s little glamour in it for me. While others get coiffed and prettied, I’m the one who buzzes behind the scenes, unkempt except for two thick schmears of under-eye cover stick and a manicure chipped by excessive prop-lifting.

So when Where Women Cook Editor Jo Packham asked me last fall if I’d like to be featured, I nearly lost my dragées – and you cookie decorators know how dangerous that can be . . .

Tea Table, All Set
Tea Table, All Set Photo by Julia M. Usher

It took me a while to climb down off cloud nine (and still longer to pick up that last sugar bead), but when I did, I read the next line of her email, which said something about not having to prep much: “just two recipes; otherwise keep everything au naturel.” I’m paraphrasing, but that was the gist of it. I sat there transfixed for a few seconds; then I wiped the frosting fingerprints off my glasses and tried the line again. Yep, it was still there. Only this time it was crystal-clear.

A Little Closer
A Little Closer Photo by Julia M. Usher

Surely if Jo had seen my kitchen, she wouldn’t be pushing me toward the bare minimum?! I was mid-book tour and even I wasn’t comfortable with the chaos that had invaded my house. Yet I completely understood why she wanted the feature to look natural. After all, the purpose of the magazine is to show foodie-women at ease, in the heart of their homes, cooking, baking, and carrying on as they normally would. Fortunately, magazines work on very long lead times, so I had until April (when the shoot was scheduled) to sort it all out. I replied that I’d be honored, even though I was convinced my house needed an extreme makeover.

Fab Flowers
Fab Flowers Photo by Julia M. Usher

Weeks and months passed as I mulled over my options. I finally decided to stick with Jo’s advice and do what I usually do – throw a party as motivation to clean up the house! I’d set the stage, let Jo’s photographer take the first crack at it, and then bring in my friends and family to enjoy every last leftover. A tea-and-cookie party that used my everyday china and recipes from my books was as “au naturel” as I could get. Gussied up with a few store-bought flowers and my own hand-decorated cookies, the party would still be true to me, yet coiffed enough to be cover-worthy. (At least that’s what I’m hoping. The pub date is December, so we’ll soon see!)

Below you’ll find my tips for pulling together this party. You needn’t have a food styling background (or cosmetology license!) for any of them, just a smattering of time and decorating sense.

1 | Mix-and-Match within a Color Theme.

I don’t think I have more than three matched sets of anything in my house, but it doesn’t really matter if you stick to a tight color palette. I built this party around my hodge-podge of red transferware, and drew in linens and other dish patterns in coordinating colors of burgundy, pink, cream, and taupe. (See first three photos). At the outset, I didn’t think I’d be able to get by with the china I had, but the clearly defined color scheme ultimately allowed the wide array of patterns and textures on this table to nicely mesh.

Clip Art Turned Tea Menu
Clip Art Turned Tea Menu Photo by Julia M. Usher

2 | Fill in with Flowers.

Every table needs some drama and height, and while I wanted my cookies to be center-stage at this party, there was only so much mileage I could get out of my tiered cookie stands (third photo from bottom). So what was my fallback? Flowers tucked into more transferware containers (first three photos)! Once again, I stuck with the party’s palette in the flowers, supplementing store-bought pink peonies with my homegrown hot pink William Baffin roses and burgundy branches from our sand cherry tree. To keep arrangements from looking too FTD (if you know what I mean), I like to extend flowers with textural elements, such as the berries and sand cherry branches you see here. Also, a collection of vases, of varying heights, usually lends more interest than a single standalone container.

A Cookie Place Card for Each Guest
A Cookie Place Card for Each Guest Photo by Julia M. Usher

3 | Give Your Guests Something Special.

The real joy in party-giving comes when guests’ eyes light up, and there’s no better way to trigger that sparkle than to present them with personalized gifts. But mind you, these gifts needn’t be expensive. In fact, they’re usually more appreciated when handwrought with love and care. A gift could be as simple as a custom-designed menu like the one I made here from clip art mimicking the patterns in my china (fourth photo from top). Or you could go a little further . . . for this party, I decided to surprise my guests with individual “message cards” at their plates (fifth and sixth photos) – and edible ones at that! While they took a little time to make, these cookie treats were well worth it because they not only served as favors, but they also filled out the menu and party décor. (Psssst! Detailed instructions for making these cookie place cards can be found in my new book Ultimate Cookies.)

No Two Place Cards Are Exactly Alike
No Two Place Cards Are Exactly Alike Photo by Julia M. Usher

4 | Make a Signature Dish.

Another way to give your guests something special is to treat them to a signature dish, and ideally one that you can make in advance. Here, I chose rubber-stamped cookies designed to complement my red and white transferware (seventh and eighth photos), something I was fairly certain most had never seen or tasted before. These cookies were scented with orange and cloves, reminiscent of Constant Comment tea and perfectly in keeping with my party theme! (Pssst, again! Tips for rubber-stamping can be found in this tutorial on my site, and also in Ultimate Cookies.)

Color-Coordinated Cookies
Color-Coordinated Cookies Photo by Julia M. Usher

5 | Supplement with Old Stand-Bys.

Realistically though, not every item on the menu can be a show-stopper, or you’d never have any fun with your guests. So what’s my solution for filling out the menu while keeping the food choices satisfying? Simple – I turn to tried-and-true recipes that I hardly need to think about because, by now, they can almost make themselves. I’m sure you have these old, but tasty stand-bys too.

Zoomed-In on the Details
Zoomed-In on the Details Photo by Julia M. Usher

My Gingersnap Thumbprints, Rosewater Marguerites, and Raspberry-Truffle Brownie Bars, all from my first book Cookie Swap, added the right amount of cookie variety to this party. Plus, they have the added advantage of being good keepers. I made each recipe a couple of days ahead, so I could focus on flower- and table-primping right before the shoot, and on my guests immediately after.

Tasty Time-Savers Round Out the Table
Tasty Time-Savers Round Out the Table Photo by Julia M. Usher

Don’t forget: If your guests have seen and tasted your stand-bys before, consider giving them new life with simple flavor and decorative spins. For instance, I converted my Raspberry-Truffle Brownie Bars into Grand Marnier Brownie Bars by swapping out the liqueur in the recipe and using orange marmalade rather than the usual raspberry jam. I also finished each with a striking sugared mini-rose from Crystallized Flower Company.

Gingersnap Thumbprints from Cookie Swap
Gingersnap Thumbprints from Cookie Swap Photo by Julia M. Usher

So there you have my simple party decorating tips. I’ll let you know when “my” issue of Where Women Cook hits the stand, but in the meantime, you may want to check out past issues here. It’s truly my latest favorite magazine.

Raspberry-Truffle Brownie Bars, Also from Cookie Swap
Raspberry-Truffle Brownie Bars, Also from Cookie Swap Photo by Julia M. Usher

‘Til my next party, live sweetly!