Hmmm . . . who are those mystery judges of my competition, you ask? I’m sorry if I’ve come across as unusually secretive or slow to reveal, but going virtual with Julia M. Usher’s Cookie Art Competition™ has introduced some new twists that have taken some time to sort through. One of those twists came with the judges. Since I am now hosting and administering all of the registration and entry intake for the competition (That Takes the Cake staff did this part in the past), I can no longer judge as I love to do. To keep the evaluations as fair and objective as possible, we do all judging blind, without knowing the entrants associated with each entry. Long story short, I had to find a new judge to replace me. We’ll come to that special person in a bit, but, first, let me re-introduce the three longstanding members of my judging team. 

All of these well-known contributors to the cookie community have been judging my competition since at least 2019, when it was filmed for Food Network, which means they’re among the very few who understand the unique judging requirements of 3-D cookies, particularly when the stakes are high. They’ve all had extensive judging or competition experience as well, and their collective cookie decorating and product experience leaves them with expert-level status in almost every technique, ranging from precision-piping to handpainting to airbrushing and stenciling. I couldn’t think of a more talented, capable, and qualified set of judges. And I know from firsthand experience that they all take the judging process extremely seriously. I recall many (extremely!) late nights of reviewing every entry detail and individual score, to be sure that each entrant got the fairest and most instructive evaluation possible. So, without further ado, let me introduce you to my dream team of the past few years (and also in 2021)!

Stephanie Kappel, the owner and cookie artist at The Hungry Hippopotamus, believes that cookies are the perfect marriage of technical skill, artistic expression, and visible affection. Her work has been featured on ABC Action News and in American Cake DecoratingEdible Artists Network, and Southern Living magazines. She has been interviewed on Cookie Connection and the Power of a Cookie Podcast, and featured as a Superhero of Sweets by Ann Clark Cookie Cutters. Her clients include Disney and Williams-Sonoma, and she most recently competed in the finale of Holiday Gingerbread Showdown on Food Network. Stephanie is a Bluprint instructor, contributing educator for SugarEd Productions Sugar Art School, and proud baker for Icing Smiles.

Ginny Levack and her husband, Doug, are the inventors of the original Stencil Genie and duo behind Creative Cookier and Genie Products for Better Baking, which offer an array of products and services specially designed for cookie decorators. When Ginny is not coming up with new products, she produces themed cookie retreats and cruises that bring cookie decorating enthusiasts together with well-known cookie celebrities. Ginny and Doug have received two Cookie Connection Cookiers’ Choice Awards, as well as an EAGA Innovations Award. As one judge said: “I love that the Levacks don’t just see cookie artists as customers, but as friends and members of a community. This spirit infuses everything they do, and is, no doubt, the secret to their incredible success.”

Sandie Beltran is the founder of You Can Call Me Sweetie and Sweetie Academy, a custom cookie boutique and cookie decorating school located in Miami, Florida that specializes in made-to-order sugar cookies as well as group and private cookie decorating classes. Sandie began her love of cookie decorating in October 2012 with making cookie sets for her family and friends. The popularity of her sugar art grew so rapidly that, by January 2015, she was able to take her passion for cookie decorating to full time. Sandie has won Cookie Connection’s 2014 Cookier of the Year Award and been selected as a finalist for Cake Masters Magazine‘s 2015 Cookie Award. Says Sandie, “I truly strive for perfection and enjoy working with intricate and innovative designs that give the wow factor to any event. I love sharing my cookie journey with my students and helping them achieve their full potential in this wonderful world of cookie decorating.” 

Now on to my special replacement! Since the competition is more global than ever this year, I wanted someone not only immensely talented in the decorating department, but also well-versed in competitions across the world. The first-place winner of my 3-D competition last year, Laura Saporiti, clearly registers high marks on all of these points, as you’ll see in her impressive bio below. I couldn’t be more thrilled to welcome Laura to my 2021 judging team!

Laura Saporiti, owner of Laura Saporiti Pastry and Cake Art, is a pastry chef and cake and cookie artist based in Italy. She worked in the past as an art historian, but currently loves to travel the world, teaching her passion of sugar art and furthering her mission of raising the professional stature of decorating. Laura has had the honor of being published in several international magazines, such as Pasticceria Internazionale (Italy), Cake Central (USA), Cake Masters Magazine (UK), Sugar Magazine (India), and Café & Gateaux (China). Laura has likewise received many awards for her work, including: first prize at Cake Design Italian Festival (2013), special prize for aesthetics at Italian Cup of Cake Design (2014), gold medal at Britain’s Cake International (2014), and Rising Star Award (2017) at the Golden Tiers Awards organized by American Cake Decorating magazine and the New York Cake Show. She has also won the title of Best Italian Painting Artist two times in a row, in both 2015 and 2016, and she proudly wears the badge of first-place winner in the 3-D category of Julia M. Usher’s Cookie Art Competition™ (2020, USA). Her impressive international reputation has earned her invitations to judge several competitions, such as Italian Cake Festival (2015/16), I’m Chef Bakery Master Championship (China, 2015), Istanbul Cake Show (2016/17), New York Cake Show (2016), and Cakeology Fest (India, 2019). She was also recently appointed judge for the cookie category of SoFlo Cake & Candy Expo (USA, 2020).

I, of course, am the founder and host of my competition. 🙂 But, if you don’t know me already through Cookie Connection, here’s my bio in a nutshell . . . 

Julia M. Usher is a world-renowned sugar artist most recognized for her pioneering work in 3-D cookies. She is also the author of two books, 13 e-books, and an app, all about cookie decorating. When not spreading her love for cookie art in classes across the globe, Julia produces videos for her popular YouTube channel, Recipes for a Sweet Life; oversees Cookie Connection, the world’s largest online cookie decorating community; designs cookie stencils sold under her JULIA brand; and manages Julia M. Usher’s Cookie Art Competition™, which was filmed for a Food Network documentary in 2019. She also judges Cake Masters Magazine’s annual sugar arts competition, as well as other notable cookie competitions across the country. Julia is Past President of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and has received multiple food writing, decorating, and video awards, including James Beard Food Writing Award finalist (2008), Cordon d’ Or Food Writing Award winner (2009), Cake Masters Magazine Cookie Award winner (2013), Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show Medal of Honor (2014), both EAGA US and International Sugar Artist of the Year Awards (2016), Cake Masters Magazine Cookie Icon (2017), TASTE Breakout Foodie of the Year (2019), and Global Sugar Hero Nominee for the Australian Cake Oscar Awards (2021). But above all else, Julia is a firm believer that life should be lived sweetly!

A huge round of applause to my judges! And an advance thank-you, as they have countless hours of tough judging ahead of them! I know I speak for all of the judges when I say we’re super excited to see the entries in both the 2-D and 3-D categories this year. We’re also eager to see how many corners of the globe are represented in the competition. A wonderful perk of going virtual this year is that the competition can be so much more inclusive and diverse!

Lastly, some important competition updates: The call for entries (with theme announcements) is now likely to go live in early July, after I return from a brief trip back east. And (drum roll, please!), the grand total of prizes (cash and product) is now up to $8,375, and I suspect it will only continue to grow! If you are interested in sponsoring, please confirm your donation (and its value) with me (by emailing NO LATER THAN JUNE 7, 2021, PREFERABLY EARLIER. Company artwork, website link, and social media handles must also be received by June 7, 2021. All specifics for submitting these materials are spelled out in the Sponsorship Offering, which can also be found in the attachments below. Thank you in advance for considering support of my competition and its incredible competitors. If you have any questions at any time, please don’t hesitate to ask!