Well, the time is here, the moment many of you have been waiting for – the finalist reveal in the first-ever virtual edition of Julia M. Usher’s Cookie Art Competition™! But first, just to keep you on pins and needles a bit longer, some cool competition stats, some thank yous, and a very important housekeeping note.

Cool Competition Stats

I didn’t know what to expect when taking my competition virtual this year, but I was blown away by the collective enthusiasm to express cookie creativity, from all corners of the world! We had a record number of registrants and entrants, and the most geographically diverse set of competitors ever. Whether from the Far East or Europe or Canada or the US (or . . .), you all brought your A-games to this competition, and my judges were completely impressed! As I said before, and I will say once again, you are all winners for having had the courage and persistence to get an entry successfully on the (virtual) competition table. Well done, everyone!


As for those thank yous . . . First, our sponsors have been nothing short of amazing. We have a relatively tight-knit group of them, but they are a font of generosity. Just 21 companies have contributed over $14,000 in prizes ($8,000 in cash), which will be distributed in early December when winner announcements are made. Check out these companies here, and return their generosity by visiting their sites. You’ll hear more about our wonderful sponsors in December.

My second thank you goes to Liz Cox of Jukefox Graphics, the world’s speediest and most clever graphic designer. I’ve had her working 24/7 over the last week on the graphics you’ll see here, and she’s been consistently helping to make this competition look pretty and professional well before it was announced back in July. If you’re ever in need of logo or graphic design work, I give her a huge thumbs-up!

My third thank you, and a very important one, goes to my tireless, thoughtful, and supremely talented judges, whose work on this competition started with revamping the rules back in May and is still ongoing as we finalize feedback forms for entrants. They’ve given the competition their all over the last several months to make sure the judging is as objective as possible and that entrants get the maximum learning from this experience. A huge round of applause goes to Sandie Beltran (You Can Call Me Sweetie), Stephanie Kappel (The Hungry Hippopotamus), Ginny Levack (Creative Cookier), and Laura Saporiti (Laura Saporiti Pastry and Cake Art). Please read more about my esteemed judges and their careers, and join me in a resounding, “You are the best”!

Important Housekeeping Note

Speaking of feedback and learning (which is really what this competition is about), if you’d like your score sheet with comments from the judges, please email me (sweetlife@juliausher.com) no later than December 5, 2021 (5 pm CST) to officially request it. Due to the large number of entrants this year, I will only be distributing feedback to those who request it. Feedback will be processed in the order requests are received, and will begin on December 6. Please allow a week or more to receive your feedback via email. Again, requests should be emailed to me; do not leave them on social media, as I am unlikely to see them there. Thanks in advance.

Why You’re Really Here

Okay now, let’s get on to the heart of the matter – who are the six finalists in each category?! Remember, we had two catgeories: 2-D Cookie and 3-D Cookie, and each had a different, but related theme. As the judges and I take great delight in seeing creative theme interpretations, I’ll be sharing excerpts of each finalist’s theme description along with a brief bio as each finalist is revealed. Onward . . .

2-D Cookie Category

The theme for the 2-D Cookie category was the word “essential”. Entrants were asked to show in cookies what the word meant to them over the last year or two as they coped with the global pandemic. Each entry was independently scored by each judge across seven criteria, ranging from difficulty and mastery of techniques used to creativity and theme interpretation. Scores were tallied, entries were ranked, and then close calls and differences of opinion were thoughtfully discussed by the judges to determine the top six finalists. All judging was done blind without knowledge of who entered each piece.

Congrats to all, listed below in alphabetical order!

Let’s take a closer look now at each of these finalists and their creations . . .

Megan’s Entry Name: Beacon of Hope

Megan’s Take on the Theme: “The word ‘essential’ took on a lot of extra meaning for me over the past year (and then some). So many members of my family are essential workers, and I knew that when I saw the theme, I would have to do something to honor them as they saw and are still seeing firsthand the effects of the ongoing pandemic. My entry is titled ‘Beacon of Hope’ because even when the darkest nights end, the sun still rises. Those in our community continue to rise up and meet the needs of those who need help. First responders, nurses, and doctors are the beacon of hope and light for those who are sick and in their darkest days.”

Megan Bowers began baking as a child, making Christmas cookies every year with her family. Fast forward to the beginning of 2017 when Megan became a stay-at-home mama to her youngest daughter. Her creative juices always flowing, she wanted a way to express her creativity and love of baking and art, so she started making cupcakes and cakes for family and friends. One single order for pig cookies turned suddenly into a new career, and Three Melons Bake Shop was born. Megan is the proud wife of a battalion chief (firefighter/paramedic) and mama to two beautiful daughters (Abby and Leah) who are her world, a dog named Ollie, and 11 chickens that supply fresh eggs for her baking. When she’s not elbow-deep in icing, she enjoys traveling, cheering for the Washington Nationals, drinking iced tea, and spending time with her family in Woodstock, Virginia.

Christine’s Entry Name: Garden of Hope

Christine’s Take on the Theme: “As the pandemic has worn on and on and on, the ‘essential’ thing for me has been to maintain a sense of hope. Needless to say, and I am sure I am not alone here, it has not been easy. I have struggled creatively during the pandemic, lacking the inspiration or desire to create. But, the one place that I have found refuge these past almost two years, is in my garden. Being in nature never ceases to inspire me, and the things found in nature – especially flowers and birds –  play a central role in my cookie art. This particular set of competition cookies, ‘Garden of Hope’ is inspired by my hope for a better post-pandemic tomorrow and fueled by literally hundreds of hours spent in my garden over the last two years . . . Truly, to plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.”

Christine Donnelly began her professional baking career at 16, when she was hired on the spot at her local bakery to work the counter and decorate cakes. After attending college (go Irish!) and law school, she worked as a trial lawyer in Chicago for many years, ultimately leaving that career to become a stay-at-home parent to her two children. In her “retirement,” she continued to bake at home, at last finding her preferred artistic medium in decorated cookies. In February 2013, while Christine was living in the UK, her online cookie persona Bakerloo Station debuted on Instagram and Facebook. An active member of Cookie Connection, Christine was host of that site’s Practice Bakes Perfect cookie decorating challenges for five years, from 2015 to 2020. Christine makes cookies whimsically inspired by nature with a strong focus on color and pattern. When not cookie-ing, she may be found puttering around her garden.

Claudia’s Entry Name: Resist

Claudia’s Take on the Theme: “My entry represents the concept of resilience, which is the human spirit of adaptation to the most negative conditions. Resist is of the utmost importance for me. Nature has inspired me and taught me a lot regarding resilience. Nature teaches us slowness through its cycles. My composition reproduces an adverse natural environment. An olive tree grows crookedly whipped by the wind, clinging to sterile ground. A small flower is miraculously blooming. The girl observes the flower, and it gives her hope and makes her imagine a world full of colors and flowers. The soil and the wind represent the difficulties of life; the flower and the tree are life itself; and together with the clouds they represent the beauty of nature that perpetuates regardless of human misery. The young woman represents humanity who learns from nature to wait, resist, and trust in a better world represented by the heart full of flowers.”

Claudi Prati began her activity as a cake decorator in 2006 by attending classes taught by Sir Eddie Spence, Kathleen Lange, Carlos Lischetti, and Alan Dunn, and by developing her personal style based on royal icing, modeling, gumpaste flowers, and cake painting. Claudia is proud to have been awarded two Golds at Cake International Birmingham and two Cake Masters Magazine nominations, one for painting and another for royal icing. In 2014, she published the book Manuale della Ghiaccia Reale (Handbook of Royal Icing). She is now involved in teaching her personal decorating technique, which she developed in 2017. This method, called “Materika”, includes the use of painting and palette knife-painting using many mediums such as buttercream, royal icing, chocolate ganache, and Claudia’s signature 3-D pastry cream, Materika Cream.

Ruth’s Entry Name: The Fabric That Holds Us Together

Ruth’s Take on the Theme: “We all experienced crazy times with this pandemic, beyond our imagination! A crazy quilt with its dizzy patterns and stitches, made from bits and pieces of fabric from everyday life, stitched together to make a complete picture, fits the unknown directions our lives have taken. Those on the front lines in medicine were and are essential in helping us get through this crisis – EMTs, nurses, doctors, lab techs, researchers. I chose to make a crazy quilt that depicts the many facets of medicine that played such a key role in our lives, and were the essential elements that saved lives and influenced our every day. Fabric details depict research with a micron microscope, the coronavirus, and beakers from lab research; they led to a vaccine depicted by needle syringes and bandages, stethoscopes used by medical personnel, the masks that we’ve all worn; and the heartbeats of everyone saved because of the sacrifices made by medical professionals. All of these individual details, when ‘stitched’ together, make the whole picture that was and is our lives during the pandemic.”

Ruth Raymond is a self-taught sugar decorator. Her first decorating experience happened at a young age in the third grade when she signed up for a one-week cake decorating workshop. She was hooked on the experience. While Ruth has not been able to pursue decorating as a full-time career because of family obligations, she does decorate part-time when she can, and she loves to enter competitions. Although Ruth loves decorating cakes, her passion is cookies. They are her creative outlet, especially as her day job is the complete opposite! Decorating keeps Ruth sane! She gets inspiration on social media, and is in total awe of all the talent that she sees there, especially in the Cookie Connection community. There isn’t enough time in the day for all of the techniques and ideas that Ruth wants to try.

Emily’s Entry Name: Clean Water for Everyone

Emily’s Take on the Theme: “One of the main sayings during the pandemic to promote health and safety has been to ‘wash your hands.’ In early 2021, I moved to Flint, Michigan, which is unfortunately known for its ongoing water crisis. As I have become more involved in my area, I have learned more about what the lack of access to clean water can do to a community. Thankfully, Flint is on the mend, but what about the millions of people around the world who don’t have access to clean water? I feel that clean water is something that a lot of people take for granted, while it is one of the most essential things that we need in our everyday lives. I started with the idea of the water tower, and I wanted it to represent the entire world’s water supply. You can see that the water tower is providing a faucet to wash hands, but what about those who have broken away from this water supply? Three out of ten people globally are unable to properly wash their hands at home with soap and clean water. At the bottom of my display, I have created the Flint River, as indicated by my ‘Welcome to Flint’ sign. I wanted to include this detail to represent my home and the struggles that this city has faced, but I also wanted to make it beautiful for you all to see that this city has a lot of wonderful things to offer.”

Emily Stetson lives in Flint, Michigan and has been baking and decorating cookies for five years now. After graduating from college and before finding a career in her field, Emily had a lot of free time on her hands. She had always been the creative type, but wasn’t a baker, so she used that time to start experimenting in the kitchen. As it turns out, her favorite medium is sugar! Emily now works in the event industry and is surrounded by so much fun and inspiration every day. She loves coming home and drawing up different ideas for cookie designs for people to enjoy at their next gathering. Over the years, cookie decorating has continued to be a hobby that provides Emily with so much pride and joy.

Marianne’s Entry Name: Education – An Essential Connection Reimagined

Marianne’s Take on the Theme: “Essential teachers and schools have been reimagined, thanks to the coronavirus epidemic. Remote learning via computer classroom has changed education forever, and we’re better (and safer) for it. My gingerbread cookie shows a teenage student at his dining table, trying to stay safe and well. Although isolated, he’s still connected to his classmates and teacher via Zoom. Meanwhile, the virus, in original and mutated forms, menacingly floats outside. The young man at the table is our 15-year-old son, Stone, who learned remotely for over a year, and continues to do so when needed. Hats off to teachers and IT departments for quick responses and great solutions. Thank you for keeping our students connected and learning during unprecedented times.”

Marianne Stroud’s passion for baking started 15 years ago while baking weekly for her husband’s college football players. When the pandemic started, she found herself at home, schooling their fourth child and with extra time on her hands, so she started trying new recipes and playing with fondant and royal icing daily. As her curiosity grew, Marianne was able to take online cookie decorating classes from talented artists like Liz Joy of Inspired to Taste. Recently, Marianne turned her newfound passion into a cottage baking business called Stroud Sugar Art. She is grateful to the online cookie and baking community for inspiring and supporting her journey.

Wow, 2-D cookie contestants! Outstanding job! Kudos to you! Next up . . .

3-D Cookie Category

For the 3-D Cookie category, the theme was “pivot”, and, once again, entrants were asked to convey in cookies what this word came to signify to them during the pandemic. In this case, entries were scored across two additional criteria related to  3-D cookies: difficulty and mastery of 3-D construction techniques and viewability from all angles. The scoring and judging process otherwise followed the same rigorous procedures as for the 2-D Cookie category.

Drum roll, please . . .

And here’s a closer look at each finalist and her piece, again in alphabetical order . . .

Stacy’s Entry Name: Time Is a Gift

Stacy’s Take on the Theme: “A perspective pivot was sparked within me by the seemingly never-ending global pandemic – I shifted from an immortal mindset (not me, not now!) to embracing the reality of mortality (Oh sh!t, I’m not special or immune to anything!) Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. Five minutes from now isn’t guaranteed. All we can count on is right now and THAT. IS. IT. . . and yet so many of us are imprisoned by restraints of our own creation. We don’t change course, even if our gut nags us to. We don’t tell people how we really feel. We don’t speak our truest minds, live our truest truths. We just exist, doing what we think we should be doing . . . as dictated by the norms of society. No thank you. The clock’s ticking, so start living . . . When I was a child, I was gifted a cuckoo clock by a close relative who passed during COVID. She would always bring me back trinkets from her travels – this particular one still hangs in my house today and was the inspiration for this piece. The 288 cookie rods that comprise the body of the clock are akin to sand granules in an hourglass – fleeting moments. The mosaicked colorization of dough was influenced by the millefiori technique and reveals an abstract clock face, ribbon, and bow because ‘time is a gift’ . . . that’s why we call it the present.”

Stacy Frank’s diverse background in art set her cookie journey off down a unique path. Known for her wood-like sculptures and ability to make gingerbread look like anything but a cookie, Stacy’s inspiration is rooted in storytelling and grows through experimentation. Endlessly searching for innovative ways to transform cookies into art, she can often be found staring into space, contemplating whether her latest idea is stupid or stupendous. Outside the kitchen, Stacy works as a web developer and spends her free time hiking trails, climbing rocks, and exploring the great outdoors. Catch her this December on Foodtastic, a new series from Disney+!

Elke’s Entry Name: Unshaken

Elke’s Take on the Theme: “Unshaken is my faith that we are going to survive and grow together as human beings through this pandemic. The COVID-19 virus devastated the planet. On the left side of the world, represented here [in my entry] by the sick, unwell, collapsing lung, you see death and despair and much suffering. Many sacrificed for us. Many succumbed. That was the grotesque pivot. And, then,  . . . collective work brought the vaccines, and, with them, hope and restoration, like the almost healthy right lung. The renew and rebirth pivot. The mask represents a change in behavior and who we truly are. Three moments of change: of regression, in behavior, and of spiritual growth. Everybody is changed forever.”

Elke Hoelzle is a 52-year-old single mother from Brazil. Her passion is to help other people by teaching the art of cookie decorating for free as much as she can. Elke likes using art in cookies to intrigue and make people happy. Making difficult cookies is always her choice so she can grow during the process. This is why Elke regularly participates in competitions around the world.

Norie’s Entry Name: Gramophone

Norie’s Take on the Theme: “‘Music is the moonlight in the gloomy night of life,’ said German novelist Jean Paul. Music is a universal culture and the only common language that can be communicated between people. Music heals people’s hearts, overcomes sadness, gives courage, and gives hope. I made my entry with the theme of a gramophone that keeps turning and playing such wonderful music. We need to bring great music to people all over the world who are exhausted from the coronavirus.”

Norie Miyazaki has been an iced cookie instructor since 2014, and has won prizes in domestic and international contests every year since. In 2015, she went to England to receive training in iced cookies. And in 2019, Norie was appointed as the official Japan National Team Goodwill Ambassador by Cake International, which was announced on TV in 2020.

Beatriz’s Entry Name: Mix and Smile

Beatriz’s Take on the Theme: “‘Mix and Smile’ shows my baking journey, from my first manual mixer to a mobile phone, which turned out to be my most important tool during the pandemic because I could literally reach the world with it. I had to pivot on a dime very fast and learn to pass on knowledge using today’s technologies. But that’s what a baker’s journey is anyway, to keep on learning.”

Beatriz Muller is a Certified Master Sugar Artist and a gingerbread architect and engineer. From her workshop in Ontario, Canada, she has been running Cakes by Beatriz for more than 15 years. During the holiday season, she and her staff called “gingerneers” are dedicated to creating custom-order cookie art and intricate gingerbread buildings and structures. Beatriz’s style is very clean and precise, with delicate and intricate embroidery and royal icing details. It is inspired by the visual arts, architecture, and beautiful ornamental designs that are created around the world. Her work has won multiple awards and has been featured in magazines and blogs as well as on Food Network shows.

Manuela’s Entry Name: The Speedy of Life

Manuela’s Take on the Theme: “I have always thought that our life is a road that is traveled in a limited time. I wanted to see new places, have experiences, and learn as many things as possible . . . In the previous four years, speed dominated my entire life – always in a rush, with a thousand things to do in every single day, and then . . . COVID-19 abruptly stopped this race! . . . When we were finally able to start living again, my priorities and my sense of time had changed profoundly. Today, I have learned that time for rest and personal space is not expendable. Slowing down the speed is the key to my change, my “pivot”, because by reducing it, things can finally be appreciated and one can fully enjoy the pleasure of life and the others who walk on the road with us . . . I have chosen to portray the speed of my life as a steampunk racing car when it stops its course after encountering the COVID [virus].”

Manuela Silvia Taddeo is an Italian pastry chef and cake decorator. After attending art school, she graduated in architecture and worked for 15 years. In her forties, Manuela chose to completely change her life and attended many professional courses in pastry and cake decoration. She also co-founded the pastry shop Mabanuby Pasticceria Artistica in Milan. Manuela’s specialties include royal icing, airbrushing, painting, and modeling, but she likes all decorating techniques, especially on cookies. Manuela has won several national and international competitions, including medals at Cake International Birmingham, and 2018 National Champion and 2019 Silver Medal at the Cake Designers World Championship. Manuela strongly believes that every challenge enriches us and that we must never give up on our dreams . . . this is her first time competing in 3-D cookies!

Yuqian’s Entry Name: Return of Happiness

Yuqian’s Take on the Theme: “The word ‘pivot’ reminds me of huge changes that happened in my life last year. Due to COVID-19 and home quarantine order, I became a housewife to take care of my 4-year-old son. Also, I love to travel and normally I travel at least 10 times yearly, but I had to pause my travel plan last year. I was quite sad about that and felt lost until I saw some fascinating icing cookies on Instagram. I was impressed by those gorgeous icing decorations, so I started to practice icing techniques. Additionally, I learned flower arrangement and flower piping with buttercream. Therefore, my work shows, on the front side, a reversed clock with a sun/moon design in the middle, which represents my changed life. On the backside, there is a miniature view of my new life: a suitcase means I am traveling and exploring the icing cookie and flower art world. The lily of the valley in the oval photo frame and on the sides of the clock symbolizes happiness and indicates that, even though my life was changed by the pandemic, I can still adjust to it, enjoy, and harvest happiness. That is why the title of my work is ‘Return of Happiness’.”

Yuqian Zhang just started icing cookies in 2020, but she loves cookie art from the depth of her heart and is devoted to learning and thriving as a cookie artist.

Wowza! You 3-D cookiers clearly pushed the boundaries of creative cookie-ing, and all of the judges and I were suitably impressed.

All finalists, congrats once again. You did tremendous work! I’ll be in touch shortly with special finalist badges. Then it’s back to sitting on pins and needles for a bit. I’m taking a brief breather for the Thanksgiving holiday and to fine-tune details of the winner announcement. After I return on November 30, I’ll make an announcement about the date, time, and format of the winner reveal, but I’m aiming for early December. And, all entrants, don’t forget to request your feedback (via sweetlife@juliausher.com) prior to December 5, 5 pm CST if you want it.

Thank you all for making this virtual edition of my competition so special this year!