Julia Usher's Cookie Swap

Once upon a time, I aspired to become a professional baker. I read stacks of books, took classes from the best in the biz, and staged at a well-known bakery. Before long, I realized baking for business and baking for pleasure are two very different things….

While that dream went on the back burner, it’s not entirely extinguished. How do I know? I cracked open Julia Usher’s Cookie Swap and whoosh! Before I knew it, my grocery cart was loaded with 10 pounds of butter. Preheat the oven….I’m ready!

Like me, Julia’s career has taken some twists and turns. While she holds a degree in mechanical engineering (Yale University) and an MBA (Stanford University), eventually, she ditched the corporate job and opened a successful bakery in St. Louis. Precision and an analytical mindset has served her well. Detailed, but delicious wedding cakes and fanciful desserts were at the heart of her business.

Her first book, Cookie Swap: Creative Treats to Share Throughout the Year, was released in August 2009. It’s already in its fifth printing…and for good reason.

Usher’s book is like no other.

In another life, I imagine she and Julia Child would have been good friends. Usher is obsessive about the details…and the benefit is all ours. Cookie Swap is jam-packed with tips. The opening pages include notes on working with the seven basic cookie types (bar, drop, hand-shaped, icebox, pressed or piped, rolled and sandwiched). And the spreadsheet-style resource guide is an invaluable resource.

The photos are shot in scene-scape sets that give the likes of Sandra Lee and Martha Stewart a bad name, but if you’re secretly a closet crafter, Cookie Swap offers inspiration galore! While I can honestly say, I’ve never had a desire to build a wreath out of sugar cookies, or make a gingerbread house (haunted or otherwise), step by step, Usher makes the fanciful…approachable. (Note: Beginning on page 152, Usher includes an insightful overview on eleven cutout cookie decorating techniques—marbling, flooding, beadwork, appliqué…it’s all there.)

Not the crafty type? Me either. Usher approaches her recipes with the same meticulous detail, offering a broad selection of cookies—including a few surprises. (I must confess…yes! I want to make those marshmallow Peeps.)

Flavor profiles range from kid-friendly to sophisticated (Lemon-Thyme Bon Bons.) Buttery with a hit of citrus, the Orange Shortbread, a component on the Tiers of Joy cookie-cum-wedding cake, was delicious on its own. And the Bourbon-infused Eggnog Cheesecake Streusel Bars are a holiday hit.

Beyond all the window dressing, Cookie Swap, offers solid recipes with insightful tips on technique. And if you’re up for luster dust and gilding shortbread lily? Julia Usher’s your guide.