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You’re supposed to eat these cookies. But would you?

Ella Hawkins’s art history cookies mimic her favorite designs and period costumes

Hand-decorated cookies made by artist Ella Hawkins were inspired by the Staffordshire Hoard, the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver treasure ever found. (Ella Hawkins)
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Ella Hawkins likes to bake to decompress. She had no idea her at-home cookie hobby would leave mouths agape across the globe and art history scholars atwitter.

It started when Hawkins, who teaches early modern English at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, decided last year to bake a special batch of Valentine’s Day cookies to mail to her mother, who lives about 70 miles from her in the town of Oswestry in England.

“We hadn’t seen each other for a long time because of the pandemic, and I knew that cookies preserved well and wouldn’t get as damaged in the post as a cake,” said Hawkins, who earned a doctorate in Shakespeare studies at the university in 2020.

She searched the Internet for painted cookies and settled on decorating hers in pastel colors with elaborate golden swirls and miniature flowers. Her mother raved about them, and when she sent photos to friends, they were beside themselves at what Hawkins had created.

“When I saw how much joy they brought, it was easy to continue,” said Hawkins, 28, who is also a design historian and blogger. “I decided to look to my academic life for inspiration.”

She baked more cookies in her favorite flavor of orange, cardamom and vanilla, and coated them in a thin layer of royal icing that she let dry overnight. The next morning, she sat down to duplicate her favorite prints of 19th-century artist William Morris using fine-tipped brushes, gel food coloring and vodka.

“I actually don’t drink the vodka. I use it instead of water as a thinning agent,” said Hawkins, adding that it takes her up to two hours to decorate each cookie, known as biscuits in the U.K. “It’s one of those tricks from the cookie trade.”

When she posted photos on Twitter and Instagram of her finished creations, cookie lovers and William Morris fans went wild over her 3-by-1¾-inch biscuits.

“See this thread, don’t drool on your keyboard,” wrote one of thousands of admirers.

“I stepped away from my desk for 30 minutes, and when I came back, my post was going stratospheric,” said Hawkins. “Overnight, it got 206,000 Twitter likes.”

She decided she was on to something.

She was familiar with people taking their creative skills seriously during the coronavirus pandemic, mastering bread-baking, cake decorating and latte foam art. One woman even turned bruised bananas into incredible showpieces.

Bored in the pandemic, she made art by bruising bananas. Now she has an international following.

Hawkins aimed to set a new standard, and she posts videos showing her process.

She has since painted impossibly intricate tiny designs, including illuminated manuscripts, Tiffany glass, ancient Greek pottery shards and Elizabethan fabrics. She has also painted small objects found by one of her friends along the River Thames.

“They’re my mudlarking cookies,” said Hawkins, referring to a term that describes people who scavenge in the mud for hidden treasures.

“I thought it was appropriate to flavor them with sea salt and brown sugar,” she said.

Hawkins also decorated cookies with a “Game of Thrones” and “Outlander” theme, but her favorite creations are the ones with close ties to her heart.

She recently designed a batch of cookies after the island of St. Agnes, where she scattered her father’s ashes after he died 10 years ago.

“It’s a special place to my family, and I know he would love that I’d made some cookies showcasing some of the beautiful places there,” she said.

She gives away most of her creations with the hope that her recipients eat them.

Curators at Jane Austen’s House in England were so enamored with Hawkins’s biscuits that they invited her to become an artist-in-residence and decorate treats to go with the exhibits.

“I saw my cookies as a way to bring historical objects to life for people,” she said. “They look at art and history in a slightly different way when they realize that I’ve put it on a cookie.”

Hawkins now lives in Birmingham, but she grew up in the rural county of Shropshire on the Welsh border and baked her first dozen biscuits when she was 12, she said.

“My mom did a little baking, but nobody was into it like I was,” she recalled. “I loved making peppermint creams in school and just continued from there.”

People often tell her that she should try out for “The Great British Bake Off,” but Hawkins said she isn’t tempted.

“I’d be fine for biscuit week, but then I’d have to bake bread and cakes and pies,” she said. “I’d be lost.”

Her next baking project will be based on her book, set to be published this June, examining how Shakespeare’s plays have been shaped by costume design featuring Elizabethan and Jacobean dress.

She said she plans to decorate cookies patterned after some of the costume fabrics featured in her book.

“It’s still very much in development, but I’m hopeful that it will taste good,” she said.

Hawkins said she has a newfound appreciation for the intricate craft of cookie art and said she admires anyone who can turn a baker’s dozen into edible masterpieces.

“A lot of people around the world decorate cookies, and there are so many decorating styles out there,” she said.

She said it’s possibly the subject matter she paints that draws certain people to her cookies. “I think it could be the joy of seeing a familiar and much-loved period or object represented in a different form that makes people connect to mine.”

Hawkins said it’s satisfying for her when people eat her works of art. After all, they are cookies. But she made one exception, she told her fans, and only for a portrait of Jane Austen.

“My biscuits usually get eaten,” she tweeted, “but these live on in a box in my kitchen.”

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