Her Soho loft is like many in New York: a third-floor walkup filled with light, scuffed wooden floors and works in progress. It doesn’t look anything like a bakery; the only hint of the art produced is the white wall covered with 2,000 cookie cutters. But for more than three decades, Patti Paige has created playful, perfectly decorated cookies there.
Long before the Internet, Pinterest or DIY videos, Paige was turning sugar and gingerbread cookies into edible canvases. Ina Garten, a.k.a. the Barefoot Contessa, recently called her the “high priestess of decorated cookies.” Her designs are envied and copied in the cookiesphere, yet Paige remains largely unknown outside New York.
Now, 35 years after starting her custom cake and cookie business, Paige has published her first cookbook: “You Can’t Judge a Cookie by Its Cutter” (Grand Central). It teaches bakers how 25 cookie cutters in standard shapes can be used to make 100 designs, all with her signature artistry and inventiveness.
Full disclosure: When I first laid eyes on the book, I squealed like a fan girl and begged for the chance to meet my idol. As an amateur cookie decorator, I’ve followed Paige’s work for the past 20 years. I’d spot a beautiful cookie in a magazine, search the fine print for a credit and find her name. I carefully kept a binder of her designs.
Of course I had to interview her.
In person, Paige, 62, is like her cookie creations: tiny, charming, a little quirky and very New York. (Her best-known cookie design is a yellow cab with a Christmas tree tied to its roof.) We quickly bonded over her work, dozens of examples of which are stored on baking sheets on two rolling racks in the corner. Nearby sat her annual gingerbread project for charity: This year it’s a van delivering food to the hungry, surrounded by a cast of Big Apple characters.
“People flip out,” says Paige. “They say, ‘Oh my God. That’s so cute!’ Cute is a word that comes up a lot.” Some people just pop the cookies into their mouths, others save them in the freezer for years. Her cookies are nostalgic, modern, sophisticated and playful, and especially popular around the holidays.
Paige, like many professional decorators, was trained as an artist and got into baking for hire almost by accident. Friends raved over her bite-size walnut cookies — a recipe handed down by her grandmother — and she began selling them to Dean & Deluca to supplement her income.
The store asked her to create a gingerbread replica of their building, which led to other gingerbread commissions and eventually custom cookies for celebrity clients including Martha Stewart and Hillary Clinton.
Her work began appearing in national magazines, newspapers and holiday gift guides, but the lively redhead kept her business, Baked Ideas, a one-woman operation. “I had the fear of getting big and then losing the quality,” she says. “That’s not what interests me.” She has assistants now, but she still has a hand in just about every cookie.
At heart, Paige thinks more like an artist than like an entrepreneur: “I like things in multiples,” she says. “I like repeated images.” She finds it much more interesting to decorate 100 cookies than, say, one large cake, and can point out the tiny differences among nearly identical cookies: “I just love that they’re all the same but all different; they all have that handmade feel.”
She mixes her own royal icing, preferring unusual colors and finishes. She’s a purist when it comes to decorating: She uses only icing — never fondant — and rarely adds sanding sugar or other embellishments. She even makes her own custom cutters, pinching and curving 1-inch-wide aluminum strips to create new shapes. They are scattered around her studio as well as on the wall; she sells only a handful of her designs, including a set of 10 yoga-pose cutters handmade for her by a tinsmith in Ohio.
Paige is successful enough that she doesn’t sell in stores anymore, only doing custom orders for longtime or corporate clients able to pay $6.50 to $14 per piece. People are often surprised that a cookie can be that expensive until they learn the amount of labor that goes into creating each edible piece of art: It’s not unusual for her to spend hours decorating a small batch of custom cookies.
For years, friends urged her to do a cookbook. Her wall of cutters, she says, provided the inspiration. Visitors would pull one down and try to guess what it was, and she realized: The shape could be more than one thing.
Paige transforms cutout cookies — using cutters widely available in kitchen and crafts stores — into totally different creations, usually by turning the shapes on their sides or upside down. Her mother, whom she affectionately mentions in the book’s introduction, loved to play card and board games, and Paige brings that same sense of whimsy to finding unexpected uses for the cookie shapes.
“Being my mother’s child, I began to play the game myself,” she writes. “In a wedding cake cutter, I found a stack of suitcases, a typewriter on a desk, and a pair of witch’s shoes.”
With royal icing as her paint, Paige turns a gift tag into Frankenstein’s monster, a bucket of popcorn, a toaster. A baseball mitt cutter also becomes a swan, a hamburger and a cookie jar. A guitar cutter yields a ship in a bottle, a paintbrush and cotton candy. The book includes seven cookie dough recipes and detailed directions for creating each of the 100 designs: four looks each for 25 cookie cutters.
Coming up with the designs was “so much fun, because it was totally original,” she says. “I never get tired of look ing at them.”