Cookie decorating is an art all its own.

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Zoe Denenberg; Prop Styling: Rachel Mulcahy

Those who know me know that I have many niche skills. While I am highly deficient in a few major-life-skill categories—I never learned how to ride a bike, and last week my roommate had to teach me how to use a can opener—I am an avid crafter; in the past year alone, I’ve taught myself how to cross-stitch, crochet, knit, and embroider. But my original, and perhaps most unique, niche skill is cookie decorating.

In high school, while all my friends got jobs scooping ice cream or folding towels at the gym, I spent my afternoons in a bakery, sifting powdered sugar and dying royal icing a rainbow of colors. I started my job at the bakery as an apprentice to the pastry chef, Jessica, in December of my sophomore year of high school. On my first day, I helped her decorate snowflake cookies, dipping them in powder-blue flooding icing and coating them in a layer of sprinkles. There wasn’t even any piping involved, but coming home from the bakery that night, I felt like I had really made something.

WATCH: How To Make Royal Icing

For the next three years, I spent countless afternoons in that glass-paneled kitchen. Jessica taught me how to make royal icing and how to pipe in straight lines. A year into the job, Jessica developed carpal tunnel, so I was promoted and assumed a majority of the cookie decorating duties. I always came home from the bakery smelling like something baked with lots of butter, and my mom would joke that she wished she could distill that smell into a candle.

The bakers would cut and bake the cookies in the morning, and I’d arrive after school to find sheet trays of blank sugar cookies waiting for me. I mixed my royal icing and piped any custom orders we’d received that week, then developed my own seasonal designs for the glass bakery case. I piped football jerseys, Easter eggs, butterflies, tiaras—each week it was something new. The canvas was tiny, but I treated each cookie—with its glossy sheen of frosting and delicately piped details—like a work of art. I’d get lost in the piping and work for hours, but it didn’t feel like work at all.

Zoe Denenberg; Prop Styling: Rachel Mulcahy

As much as I loved decorating cookies, I was also drawn the bakery environment. It always smelled like butter and, during the holidays, cinnamon and ginger. I made friends with the bakers—a majority of whom only spoke Spanish—and I’d get to taste the sweets that they transported in and out of the ovens. Once they discovered my penchant for blondies, they started leaving a plate of blondie scraps at my station in anticipation of my 3 p.m. arrival.

Eventually, I went off to college and, by default, left my job at the bakery. But sometimes I still found my mind wandering to my days in the kitchen. It became a nostalgic sort of dream to work at a bakery again, to pass the afternoons piping on cookies and return home smelling of butter. Things like this have a way of coming back to you.

After college, I moved to Birmingham, Alabama, for a job writing at Southern Living. In many ways, this job was exactly what I wanted—to be able to write every day for a living felt like a dream. But on tours and occasional visits up to the Meredith Test Kitchen, I found myself longing to be in that place again—to spend my days baking and piping and creating something beautiful. So when the Southern Living cookie swap rolled around, I knew I’d found an opportunity to merge two of my oldest passions.

Now, I have (unofficially) adopted the title of Southern Living’s resident cookie decorator, and I spend a few days each month in the Test Kitchen, developing custom cookie designs for our website. I’ve designed Halloween cookies and vintage Pyrex cookies, but I’ll always have a soft spot for the first cookies I ever made: holiday cookies.

Zoe Denenberg; Prop Styling: Rachel Mulcahy

For my set of holiday swap cookies, I wanted to do something simple and timeless. I made elegant, yet whimsical red-and-white striped Candy Cane Sugar Cookies, and I reimagined the snowflake cookie to create a sleek all-white design. You can add as much or as little detail as you want—these designs are great for beginner or advanced cookie decorators alike.

When I accepted a job at Southern Living, I never knew it would so naturally merge my passions for writing and cookie decorating. And while I spent many days dreaming of working at a bakery once again, I never really expected cookie decorating to come back into my life and reclaim such significance to me in the way that it has. But my high school job wasn’t just a high school job—it shaped me into an artist, albeit with a very tiny and unusual canvas.

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