Whether it's for a birthday, wedding, anniversary or corporate event, decorated cookies are becoming a popular choice to celebrate special occasions.


"I can't keep up. I turn orders down a lot," said Andrea Walters, owner of Andy Kay's Cookies in Wichita. "For birthday parties, it's become popular to do cookies instead of cake — or they'll do cookies with cupcakes."


The decorated cookies Walters and other cookiers create go beyond colored icing and sprinkles. Using watercolors, stencils, airbrushes and other icing techniques, customers can have designs customized with colors, logos, shapes and characters. Intricate details, such as Walter's trademark miniature roses and pinecones, add a special touch to the treats.


"It's popular," said Tammy Colitti, owner of 2 Ts Stencils in Austin, Texas. "There just isn't enough of us."


To help cookiers connect, Colitti hosts "Cookie RoundUP" retreats around the Midwest, the most recent of which was held in McPherson on Oct. 13 to 16 at the Maple Memories Retreat. Colitti, along with three other instructors including Walters, taught a dozen attendees from all over the central United States about cookie decorating tools and techniques.


"We brainstorm together and come up with solutions," Colitti said. "We all go home with new tips, tricks and techniques."


Attendees were able to bake, decorate and sleep in the same place using Maple Memories Retreat.


"Everything is just so quaint, it's like being at grandma's house," Colitti said. "It's a hidden gem in Kansas, that's for sure. We could do it in a hotel or a conference center, but this brings charm to what we do."


Cookie trays, silicone mats and bags of colored icing were spread across each student's area.


"Everyone has a six-foot table that has all of the things they need to create everything, including their own airbrush gun, hot light and everything," Walters said. "They have a workspace and get to just play and create. We have sets that we teach them, but then later we'll let them play with new products and new things and just have fun."


The attendees were all involved in the cookie business, either as a part-time or a full-time job.


"I was just looking for a way to make money and stay at home. I worked corporate jobs for about 10 years and then I had a baby," said Monique Whitty, owner of Texas Cookie Company in Royse City, Texas. "I looked down and he was two. I thought, 'oh my gosh, what happened to the last two years?' So we went through some major life changes. My husband went back to work and I stayed home."


Looking for an outlet to relieve her boredom, Whitty turned to decorating cookies.


"I just needed something to occupy my mind and I was looking for a way to make a little money," Whitty said.


Bobbi Barton, owner of Bobbi's Cookies & Cutters in Halstead, has a full-time job, but wanted a creative hobby as well. She started by decorating cakes, then transitioned into cupcakes.


"That wasn't challenging enough, so I decided to start doing cookies — and I was hooked. I just loved it," Barton said.


Another advantage of decorating cookies was the ease of correcting mistakes.


"If you mess up on a cookie, you can just eat the cookie, whereas if you mess up on a cake, you can't just eat the whole cake by yourself," Barton said.


In her desire to make unique cookies, Barton started making and selling custom cookie cutters, printed on a 3-D printer.


Having a cookie cutter made from plastic means the tool will never rust and is more likely to keep its shape.


"Not all cookie cutters are created equal," Barton said.


Karen Bauer, owner of The Cookie Box by Karen in Crown Point, Indiana, pointed out that the beveled edges on Barton's cookie cutters were easier on her hand when she had to cut dozens of cookies from chilled dough.


The world of cookie decorating is challenging, requiring would-be cookiers to put many hours into learning about every aspect of creating their confections.


"You have to get a really good recipe, you have to tweak your own recipe," Walters said. "Most of them don't really work, because in different parts of the country, weather changes how certain recipes and icings work, so you have to have a really good base cookie."


For those looking to get into making cookies, Walters recommended reading online blogs about cookie making and decorating, along with watching tutorials on Youtube.


"It's really hands-on trial and error," Walters said. "People will pick it up, thinking it's going to come really easy and it's not. There are so many complexities to it."


The cookiers were eager to share and learn tips and tricks for creating more elaborate and unique cookies at the retreat, something that all of them had done online, but rarely got the opportunity to pursue in person.


"We chat a lot on the boards and stuff, but I'd never met them, so I came to spend time with them," said Pam Dahlgren, owner of Pam's Frosted Cookie Shop in Poplar Bluff, Missouri. "My husband's tired of hearing me talk about cookies and I know they're going to love to talk about cookies."


The attendees left the retreat with two dozen intricately decorated cookies, each created with a special technique, but there was another benefit to the weekend.


"They're taking home friendships, they're taking home camaraderie," Colitti said. "Most of these girls don't know another person in the same business — they don't have very many cookie friends."