Stepping into Jessica Brainsky’s humble home kitchen, you’d never know it’s where edible artwork is made.
Her white oven can only bake 12 cookies at a time, her Kitchen Aid mixer sits off to the side and there’s no sign that the middle-school-counselor-by-day spends dozens of hours each evening and weekend making and hand decorating intricate sugar cookies that wouldn’t be out of place on any Food Network baking show.
“This is an art form for me,” she said on a recent spring day in that very kitchen. “It’s great to be able to just run with my creativity. . . My favorite thing is when a client says ‘I trust you’ and just gives me that creative freedom.”
Brainsky is the sole baker, decorator and project manager at Hartwork Cookie Co., a small business she started last summer. In her Plymouth home, Brainsky works to make cookies for holidays and orders that are decorated in painstaking detail using custom icing colors and a variety of techniques. Her most recent creations — themed around the Easter holiday — included bunnies with realistic fur, egg-filled woven baskets and textured bird nests.
“Every cookie is different and I get inspiration from everything. I see it in the real world and I turn it into a cookie,” she said. “I love the awe effect, that is so fun for me.”
In her “real life,” Brainsky is a guidance counselor at Hingham Middle School. She’d never decorated a cookie — let alone thought about owning a baking business — before a friend invited her over one Christmas to decorate cookies with his kids. She was piping a candy cane, she said, when the colors accidentally bled together.
“I smudged the icing and it kind of marbled and I thought ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’ And that smudge inspired this entire passion,” Brainsky said. “That’s what I love to tell my students, that mistakes can actually be really great. Without that mistake, I never would have known how much I loved this.”
From there, Brainsky jumped headfirst into cookie decorating. She made an Instagram account on the advice of a friend and discovered a “cookie community” of other bakers and designers who welcomed her with open arms.
“People are really focused on supporting, rather than competing, which is amazing,” she said. “I interact with people from China and Australia and, if I’m unavailable for an order, I recommend other nearby businesses and they do the same for me.”
Within a year, she was decorating cookies for friends, family and colleagues and experimenting with creating her own icing colors, different decorating techniques and recipes to make the perfect durable — but still tasty — sugar cookie. It was about a year ago that she starting “taking this thing seriously,” she said, and dedicating all of her free time to Hartwork.
The launching of her business coincided with a religious journey she said brought true joy and abundance to her process.
“Ever since then, the cookies just became something they never were before. The creativity was just pouring out of me and the business grew quickly, it was hard to keep up” she said. “I realized that when I got to decorate from the heart, it was truly from God.”
These days, Brainsky works around the clock near every major holiday to make creative pre-order sets for clients. She doesn’t have the time to make cookies-to-order for every holiday, and instead she asks clients to purchase sets on blind faith and trust they’ll end up with something earthy, artsy and beautiful.
Even with custom orders, where clients can make more specific requests, she asks for a certain level of trust to come up with something unique.
“I take into consideration who the client is, but then I also need that creative freedom or it’s just not fun for me,” she said. “I didn’t get into this for money, I got into it because I truly enjoy doing it and I really appreciate that these customers trust me to do my thing.”
It’s a creative project and true labor of love for Brainsky, but she said she’s not in any rush to make Hartwork her full time job. She’d love to host decorating classes and plans to start selling her recipes, but says she’s happy exactly where she is.
“For now, I really enjoy being able to just do it for the love of it,” she said. “Seeing people’s faces when I give them their cookies and hearing the stories of the events. . . It just leaves me tickled.”
Photos in this post were taken by the wonderfully talented Greg Derr. They were originally published in The Patriot Ledger.