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Brookfield bakers find a way to use cookies as canvases

Sisters hand-design ornate, European-style cookies

Dec. 11, 2012

Two local bakers use European history to turn everyday events into edible art.

Sisters Beth Grbich and Jan Melson of Brookfield press, bake and sell hand-painted cookies for their business, Embossed Edibles.

Grbich started using cookies as canvases in 1983, when she got found her first Springerle cookie mold.

Springerle cookies are a traditional Bavarian and Austrian Christmas cookie. They are typically square or round and have a detailed picture or design with a 3-D appearance pressed onto the top using hand-carved molds. The white cookies are usually flavored with anise, though Grbich and Melson use a lemon flavor in their recipe.

"I saw a snow boy mold and I just thought it looked so cute," Grbich said. "So I ordered that mold and made it, and the artist just comes out of you."

She improved her craft by experimenting with different food dyes.

"I found food coloring I could paint with," she said. "I made a batch and sent them to Melson, who was living in Arkansas at the time."

When Melson received the cookies, she knew the two women had struck gold.

"I held it up to my husband and told him, 'We have to make these,'" Melson said.

Since then, the women have collected more than 500 cookie molds and use some of them to make Speculaas , gingerbread, spice and Springerle cookies. Some of the molds are wood antiques from the Czech Republic, found by intense online searching.

Neither of the women studied art formally, but their ethnic history inspired them to paint Springerle cookies.

"Before people could read, these cookies were how people told stories in the 14th Century," Melson said. "You could eat it, learn from it, or use it as a decoration."

Five years ago, Grbich and Melson started Embossed Edibles online, allowing people to order custom hand-painted cookies for any occasion, including business events, baby showers and weddings.

"We've had requests for baptismals, business cards and jokes," Melson said.

This year, the ladies introduced edible glitter into the mix.

"They are so much fun to work with," Melson said. "When you paint then, they just come alive."

Some cookie designs can take hours to complete. Some can be done in as little as 30 minutes.

"Once you're bitten by the Springerle bug, you just want more mold and you want to try more things," Melson said.

A challenging, rewarding art form

Although the baking is fun, the sisters said the process isn't always easy.

"Sometimes the cookies can be a challenge to bake, or they can be a challenge to paint," Melson said. "The Springerle is more intense; they can puff up or crack if not baked correctly. You also need to be strong to press the cookies."

The cookies are a tasty treat, but the women said many people prefer to collect them or even use them as ornaments on Christmas trees.

"Most of the time, people say they are too pretty to eat," Grbich said. "We do make plain cookies, but it's so much fun to work with colors."

The secret to Grbich and Melson's cookie recipes remain hidden, but the visual history is on display with each design.

The sisters bake and paint cookies at a rented space in Brookfield, hoping to someday own their own physical store. They take their cookie show on the road year-round, vending at Christmas in the Grove, Brookfield Farmers Market and other events in the metro-Milwaukee area.

Grbich and Melson's products are also available through the e-commerce specialty food and gift store Wisconsin Made (wisconsinmade.com). The sisters said Wisconsin Made played a vital role in helping them keep their business active.

To learn more about Embossed Edibles and to see a gallery of Grbich and Melson's creations, visit embossededibles.com.

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