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Creative cookies Detailed, polished and fancy presentation takes old-fashioned recipes and turns them into sassy delights

Gina Vandermeer had her eyes on a purse.

It wasn't slung over her arm, or hanging in her closet. This purse was laid flat on the granite countertop in front of her -- all three inches of it.

Meticulously, Vandermeer piped a thin border of Tiffany-blue icing onto the tiny bag. In 24 hours, after it set, she would paint the purse with more blue icing -- and add dots of chocolate.

Voila: a patterned handbag, sure to capture the heart of most any woman.

And all done in cookie dough, royal icing and sugar crystals.

"Oooh, that's pretty," sighed Vandermeer, straightening up from her task. "I like that. That makes me happy."

Vandermeer, 35, is a lot of things these days.

She's a wife and mom to two little girls, 5 1/2 -year-old Mia and Scarlett, 2. She's a woman who juggles a day planner that has her running from her North Buffalo home to her parents' home in Eden, where she does her baking and decorating.

And she's -- more than ever, these days -- the owner and sole employee of her own burgeoning business, the Sassy Little Bakeshop.

"It's old-fashioned meets sassy," Vandermeer, whose Dutch-Italian ancestors include bakery owners, said of her signature style. "I take an old-fashioned dessert -- and I sass it up."

Vandermeer's business, now 6 years old, has been getting rave reviews in various quarters -- from the Hamburg farmers' market, where her pink-tented stall draws crowds, to Braymiller Market, where owner Beverly DeCarlo has offered Vandermeer the space to create her own bakery and cafe. Local restaurateurs have been calling Vandermeer about supplying her gourmet cupcakes -- pink champagne or margarita flavors, anyone? -- to their dining rooms.

"Did you see her product? Did you taste her scones?" asked DeCarlo, referring to Vandermeer's goodies, which come packaged with pink labels and curlicued ribbons. "She has a great product.

"She's a food artist -- she really is."

Vandermeer, who was on a career path toward becoming a librarian until a few baking and cake-decorating courses changed her mind, is excited about the opportunities opening in front of her.

She plans to grow her business, and hopes to one day open a few bakeries -- maybe even write a cookbook. (She uses her own recipe formulations in her baked goods, and guards the secrets.)

But only, said Vandermeer, if she can do all that without sacrificing the quality of the desserts she loves to make.

"It's like each one for me is a work of art," she said. "A lot of times, people value quantity over quality. But I'm all about quality."

> Change in plans

Vandermeer grew up on Buffalo's West Side, then in Hamburg, the youngest of four sisters. She graduated from Hamburg High School in 1993, then Hilbert College, and later earned her master's degree in library science from the University at Buffalo.

"I didn't really know what I wanted to do," she said. "I was kind of up in the air."

Vandermeer was on track toward a library job when she started thinking about a cake-decorating class she had taken with one of her sisters. She loved it. Some time after, she enrolled in a yearlong pastry course offered through the culinary program at Erie Community College.

"From that point on, things started to happen," said Vandermeer, who baked one recent weekday morning in a pink waffle-weave T-shirt and riveted dark-wash jeans, her long hair caught up in a high ponytail. "I had a great time -- it was my calling."

In a typically Western New York twist, Vandermeer discovered that some of her relatives had operated successful bakeries on Abbott Road and in Springville.

"I actually had somebody come up to me at a farmers' market and say, 'Are you related to Vandermeer Bakery? They made the best white cake!' " Vandermeer said. "Some of the recipes I use -- like my peanut butter cookie recipe -- are my grandmother's recipes. I use a lot of family history."

Not to mention, she stresses, top-quality ingredients: real butter, cream, milk, sugar.

It's not cheap, she said. Her cookies typically sell for between $1.50 and $2 for a large-sized individual cookie or $5.75 for a plate that might hold four to seven of the treats.

But those fresh ingredients are the only ones that give her results she's happy with.

> Presentation is key

Vandermeer started her business as a professional undertaking in 2005. She called herself "Vandermeer's" at first. Then, after a brief relocation to Kansas City for her husband's job, Vandermeer moved back to Western New York and gave her business a fresh start by dreaming up a new name: The Sassy Little Bakeshop.

The term makes people smile. But it also defines Vandermeer's style, which is to take a high-quality bakery item and give it a magazine-perfect look through her detailed, polished presentation.

"Presentation is everything. That's so big to me," she said.

And it gives her an edge in appealing to today's buyers, said owner DeCarlo at Braymiller Market in Hamburg.

"Are there really any other bakeries around doing that? I think not," DeCarlo said. "She's so nice, and her stuff sells. That's a great combination."

Vandermeer, on a recent morning, was making cut-out cookies shaped like hand mirrors, shoes, dresses, mermaids and tubes of lipstick. She had spring cookies, too -- snails and ladybugs, birdhouses and bees.

Each cookie involves a two-day process, the first spent baking the cookies and lining them with icing, the next spent filling in the colors, adding details like sanding sugar, glitter or pearls, or writing script.

"I really, really enjoy this," she said, gesturing at the icings and sugars. "I sit there with my frostings -- I call them my 'pots of paint' -- and I just do each one. It relaxes me."

Women have become a big part of her customer base, ordering the frothy-themed cookies for showers and birthday parties and special events.

Vandermeer said she wants both men and women to buy her products for their tastiness and eye appeal.

But, she said, she doesn't mind having a special audience among women who, like her, crave a little something special on their dessert plate.

"It's very elegant. It's fancy," she said. "I do girly things."


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