Las Cruces Cookies Celebrate New Mexican Culture
By Cristina Carreon
Custom chile and turquoise painted sugar cookies. Photo by Stephanie Cameron.
Through the windows and a box full of buttery, sugar-coated biscochos laced with anise waiting to be tasted, Milagros Guillen talked about her life, which led her from music to cowboy culture to baking.
The classically trained violinist began making her unique sugar cookie creations two and a half years ago after delving into cake decorating and discovering a natural talent for dessert art. “I get a lot of my inspiration from the architecture of New Mexico, or even pottery, buildings, stones. A lot of it comes from rodeo,” Guillen said, explaining the influences behind her intricately painted cookies. “I do a lot of stuff like chaps and boots, and I also love fashion, so I follow a lot of fashion pages in the Western industry.”
Guillen’s husband, Daniel Castro, is a cowboy who comes from a long line of charros, and the couple own the Lienzo Charro El Pedregal ranch south of Las Cruces. Castro performs regular specialty acts at rodeos across the South, the Southwest, and in Mexico. Guillen said her travels with her husband on the rodeo circuit have provided inspiration for her Western-themed designs.
“I also grew up a country girl, hunting and fishing and just being outdoors, so I kind of incorporate that into my work as well,” Guillen said. “I have everything that I need here.”
At home, with her infant daughter sleeping nearby, she dreams up ways to make more realistic interpretations of White Buffalo stone and clay, making a few sketches before sending her ideas off to a friend who makes her specialty cookie cutters. Textures, such as leather or frills, also challenge Guillen to create more realistic pieces, and she enjoys replicating turquoise—matrices and webbing and all—for her hand-painted cookie designs. To decorate, she uses edible food paint and spray, and some designs can take up to forty minutes per cookie.
“I see a piece of jewelry, and I think. ‘I can make it into a cookie,’” said Guillen. “The first design I made using cardstock, but now I have somebody who makes my cutters for me, and I go to her with the most random designs.”
Sitting at the table with a sketch and a hand-made cookie cutter is the pivotal moment when her dreams become reality, and the time-consuming task of painting, which can often take hours at a time, begins.
Guillen initially made her creations for friends and family only. Growing up, her mother taught her how to bake Mexican desserts that were as traditional as they were unadorned. “I always had an interest in baking and cooking. My mom taught me traditional baking, like biscochos, empanadas, pan dulce, and flan. My mom was never artsy with it. It was just very traditional and home-baked, and as I got older, I started to get into baking cakes,” she said. Guillen has continued the family tradition of baking desserts like tres leches. But beginning in her teens, she began to focus on decorating her cakes. After high school, she took cake decorating classes and researched decorating videos on YouTube in her free time. She also continued with her music, playing mariachi music and performing on the fiddle with The Yarbrough Band, a Las Cruces–based western group, for four years. While playing music, she worked full-time as an orthodontic assistant, quitting after her second child was born to start her own business.
Milagros Guillen of Sweet Trails. Photo by Pips Ink.
“I had my daughter last year, and I thought, while I was on maternity leave, I could really focus on cookies and baking,” Guillen said. She has since focused on raising her young children, concocting new cookie designs, and teaching violin lessons on the side.
On social media, Guillen has reached new clients and shared her work on Instagram and Facebook. She also uses her platform for activism, advocating on behalf of victims of child trafficking. “I look at my kids and see how happy they are, and it makes me so sad to think about kids who don’t have that. They are not with their families. They are with strangers, and who knows what they do with them,” Guillen said.
After receiving support from people across the globe, Guillen decided to host a raffle using social media to benefit Operation Underground Railroad. Several businesses have made donations or offered store credit at their businesses in support. By early September, the raffle pot was valued at roughly three thousand dollars. Guillen said other cookiers have offered to help, with one offering to create a special cookie cutter with sales benefiting the organization.
Currently, Guillen advertises and takes commissions for her cookies on social media, although she is building a website for an online store. She offers cookies flavored with Heath bars, chile, pecan, and seasonal flavors, like pumpkin spice, sourcing chili powder from Kit Carson Farms and pecans from Farm & Fiddle. Guillen offers pre-sales a month in advance for holidays such as Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
Guillen has learned to think on her feet, sometimes creating designs based on specific elements her clients ask for. Recently, a photographer reached out to Guillen about a styled elopement and sent her a dark mood board with skeletons, roses, and a “’Til Death Do Us Part” theme. For an upcoming commission, Guillen will make cookies with realistic insect designs.
Although it is the early days for her business, Guillen said she would like to partner with local retail businesses to sell her cookies in stores. She dreams of transforming an old horse trailer into a mobile bakery she can set up to sell her wares at fairs or farmers markets.
She also hopes to teach her four-year-old son how to bake.
“My son likes to go out and ride horses with his dad, but then he can come in, and he knows how to make cookies,” Guillen said with a smile, adding she hopes her daughter will be interested when she gets a little older. “It’s good for them to learn,” she said.
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