A cookie for every season
By Laura Union
Chelsea Holt rolls out a fresh batch of her famous cookies, like these personalized stockings. First image by Laura Union; following images provided by This Must Be the Cookie.
During this time of year, the number of households baking up sweet concoctions skyrockets through the very roofs on which Santa lands his sleigh. Something about the holidays makes people fire up their ovens and break out the rolling pins, but for Chelsea Holt, a professional local “cookier,” the oven stays on year round. I met Chelsea more than ten years ago while working at a busy cupcake bakery on King Street. As I whipped up what must have been the 11th batch of thick cream cheese frosting that day, I discovered that the new girl and I were kindred spirits. We locked eyes as an outraged adult customer threw a tantrum about sprinkles. We were delighted. Our poorly suppressed grins grew ever wider as we realized the joy this public meltdown brought the other. I’ve loved her ever since.
The short of it is that Chelsea is an artist, and there’s no real end to her creativity. She will hand-draw your birthday card and then address it in whimsical calligraphy. She paints in watercolors, decorates desserts worthy of magazines and punctuates her musings with cheeky quotations and observations. You should see how she wraps presents — they’re too pretty to open! She studied film in school and though she’s too humble to admit it, she has an eye for each day’s setting and characters, the plot and witty dialogue. “I had the sweetest meet-cute with an old man in the grocery store,” she once told me as we spoiled ourselves with a homemade charcuterie board that would make Nancy Meyers proud. It’s the details that get her: the awkward pitch of someone’s nervous laughter, clothes that perfectly fit a personality or the different colors stacked in a bowl of fruit. Seeing the world through Chelsea’s lens makes it all so much sweeter.
In 2019, she started “This Must Be The Cookie,” a small cookie business entirely personalized to its customers. Have a birthday coming for a friend that loves surfing or a business anniversary for your dental practice? Why not celebrate with tidal wave treats or cavity-bearing toothbrush cookies? There’s no theme she can’t conquer. We had a quick chat about her cookie business while she worked on a batch bound for bachelorette thank-you bags.
Chelsea's Charleston cookies are popular year-round.
She said it all started a few years ago when some of her favorite Instagram bakers began making these personalized cookies. “The videos of them decorating the cookies were so satisfying,” Chelsea told me. “I decided to give it a try and it was a very humbling experience.” She began giving themed cookies as gifts for birthdays and anniversaries but “I was intimidated by it all. It’s so much harder than it looks.” When friends started requesting the cookies for their special occasions, Chelsea decided to take an online class by popular Instagram baker Tiny Kitchen Treats. “I learned so much. It completely changed things, and my cookies took a very professional turn. It was so exciting!” In addition to tailoring her recipes, she admitted that getting the right consistency to her royal icing is a “feel thing.” It takes trial and error and experience to learn how to do these things right. Once she got there, she made an Instagram page for her cookies and the business took off. The name was inspired by her favorite song, “This Must Be the Place” by The Talking Heads. “I love the sentiment of it. It’s cozy and homey. Like it all feels just right.”
She was trimming the roofline of Lowndes Grove into a fresh batch of dough while she told me about the cookie industry. “It’s a lot bigger than you think. It’s international. I probably know of at least ten cookiers here in Charleston and I’m still finding them.” The best part, she told me, is how supportive and noncompetitive it is. “We all chat and ask questions and refer clients. It’s such a nice, helpful group of people.”
Even though she grew up in a baking household and spent many years working at the cupcake shop after college, she realized it’s not the baking she loves but the decorating. Even with the cookie business taking so much focus and attention, sitting down to add the color and design to the individual cookies is her favorite part. “If I could have someone else make the dough and the icing and do the dishes, and I could just sit down and decorate …” Chelsea handed me a lightly browned Lowndes Grove straight out of the oven. “You can eat that one,” she said. She always bakes a few extra in case any don’t live up to her standards. “It is time consuming, though. Each cookie is hand painted and some surprise you by taking longer than you expect. Sometimes people think the design was stamped on.” This is a testament to her precision and cohesion. They do look stamped, fresh off the factory conveyor belt, except they’ve come out of her own kitchen.
Chelsea’s favorite orders come from people who have a theme or idea and then leave her to come up with different shapes and designs to convey it. “I enjoy miniature things,” she said, laughing. “I like turning everyday things into cookies. I get to use some creativity.” As I munched through Lowndes Grove’s second floor, I asked if there were any strange cookie requests she turned down.
“Yes. I don’t really do controversial political statements.” She stopped to think: “Or the more graphic bachelorette themes.” Chelsea grinned. “Well, sometimes I’ll make them, but those ones aren’t advertised.”
The cookies have been a big hit during these COVID times, especially while everyone was in quarantine. “People still wanted to celebrate events so I just individually package each cookie. It’s much more COVID-friendly than sharing a big cake, and it still feels like a special way to celebrate.” The list of celebratory occasions never ends. After Christmas, the themes turn to New Year’s, Valentine’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, first to 90th birthdays and “just because” cookies.
Though the holiday themes are filled with specific classics, the future of Chelsea’s cookie business is filled with options. “I would like to try hosting a cookie class,” she said. “I’d provide people with the cookies and then teach them how to put it all together. Or maybe do holiday presale cookie batches and possibly DIY kits.” However Chelsea moves forward, it will be a real treat for Charleston. She just has a knack for the details.
Laura Union is a native Charlestonian with a fondness for people-watching and boiled peanuts. She works in the event industry and lives on James Island with her husband and two lazy dogs.