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Growing up, we usually got ice cream cakes for our birthday parties. (My mom was always really good about ordering them in advance so we could special-order the flavors we wanted rather than having to settle for the pre-made ones.) Although I remember not liking cake much–it wasn’t until I was much older that I understood how good a cake made from scratch and filled with French buttercream can be–you couldn’t tell from this picture of me in 1973 at four years old:
Okay, so I started cake design with Wilton, and I was pretty good. (You can read How I Got Started Part I here.) I got a really solid foundation from the Wilton classes, but I was well aware that Wilton is sometimes frowned on in the cake industry as somewhat amateurish, and, truth be told, it made me self-conscious. So I went on to take more professional-level classes at various schools in New York City. I remember once, at a gumpaste flower class at The New School, the instructor asked us to introduce ourselves and tell a little about our cake design backgrounds. I sheepishly mentioned that my only cake design experience thus far was with Wilton, to which she replied–and I’ve always been grateful she said this–“Everyone starts with Wilton!” I never felt self-conscious about my humble beginnings again.
I was introduced to fondant at a store in Jackson Heights, Queens, where I bought a lot of my supplies. Fondant had already gained popularity in South America, and was widely used in England and Australia. I liked the look of fondant and took the class. This was my first fondant cake (again, very Wilton), for my sister’s baby shower. My nephew (my sister’s first “baby”) is almost 10 now, so I guess I did this about 11 years ago.
Once I had the designing down, I had to tackle the baking. At first, I used box cakes. Real cakes seemed too intimidating, and besides, everyone told me they liked my cakes better when I used Duncan Hines. (With all those yummy artificial flavors and preservatives, could you blame them?) I finally took a cake baking class at ICES, and realized that the problem was both my technique and my recipes. Cake baking, unlike cookie baking or other types of cooking, is a true science. There’s no such thing as eyeballing measurements, adding a pinch here or a tweak there. All of the ingredients in a cake interact in very specific ways, each causing different chemical reactions, so it is absolutely imperative to follow a cake recipe exactly and measure accurately. That said, just because a recipe is in print, doesn’t mean that its been tested or is even very good. It took a lot of experimentation to find recipes that worked for me. I didn’t invent my own (although my carrot cake does have a secret ingredient), and I am happy with the recipes I now use.
I specifically remember that this cake, from 1996, was a Duncan Hines yellow cake.
An old boyfriend bought me my first KitchenAid, and it served me well until, at age 35, I met my soon-to-be husband. He was 25, lived with his dad, worked only part-time, and owned his very own KitchenAid. I fell in love and moved to California to be with him, bringing my KitchenAid along with me. (We eventually sold mine for fear that it would bring bad karma.) I got a job teaching at a high school in Los Angeles and made the mistake of announcing to my students on the first day that I was from New York, thinking they’d find me cool. Instead, things rapidly deteriorated into a Biggie Smalls vs. Tupac style rap war, with me representing the east coast and my students the west. You’d be amazed how often our coastal difference surfaced, and my focus on New York history only confirmed their suspicion that I thought the east coast superior. (The fact that I was teaching early American history and most of it takes place on the east coast was a moot point.) I went home crying almost every day.
This is where the zaniest, craziest thing I ever did for cake comes in. You can read more about it here.
I’ve been at it for about 15 years, and I’ve come a long way. At first, I did cakes for free, for $10, for coworkers, for family, and for friends. I practiced for 10 years before I had the confidence to do it professionally. Once, when a magazine contacted me and asked if I had any designs inspired by family heirlooms, I lied and said yes. I made four cakes in a day, had my husband photograph them, and got three of them published. I’d be lying if I said I’ve never had a disaster befallen one of my cakes (more about that in a future post), but I’ve learned so much from every single one. And the best part is, I’m still learning.
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