My first job was at Baskin Robbins. I started scooping ice cream there at 15, and by 16, I was decorating ice cream cakes and clown cones.
One afternoon, a woman rushed through the glass doors, frantic and heartsick. "Ayudame, por favor," she entreated, grasping me by the forearms, "You make cakes?"
I nodded, and she proceeded to tell me what had happened. My Spanish was pretty terrible at the time, but I put together this: on the way to a relative's wedding reception, the cake in her car, there had been an accident. The torta de boda had been ruined, smashed into the dashboard. And she had an hour to fix everything and get to the reception.
Before I could say no--I had never touched a wedding cake before!--the woman had returned to her car, and was bringing the cake through the doors. It was really bad: three tiers of monstrous white, a huge dent in the side, frosting smeared everywhere. The thing would have to be stripped completely and redone. I took it from her, grabbed an offset spatula, and went for it.
I don't know what happened that day. Whether by divine inspiration or sheer desperation, I made it work. 45 minutes of tension and buttercream later, I stepped back from the freshly decorated cake, and it looked flawless. On seeing it, the woman gasped and exclaimed that it was beautiful again. And that felt amazing.
When the woman offered to pay for it, I refused her money and told her it had been my pleasure. She was beside herself with gratitude. I was high, my veins coursing with adrenaline, and felt I should be the one thanking her.
And that was all it took. It was thrilling, like being part of some culinary SWAT team, there to save the day. This is dramatic, I know. But when we do things with passion, the otherwise outlandish comparisons seem apt.
It's a bit of those sentiments, of standing on the precipice of disaster at the idea that it could all go so wrong, and of making people really happy, that goes into every cake I make. It's what pressed me to start a wedding cake business during grad school, and to work as a pastry chef once I graduated.
In that time, I've made too many cakes to count (thousands, literally!), and here are some of my more formal favorites. The disclaimer is that not all of the cakes below are vegan--this is probably the only time I'll post something that isn't--but any of these could easily be made vegan. I apologize for the quality; most of these are scanned from photos.
And to atone for my years of non-vegan cake making, I've created the White Chocolate Rolled Fondant below. This can be used anywhere conventional fondant is called for, but it does take practice if you're not accustomed to working with it.
This simple cake is an example of how easy--and inexpensive--it can be to have a lovely cake. Tiers are frosted in buttercream, and the florist arranges flowers between them. If you have a friend who can bake, this is a great option--the florist does all the work! (Well, most of it.)
This cake needed to withstand the rigors of an 8-hour drive to Yosemite National Park, so I made it easily stackable and piped a sturdy design in royal icing to match the bride's dress. Rose petals were added on site.
I made this cake for a dear friend, who requested an exact replica of a cake she'd seen in a magazine. All the flowers are handcrafted from fondant, and their arrangement gives an effect that's both quirky and sophisticated.
Another cake for a dear friend, and over 500 other guests. It was so wonderful to capture the couple's joy on first seeing it!
This bride requested a cake with butterflies and a light, ethereal appearance. I accomplished this by creating butterflies with cutouts, and dusted with pearlescent mauve dust to match the bridesmaids' dresses.
My own wedding cake? I made it myself, staying up until 2:00 a.m. the night before the wedding to finish. It was crazy: five enormous tiers of fondant-covered pound cake, piped with elaborate designs and covered in over 200 handmade red roses. I wish I had a picture on hand, but you can see a few of the roses on the cake below.
For Dia de los Muertos, covered in fondant and joined by roses left over from my wedding cake.
The following year's cake, decorated in pale hues inspired by my century-old Victorian home. The colors are vegetable-based, and made from raspberries, turmeric, and spirulina.
My daughter's first birthday cake, made with orange-tinted White Chocolate Rolled Fondant and piped with buttercream reeds.
White Chocolate Rolled Fondant
about 2 pounds
This fondant has the subtle flavor of white chocolate, and can be used to cover a crumb-coated cake or to make flowers and other decorations. Using organic vegan powdered sugar lends the fondant a lovely ivory color.
Agar can be found as powder or flakes, and the former will give a much smoother result. Glucose can be found at cake supply shops, and you can order cocoa butter and vegetable glycerine from online confectioners (or just cheat and look for it in the beauty section of a natural foods store; be sure your cocoa butter is not processed with hexane).
.25 ounces agar powder
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup glucose
1 tablespoon vegetable glycerine
1 tablespoon cocoa butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
8 cups (2 pounds) powdered sugar
In a small saucepan over low heat, combine agar powder and water, stirring constantly, until well combined. Be sure the agar is completely dissolved: I sometimes whiz it in a high speed blender if there are any bits remaining. Set aside.
In a medium saucepan over low heat, or in the microwave, combine glucose, vegetable glycerine, and cocoa butter, stirring at intervals until melted. Remove from heat, and stir in vanilla. Add reserved agar mixture, and stir until well combined.
Place powdered sugar in the bowl of a food processor. With the blade running, slowly drizzle in the liquid mixture. Everything will come together, but you may have to stop periodically to scrape down any powdered sugar that clings to the sides. Alternatively, use a stand or handheld mixer to combine the ingredients. Process or beat until smooth.
Wrap the fondant in plastic wrap and allow it to cure for at least a day. Knead well before using; the fondant will be quite solid at first, and will soften on contact with warm hands. Use as desired.
This weekend, I hope to post a quick tutorial on how to build, frost, and decorate your own cakes for occasions. This has been long in coming, because juggling two children and a camera is a bit of a challenge! But I'm excited to give a peek into my new kitchen, and to show you something I enjoy doing so very much.