Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Icing on the Cake

One of Ana's very first "professional" cakes
On an August day much like this -- many, many years ago -- Ana and I first opened the doors of our bakery, Afternoon Tea.  We had a defined concept in mind ... old-fashioned baked goods made with the same fine ingredients you'd use in your own home.  Baking from scratch, with a definite southern spin, since the South is revered for its baking and cooking!

Our bakery cases held hand-rolled pies, tea breads, loaves of yeast breads, dinner rolls, cinnamon rolls, pound cakes, bundt cakes, cookies and bars ... scrumptious offerings sure to entice anyone with a sweet tooth.

But we were open for only a few hours before the first order came in for a layer cake ... an iced, two-layer, birthday cake.

A standard decorated cake we'd have in the case
Okay, no problem.  We'd anticipated that ... frosted layer cakes were even on our brochure.  We'll whip one out in no time, just like we had for our own family birthdays each year.  The problem was, our family was just happy to get cake ... they didn't really care that much what it looked like.  But now that we were in business, we knew we had to deliver a quality product.  And not just one nice-looking cake, but dozens of cakes each week decorated to a customer's liking, and more-often-than-not, to their exact specifications.

We were not experts when we started our bakery.  We were just two young women who loved to bake.  The truth is, iced and decorated layer cakes scared me to death!  Of course, we'd made plenty enough in our day, but we'd made them in the comfort of home, under no particular deadlines, with all the time in the world to create a masterpiece.  At the bakery, we were in production.  We didn't have all the time in the world.  We had to decorate a cake and move on to the next one, while getting another batch of cookies into the oven in-between.  We were juggling ... we were baking-to-order and keeping our counters stocked, at the same time.  We didn't have the luxury of time to fuss over a cake for any longer than absolutely necessary.

Just one of the many themed birthday cakes Ana created
I naively proclaimed that we should not offer layer cakes.  They just took too much time.  Problem solved, stress alleviated.

Luckily, my sister thought otherwise.  No, we needed to get good, and we needed to get fast.  And we needed to get good fast!

We signed up for a cake decorating class immediately, ran our bakery during the day and took classes at night ... until we became proficient at it.  I could hold my own with a piping bag, but Ana's artistic abilities really came to the fore.  Pretty soon, Ana was creating scenes on the frosted canvas of each cake, replicating cartoon characters (all free-hand, without any equipment whatsoever) or any napkin a customer brought in, and whipping out fully decorated cakes faster than you can say, "Happy Birthday!"

A sculptural Torah scroll for a Bar Mitzvah
Not only was she decorating them, she was sculpting them!  There were dinosaurs, and King Kong, and ponies, and cars, and firetrucks, and airplanes, and cowboy boots, and GI Joe, and Barbies with giant ball gowns made out of cake.

There was Mickey and Minnie, and all of their friends, every weekend.  There was Roger Rabbit and Bugs Bunny.  There was Big Bird and Cookie Monster, and the rest of the Sesame Street gang.  There were sports themes, and boat themes, and beach themes, and underwater themes, and music themes, and travel themes.  There were butterflies, and teddy bears, and clowns, and Raggedy Anne, and lots of Ninja Turtles.

Another sculpted masterpiece, all in cake
There were even some definitely rated at least a PG-13, but we didn't get too many requests for those, thank goodness!

It was a good thing because decorated layer cakes were huge -- I mean HUGE -- sellers for us.  Every weekend was a parade of cakes ... birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, retirement parties, grand openings, baby showers, baptisms, first communions, confirmations, and weddings.

Then there were the holidays ... New Year's, Valentine's, St. Patrick's Day, Easter, Mother's Day, Father's Day, Memorial Day, 4th of July, Labor Day, Rosh Hashanah, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.  There were cakes for every occasion.

A stylistic tropical scene
There were weekday cakes for office parties and school functions.  And there were always fresh layer cakes waiting in our refrigerated display case for any last-minute celebration or dinner party.  It wasn't long before we were hiring talented cake decorators to handle all the cake business.  The demand was sky high.

Once you get confident with a pastry bag and practice different effects with the various decorating tips, you'll be a pro yourself in no time.  There are videos all over YouTube that show techniques and ideas.  Practice on cupcakes first, like we did when my teenage niece came out for the summer.  We held a baking and cooking bootcamp, including some cake decorating practice (she had gotten a cake decorating kit the previous Christmas).
Just one of many, many wedding cakes

As with all things, some folks are naturally talented or develop more of a knack for it than others, but literally anyone can learn their way around a pastry bag and end up with some pretty impressive results.

And piping bags and tips are not just for cakes or cupcakes.  They're also for piping beautiful deviled eggs, stuffing cream puffs or filled doughnuts, filling tart shells, making beautiful mashed potato swirls atop a shepherd's pie, or gorgeous peaks of mashed sweet potatoes for a special Thanksgiving feast.  It's a skill you will never regret having.

Maybe one day you'll even open your own bakery!

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