There is a look that anyone who has successfully prepared a dessert wears when presenting his or her creation. It’s the smile of a toddler coming over to show you a particularly intricate Play Doh monster and it radiates a unique pride. Baking is fun because you are given a strict set of chemical and physical rules to which you must adhere, but you are working to create a product that is unique, beautiful, and tastes good to the largest array of taste buds you can.
When I was younger, I liked making cupcakes from a box mix to have 24 different globes to decorate with beach scenes topped with graham cracker sand and a paper umbrella or a ladybug with M&Ms for spots. My parents, tired of the temptation of desserts popping up everywhere in the house, told me it was time to seek other taste testers.
I took their advice and in high school, I started a project called “Catering for Cancer Research”. I took dessert orders for desserts for birthdays, raffles, and weddings. The proceeds were donated to a local breast health project that my mother had gone to during her cancer treatments. I would sketch out cake designs in class and present them to the “customers”, who tended to be generous teachers or parents at the school. I watched cake decorating videos and asked for a piping kit for Christmas. Since I was only fourteen, the bar was set very low for how the desserts would turn out, and customers tended to be thrilled with the results and donated lavishly. I was grateful to have customers who were so excited to see the cake they had described come into existence.
Without a kitchen in college, I could not continue the project, so I taught baking classes at the local homeless shelter. Some weeks the sole student was a five year-old girl who only wanted to hear the mixer whir and make purple frosting. Other weeks the class was packed with muscled, tattooed men who clearly had never baked and would probably never do it again, other than the one who said proudly that he made the Christmas fruitcake each year. We always had a good time baking and distributing the treats to shelter guests and staff, but I did want to get back to more complicated creations. My junior year, I spent a month in culinary school abroad and learned about cooking meals, rather than just desserts. My parents were thrilled I was creating something less likely to cause diabetes down the line.
After college, I moved to Boston and sought new ways to learn about food. I became a religious attendee of the Harvard Science and Cooking lectures, showing up an hour or more beforehand to wait in line and ensure I got a seat. I listened to a philosophical Ferran Addria ask, “What is cooking?” to a stupefied audience who mumbled about ovens and stoves and needing heat. Unhelpfully, he cited sashimi and the audience was out of answers again. I listened to Jordi Rocca speak about a childhood dessert that inspired his blown caramel bubble filled with chocolate mousse and sorbet and garnished with a edible gold. I listened to the physics professor leap out of his seat to point at food being created and explain the science behind an emulsion or fermentation. There was still a lot to learn.
I took an internship at Oakleaf Cakes and watched in awe as they molded gumpaste figurines, airbrushed details into a Game of Thrones throne, and carved a perfect replica of the London Bridge out of cake and rice krispies treats. It was incredible to watch their team tackle the physics and art skills needed to create these cakes. Amongst this creativity, I topped off cupcakes and cheesecakes and made silky frostings. Every week when I came in, there would be a new idea: using leftover cake pieces shaved off for a sculpted cake to make delicious trifles (my favorite thing they make now) or creating gingerbread kits like the dinosaur skeleton kits you have as a kid. Listening to their innovative ideas and problem solving skills was reinforcement of how versatile working with food can be.
Around the same time, I joined Bakes for Breast Cancer. Carol Sneider, who runs the operation, was very open to my desire to take cake orders in place of holding bake sales. In Boston, I’ve mostly baked for office events like birthdays and promotions, as well as a few anniversaries and family events. Open ended or challenging themes for cakes are always the most exciting, since they require learning a new decorating or baking technique or solving a complicated structural or design issue. Delivering a cake to an office, it’s impossible not to feel excited about what you’ve made and about how people will feel special upon receiving the dessert. Receiving a dessert makes people feel like they’ve been chosen, that their happiness matters, and is a tangible show of others’ care for them. A well-made dessert is particularly satisfying to create, since it can involve painting, sculpture, cooking and integrates liquids, solids and powders. Bakes for Breast Cancer is a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding a cure for breast cancer through funding research through dessert oriented events. For more ways you can get involved contact Carol. Now the only hurdle is washing your dishes!
Chocolate 3-Tier for a Raffle