Seventeen years ago, I made my daughter a Cinderella’s castle birthday cake. It was two tiers and had translucent fruit leather windows, rock-candy diamonds, a Hershey-bar moat, and shimmering turrets fashioned from inverted, sugar-encrusted ice-cream cones.
She was two.
A year later, I downsized to Snow White’s cottage. And by the time she turned four, when the reality of carpools, cooking, and a freelance writing career set in, I decided on the pre-fab approach of ordering her cake from the local grocery store.
Olga turned buttercream icing into flowers so beautiful that I was tempted to pluck them right out of the screen.
So though I’d like to say I’ve always been a hobby baker, if you look up the word hobby in the dictionary, you’ll get the following definition: an activity done regularly in one’s leisure time for pleasure. I’m thinking that sweating out an over-the-top fairy tale confection once or twice in your child’s growing-up years doesn’t count.
But then I hit my fifties and inherited both an empty nest and free evening hours, during which I often ended up in front of my computer, hypnotically watching a baker named Olga turn buttercream icing into flowers so beautiful that I was tempted to pluck them right out of the screen.
You Gotta Start Somewhere
Turns out, Olga’s YouTube channel is one of tens of thousands of online baking-related tutorials, all seemingly designed to suck three hours out of your life faster than you can say cake pop. I was utterly inspired to make those magical blooms, but seeing as I’m the kind of gal who needs an actual event to get my ass in gear, I spent many months just dreaming about them. Finally, my mother’s 80th birthday bash hit the calendar, and the first thought in my head was: Aha! Flower cake!
Professional bakers might whip up an extraordinary cake in a day or two, but Mom’s cake took me, oh, about two months.
I just want to make this perfectly clear: Any baking project you see on the internet is always harder than it appears from the vantage point of your comfy couch and laptop. Professional bakers might whip up an extraordinary cake in a day or two, but Mom’s cake took me, oh, about two months.
After endless web surfing, I decided on a giant garden-barrel extravaganza. And because, as it turns out, size does matter, this three-layer, 14-inch round cake was a beast to bake evenly; several iterations went right into the garbage. Don’t get me started on the hoops bakers jump through to make a cake that doesn’t dip in the middle. The larger the circumference, the bigger the challenge.
The Seal of Approval
From there, it was on to the barrel panels. Did you know you can order a $90 can of marzipan that’s big enough to keep a soup kitchen plied with almond paste through 2021? I rolled the stuff out thickly, cut it into panels, pressed a wood grain pattern into it with a rubber imprint mat, formed cracks with a toothpick, and then painted each piece weathered-brown food color. Periodically, my husband would walk into the kitchen, inspect the insanity, and walk out shaking his head; I believe I heard the word crazy leave his lips a time or two.
Undeterred, I forged ahead with the gardening segment, tutorials playing in the kitchen, and an ever-expanding collection of baking paraphernalia amassed from Aliexpress—China’s bottom-barrel-price answer to Amazon—stockpiling in the pantry. I’m quite certain my mailman thought I was dealing drugs as he delivered an endless stream of little unmarked packages from Asia. Meanwhile, my flowers “bloomed,” and I began freezing them in Tupperware until the day before the party, when I stacked, filled, iced, and decorated Mom’s milestone monster with fingers crossed.
I’m quite certain my mailman thought I was dealing drugs as he delivered an endless stream of little unmarked packages from Asia.
When I posted the finished cake on Facebook, the globally respected wedding-planner-to-the-stars, Yifat Oren, remarked, “That is UNREAL. And I’ve seen a lot.“ There was no turning back on my new hobby—Yifat sealed the deal.
Interest became an obsession, obsession became a passion…and that passion is now fueled by new challenges and an OCD-ish desire to hone my skills—like icing a cake with perfectly straight edges (unimaginably difficult). I’ve since churned out, among other things, a competition pool cake for my niece’s Bat Mitzvah, a three-tiered hippie cake for my brother’s 60th birthday, countless cupcakes, and a few pretty swanky holiday cakes.
Filling an Emotional Hole
The videos continue to mesmerize and inspire me, Aliexpress is pleased with my customer loyalty, and I have to confess that there’s a lot to be said for the validation and mid-life self esteem boost I get from all my adoring cake fans. Though my writing career keeps me busy by day, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that evenings of cake decorating fill an emotional hole in my now empty nest.
To keep up with the learning curve, I’ve taken a local class or two, and I now belong to no less than five Facebook baking groups, where inspiration and problem solving abound. One night, after posting a slew of questions and comments, I received a direct message from a woman in upstate New York who, it seems, was closely following all the online action. Her note simply said: “I see you’ve turned into a cake-decorating junkie like the rest of us. Welcome to the dark side!”
Interest became an obsession, obsession became a passion.
It was the beginning of what has become a very dear, baking pen-pal relationship, in which we triage at odd hours…when, say, a meringue buttercream becomes lumpy or the isomalt sugar develops bubbles (don’t ask). I’ve even begun teaching cake-decorating boot camps for friends who are interested in learning the craft.
My Mother’s New Hobby
I could sit here and say this passion for making beautiful things is all me, but I come by it honestly. My mother, an artist and well-known art historian, surrounded me with the beauty of creation my entire life. And, now, as she enters the latter part of hers, she continues to inspire me with a constant quest for the mastery of new skills.
This includes—at age 80—playing the drums. Her percussion hobby started a few years ago, shortly after my dad died, when she found herself at a charity auction spontaneously purchasing eight weeks of private drum lessons. It was possibly the most perfect way to fill the deep void of losing my father, as well as a way to tap into her lifelong love of rhythm. You see, at 13, Mom had spent a year with her family in the Belgian Congo, where she heard the sounds of drums in the hills on a daily basis. I can attest to the fact that she also drummed and tapped her fingers on everything from pots and pans to tabletops while I was growing up.
My mother continues to inspire me with a constant quest for the mastery of new skills.
These days, she practices her self-titled “cerebral gymnastics” with weekly professional lessons, where she and her instructor focus on African rhythms. “We go into a zone and it transports me right back to the Congo, connecting me to the person I always was, even as a child,” Mom explains. She also firmly believes the activity helps exercise her brain and stave off dementia.
Better yet, she takes her drumming public, by jamming with the band at the pub where her poetry group gathers and playing at synagogue on music night. Mom does so with great joy and pride…and, I might add, while wearing black leather pants.
What’s Next? Ice Skating?
“There’s so much ageism and disrespect for older people in our world. But when an audience enjoys hearing me play, I feel great—especially because I’m doing something that is typically the purview of a young person. They look at me as this cool drummer chick, and it gives me a real boost and shows me that I’m being accepted into society…and not just as a little old lady!” This passion for playing also comes with the additional benefit of providing my mother with a rich social life, something that counteracts the isolation many people experience in their senior years.
“They look at me as this cool drummer chick, and it gives me a real boost and shows me that I’m being accepted into society…and not just as a little old lady!”
Frankly, I’m grateful that she has a newfound interest in this stage of her life. And sometimes as I pipe delicate swirls of buttercream hydrangea or stack tiers of pumpkin spice cake, I think of all the other interests I still want to pursue. I wonder, after years of hearing my kids say, “Mom, please don’t sing!” if I’ll ever indulge my fantasy of taking voice lessons….if I’ll look into teaching journalism at the local community college…if the Peggy Fleming-loving kid in me will finally sign up for classes at the local skating rink. Right now, the door feels wide open.
For more information on Hillary Quinn’s cake decorating and classes, click here.