There’s something to be said for starting small, so a noncredit (shocking, I know) cupcake decorating class at the local college caught my eye. Scaling down expectation while learning a new craft might be a good idea. Surely I could take the skills learned on a cupcake and inflate them for use—like, the next day—on a multi-tiered wedding anniversary cake with a bottom layer as big as a garbage-can lid?
During introductions, the nine other students, all women, mentioned wanting to expand their cake decorating skills; a few said they were terrible at it, but, suffice it to say, I interpreted them to mean they had all decorated more than one cake in their lifetimes. Boy, was I out of my league. I babbled on—rather uncharacteristically, for I am usually brisk and concise during writing class intros—about my desire to create an anniversary cake and the failed beaver cake but didn’t admit that I’d never baked a cupcake, much less decorated one. Cupcakes never seem worth it to me. All that fuss and bother—those annoying pleated paper things needing to be peeled—for something that could be dispatched in one bite, depending on the size of your mouth and level of motivation, which, for my high schooler, is quite high, despite the metal rods bracketing his jaws together. When he is talking nonstop, we wish the brackets came with a remote control pause button. If only we parents could manage the follow-through of the orthodontist (If you don’t consistently wear the removable rubber bands, I’m going to wire your jaws together!), we would have a nation of polite teens with clean bedrooms and finished homework.
In Cupcake Class, first we mixed our chosen colors. I tried for yellow but ended up with beige. Gee, whiz, if I couldn’t even figure out yellow, I was screwed; leave it to me to decorate the most boring cupcake on the planet. “Oh, that is such a pretty fall color,” another woman said encouragingly to me. Yeah, like dead leaves. I added a different dye, knowing that combining dye colors could be disastrous unless I decided to make a graveyard cake, but the color turned out well, and I will never, ever be able to replicate it. I was happy to see it wasn’t I who dyed a bright pink splotch on the classroom table. I managed to get icing in my armpit, though.
Consistency was most important, said the teacher, Chef Jeanine Garcia. If the icing consistency’s not right, “the flowers could sag and look sad.”
I know a thing or two about saggy.
Cupcake decorating has its own language. We were piping frosting, not squirting it. We were coupling the tips, not screwing the thingies together.
“Now we’re going to use the number 18 tip,” Jeanine might call out during class.
“Which one is that?” I’d ask each time, and someone would answer me, “The big star,” or “The small round.”
We moved into the vernacular from time-to-time. “My border looks like slugs. They look slug-ish,” said my neighbor.
“You want the non-slug-ish,” Jeanine said. “At least for adult cupcakes.”
First we learned rosettes, and then leaves. Jeanine had us practice our designs on sheets of parchment paper, which was a revelation to me. I could only envision the completed decorated cupcake or the three-tiered cake, not a bunch of wasted frosting designs on a sheet of paper nobody would ever see or eat (though if the Little Man were there, he would have licked the sheet clean). I knew before I began that my failures and my masterpieces were going to end up in the garbage. I’m a hard worker, and I like something to show for my effort: that’s why I wait so long to vacuum, because, boy, can you notice the clean floor reappearing once I have.
But it’s a freeing notion. Create to learn or improve rather than for the finished project. Don’t worry about the end result.
The women grasped rosettes and leaves fairly easily. We each had six blank cupcakes to decorate whenever we felt the urge, or the confidence, to move on from paper, and we happily squirted and oozed out goop to create designs on our actual cupcakes.
We moved on to flower petals for daisies with less success, but then we all hit a wall with roses. Imagine my surprise that I wasn’t the only one with a crappy rose, expressing doubt and frustration. Jeanine soon ascertained that we were having trouble because we were envisioning realistic upright roses on a formal cake, not what we were all actually making with some degree of success but couldn’t recognize: a flat rose for a small cupcake. More the suggestion of not just a rose but a rosebud. Two coordinated splurts of icing, and there it was, an impressionist rose. We were all succeeding but couldn’t see it because we saw something different in our heads. Nice to know I’m not the only one with grandiose vision and overblown notions of success. All of this bore a remarkable resemblance to writing a novel.
Jeanine spent considerable time and effort teaching us flat impressionist roses and realistic upright roses, but I did the smart thing and quit while I was ahead: I gave up on roses and went back to rosettes. I figured I’d master the daisy before tackling roses, and my daisies had a long way to go. My brain was on overload and I was having trouble wrapping the icing bag around my hand so that the icing squirted down instead of up.
I want one. And you’re darned tootin’ I’m going to make my own to go with my 30th anniversary cake.
After class, I shoved all of my new decorating equipment, still gooped with icing, into the fridge, on top of August’s failed fondant.
They’re all still there. If I wait long enough, they can all be part of the Little Man’s next Science Fair project.
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If you check out Chef Jeanine Garcia’s website for her company, Inspiration Catering and Baking, you will come to the same inevitable conclusion as I: I’m going to end up hiring her to make my 30th anniversary cake.
All photos by Jennifer D. Munro.