photo credits: April Freeburn
April is a geographer and cake artist. She lives in Virginia.
Do you recall your earliest baking experiences?
I think my earliest baking experiences involved helping my mom decorate cookies at Christmas and Easter. I also remember looking through her cookbooks and admiring fancy cakes when I was a young child. My mom would decorate my birthday cakes using pastry bags and tips, and would sometimes let me try using them. One year she made an undecorated cake and then loaded pastry bags with icing so that my friends and I could all write our names on the cake. I was in middle school, around age 12-13, when I was given my first Wilton cake decorating kit. My first decorated cake was a replica of a design in the Wilton book of two ducks swimming in a pond surrounded by cat tails, with text that read, “Welcome Home!” My dad had just come home from a short business trip, which seemed like a good enough excuse to decorate a cake. Although I enjoy baking, I’ve always been more interested in the decorating aspect.
What prompted you to put so much time and energy into designing beautiful cakes?
Part of my motivation is aesthetic — we eat with our eyes first, so decorating a dessert can make it go from enticing to irresistable. But more importantly, putting time and energy into creating a decorated cake is an expression of my love toward an individual. Most of my cakes are made for my kids or for special events like holidays or baby showers. I’m often asked how long it takes to make the cake, and the answer is usually between 8-12 hours. By contrast, shopping for a gift at a store would take under an hour. If I’ve baked and decorated a cake for you, then you know that you are special to me. I love seeing a person’s reaction when they see their cake. My favorite reactions come from children. I think that when an adult expresses appreciation, part of it is because they realize a lot of time and energy that goes into making the cake. Children, on the other hand, don’t have the same appreciation for time and so their reactions are in pure awe to the artistry. If an adult saw a cake’s flaws, they’d be too polite to say so. Kids don’t lie, and in some cases they can be as brutal as a cake competition judge! I enjoy the extra challenge to impress them. Seeing a child’s jaw drop at the first sight of their cake is my greatest reward.
photo credit: April Freeburn
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
I draw my inspiration from the individual’s interests or from the event being celebrated. My kids always have specific ideas of what they want me to include on their cake, and then I get to interpret their requests. I always try to include extra details which add to the “wow” factor. Holidays and celebrations for adults give me more free reign. I like to look through websites like Cake Central, Pinterest and Google Images as well as cake and cookie magazines that are on sale during the holidays. Cake shows and competitions on tv are also great for cake-daydreaming. I also annually attend chocolate festivals and the National Capitol Area Cake Show and draw inspiration from what I see there.
photo credit: April Freeburn
What kind of cakes do you make?
When I’m baking for someone else and I ask for input, my most requested flavor is vanilla because it is assumed that everyone likes vanilla. The irony is that if I make a cake of any other flavor, I hear comments about how happy the guests are to have a flavor other than vanilla. If I’m covering the cake in fondant then I first coat and fill the cake with a French meringue buttercream. I use the Satin Ice brand of fondant because it tastes like a tootsie roll. If I’m piping decorations then I use an American buttercream. For flavor, I usually use Madagascar bourbon vanilla because it’s readily available at my grocery store, but I buy Puerto Rican or Mexican vanilla whenever I find it. I always use real butter. The flavor and mouthfeel can’t be beat. I absolutely hate the film that a shortening-based icing leaves in my mouth and I think that most people feel the same way. I can’t tell you how often someone will say that they don’t like icing, but that they happen to really like mine. I’m sure it’s the butter that makes the difference.
Could you tell us a little bit about the process for designing your cakes?
I’ve mentioned the inspirational side of cake design; the challenging part of the design process is in planning for the physical structure. I have cake pans in a variety of sizes and shapes, so when I’m making a sculpted cake I first think about which shapes are required and how many layers of each shape must be baked. I also have to think about the support system, especially if it is more than two tiers or requires stacking shapes that are difficult to balance. I’ve learned this the hard way while making cakes in the shape of a baby doll (the head crushed the neck) or a beyblade that stood upright (It fell over. Twice.). If the shapes are non-traditional then I draw the cake to scale on a piece of paper so that the various elements are in proportion to one another. Other important elements of design include time management and place of delivery. For instance, if a cake has miniature fondant cartoon characters then I need to make those characters at least a day ahead of time so that it has time to dry and harden with supports in place. Larger characters or shapes that stand up require more drying time. The physical elements of design can also change if a cake is to be displayed outdoors or in a hot or humid environment. Heat will melt cooked buttercreams, and humidity will melt decorations made of pulled sugar. These are things I’ve learned the hard way when the results of my efforts were, literally, not pretty!