Lynne and Food Fetish have gone through a lot of obsessions in our twenty-plus years of friendship. Most of these passing fancies had a brief shelf life and quickly grew stale. Nothing, not even the Adam Ant infatuation, compares to our newest passion: cake decorating.
Even so, we suck at it. We each have some tools of the trade (the basic kit comes with sixteen tips and a pastry bag). But instead of getting better at decorating, we have gotten much, much worse. The cakes, although edible, look horrible. The frosting tends to run down the sides. The effect is like the face of a drag queen caught in the rain.
Lynne had the chance to take Cake Decorating 101 at her Modesto high school but lacked the foresight to enroll. Now she's kicking herself. While other girls were learning how to make frosting roses, she was taking Transcendental Macramé, or some other such relic of the '70s. It was an era in which Home Economics classes were filled with wholesome girls whose sole intention was to land a man. Braless, free-spirited college-bound girls wanted no part of that.
Then feminism happened, which, of course, was a great thing. Women were encouraged to take Shop instead of Home Ec so they would know their way around a wrench instead of a range (remember early feminist Laurie Partridge changing a tire on The Partridge Family?). Guys were encouraged to learn how to make Chicken Divan. But while the reason for getting rid of Home Ec was noble, its demise is nonetheless sad. A whole generation of girls grew up not knowing how to ice a cake so that crumbs don't get caught in the frosting. Thanks a lot, Gloria Steinem.
But with an engagement party to plan and a fancy cake to make, this was no time to grouse about the past. It was time to get proactive. And that meant a visit to the Fremont Frosters, who hold their monthly meeting every second Monday at the Christ the King Church on Fremont's Mowry Avenue. Cecily Dewing, president of the Frosters, graciously invited us as her guests. Although the club is open to people who want to learn more about the art of cake decorating, it also donates baked goods to hospices and shelters.
We were early, but were quickly joined by Glenna, who had a big infectious laugh. Soon the room was filled with about fifteen women. As they talked, it became apparent that we were in the presence of greatness. Some had been professional bakers. Many grew up at a time when dinner often included a homemade cake for dessert. All knew their way around a pastry bag.
At first glance, nothing else seemed to tie all these women together besides baking. They were different ages and different races; women in their early twenties and women who were far from their early twenties. But as the members went around the room and introduced themselves, one similarity emerged. Many of the women were nurturers who worked in the medical field or as teachers. Baking seemed to be a natural extension of that.
With all their accumulated expertise, they could have been incredibly pretentious and haughty had they wanted to. But as at an AA meeting, there was a lot of love in the room -- albeit minus the stories about weeklong benders.
Treasurer Shirley Roberts has been baking for many years. "I baked my own wedding cake," she casually mentioned. Following that project, needless to say, she went on to bake the wedding cakes for many of her relatives.
Most members are also moms. You would think that having a mom who loved baking cakes would be a great thing for birthdays, but apparently some kids are a bit hard to please. April Mempin's kids beg for a plain cake with no frosting. Another member said her kids prefer pie on their birthdays.
After all this pressing club business had been attended to, it was on to the cooking demonstration. Although Food Fetish was hoping for a demo on how to make frosting roses for her engagement party cake, member Kim King instead showed us how to make an addictive candy that tasted almost exactly like Almond Roca, using crackers, chocolate chips, and nuts.
Later, Jan Loomis shared some of her secrets for making cakes that aren't ugly. "Use a sable brush to brush the crumbs off," she suggested. Although Loomis has been baking for 32 years, she had never entered any contests until last year, when she entered some of her creations in the Alameda and Monterey county fairs. After the judging was over, both fairs awarded her with top honors.
Loomis shared photos of some truly drop-dead beautiful cakes. A whimsical spectacle-wearing cake owl sat next to a cake book. As she talked about baking, she told a moving story.
"When my brother-in-law died, I was really out of it," she said. "But then Shirley organized some other bakers, and together that made four hundred cookies." Loomis went on to explain that her brother-in-law loved sea life and was someone who worked with tools. "Shirley got cookie cutters in the shapes of shells and tools and they made the cookies in those shapes; I know he would have loved it." There's a catch in her voice as she adds, "There's a real community with us."
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