Why Picture-Perfect Decorating Is Not The Point
I remember the anticipation, banished from the kitchen so my mom could bake and decorate a birthday cake. Just for me. My sisters would visit the kitchen and saunter by me saying, “Oooo. You’re gonna love it! Just wait until your party!”
Then, when the moment finally arrived, candles were lit and lights turned down, my family would start singing and my mom would carry the product of her afternoon’s efforts to the dinner table and place it in front of the salivating crowd: a ladybug, an owl or--my favorite of all time--a Barbie doll surrounded by a gown made of cake and flowing ruffles of yellow and pink frosting.
Here’s the thing, my mom wasn’t a professional baker. She was not a trained decorator. She was a 5th grade social studies teacher. And she paid attention to my interests. She made me feel special.
As I grew up to have my own children, I learned just how much of a sacrifice it was to spend hours planning, baking and creating the custom cake or cookie designs. I’ve attempted a turtle, a train, even droids--R2-D2 to be exact. I also learned the process is not always as fun as it looks in color-saturated photos online. In fact, doesn’t it seem more fair for a decorator to include a photo of the kitchen sink--packed with bowls, crumbs and crusty pans--alongside the perfectly coiffed cupcakes or fancy cookie bouquet?
I recently chatted with Cindy Atkin, a professional cookie and cake decorator in Utah. She specializes in sugar cookies, cut in all shapes and sizes and intricately decorated with royal icing. The question she receives most often? Why do you put so much time into something that is just going to be eaten? She spoke like an artist beholden, but dedicated to her craft.
Cindy: “The medium of royal icing is so fun. I wish there was something else more lasting like it. Because that’s half the fun is what royal icing can do. The texture and dimension, and the color is so much fun. If I could find something that would last that way, I would do it!”
Cindy also spoke to how special occasion cookies and cakes can make events memorable as well as fit within modern goals for sustainability.
Cindy: “It’s that final touch that makes a party or event special. If a little girl was having a unicorn party, and at the end they got a unicorn cookie, half the time they play with it before they eat it. Half the time, I tell people, when they ask, I say this is the kind of thing for a minimalist, because they can enjoy the beauty of it. I try to make mine taste really yummy. But, then, it’s out of their life. They can take a picture, but it’s not filling up their home.”
Cindy had words of advice for the home bakers among us. Even those of us who question whether we should try at all, given the bar is often set so high in online offerings.
Cindy: ”I think they can do it. There’s a place for everyone. Just like piano, some people just want to learn enough to play a few simple songs and enjoy it with their families and that can be done with cookies and bring their families lots of joy.”
There’s an element of creativity in all of us that needs expressing. There is a learning curve to cookies, it’s not something you can just sit down and do, but I tell my students, if you do the same things we did in class tomorrow, you would be twice as good. There’s a hands-on element, but then once they get consistency of icing which is the most important part, they can really have a ball.
For anyone inspired to give cookie or cake decorating a go, Cindy offered some useful tips, the most important: Don’t do it all in one day or you won’t have fun.
Cindy: “Bake the cookies one day, make the icing the next day, and the next day color it and do it and then you’ll have a lot more fun. Also, if they do it at home, there are lots of tutorials online, that they can watch and that’s how I learned. And then you can practice on people and no one feels bad about it.”
There are times my children hear the musical strains of Happy Birthday sitting in front of a store-bought cake or pie. And, there are times they are recipients of my imperfect, unpracticed attempt to make something special. Just for them. As Cindy says, if it’s something you enjoy, just go for it. It doesn’t matter if the end result will garner social media attention. Your loved one will love it anyway.