About four years ago, Jenny Slight ordered a birthday cake from a local bakery as she had done several times before.
“It wasn’t decorated that good, and it didn’t taste that good,” she recalls. “I thought ‘My cakes taste better.’ ”
Slight decided to take it upon herself to learn more about cake decorating. She took a couple of classes but discovered she could just as easily learn through Internet tutorials and trial and error.
“I just kind of learned everything on my own and going on the Internet,” she says.
Hobby leads to making cakes for family, State Fair entries
Slight began making cakes from scratch and decorating them for her children and grandchildren’s birthdays. One of the most popular ones was a four-tier Elmo cake for her grandchild’s birthday. The top tier was Elmo’s head, and his body was wrapped around the other tiers. It was one of her favorite cakes.
About three years ago, Slight decided to enter the decorating contest at the Iowa State Fair. The contest is based solely on the entrant’s decorating skills — “dummy” Styrofoam cakes are used rather than real cakes. She received second place in her first contest.
Slight grew up near the state fairgrounds and went to the fair every year as a child.
“One of the things I always wanted to do was look at the decorated cakes,” she recalls. “It’s hard for me to think that ‘Wow! Now, I have cakes in there.’ ”
The following year she made her own cake and decorated it, along with some other entries for cookies. She received first through third places. Slight entered nine categories in 2013 and received eight ribbons.
The decorating-only cakes — those that use the cake dummies — cannot be made prior to 30 days from the start of the fair. Slight spends much of the month of July thinking about and planning what she will make.
Sometimes the contests will have different requirements — the sponsors may require a particular brand of sugar be used, for instance. Other events are sponsored in memory of loved ones, so entries might be required to contain that person’s favorite flavors. Slight makes all of her cakes and other baked goods the night before the taste-testing contests.
“The night before I’m very, very busy,” she says. “Then comes trying to carry them all in with your ticket in hand and not mashing anything up.”
Her most challenging State Fair cake was a wedding cake she made in 2012. She tried a new technique with fondant; it was made to look puffy and quilted. Slight says she wanted to give up on the cake several times and almost didn’t enter it, but in the end she did. It won first place for decorating.
Last year, one of Slight’s cakes made a certain fair-goer’s day. She made a cake with a bearded man on it. One of her friends was in the building where the cakes were on display and saw a man with a gray beard look at the cake and then have his picture taken with it because of the likeness. Slight’s friend said seeing the cake made the man happy.
Although Slight is sometimes asked to make cakes for friends, she considers her baking and decorating to be a hobby. She learned to bake many different things as a child — her mother worked, so Slight was the family’s baker. All of her cakes and baked goodies are made from scratch.
For her decorating and cake designs, Slight says she gets some ideas from the Internet; others just come to her. She prefers to use buttercream more than fondant because it tastes better “and my family peels (fondant) off anyway.” She makes her buttercream from scratch as well, using real ingredients — butter and vanilla — rather than the artificial stuff.
Two of Slight’s five kids still live at home. One is an eighth-grader, and the family did a cookie sale fundraiser to make money for the teen to travel to Washington, D.C., for a school trip. Slight made 360 turkey cookies for it.
Slight’s 16-year-old daughter Emily is following in the mother’s footsteps. Emily has submitted her own baked goods entries to the fair for the past two years and has won several ribbons. In 2013, she won first place in her age division for her decorated cake. Emily made a Hawaiian-themed cake with a hula girl on it. She crafted roses for the cake using Starburst candies, a technique her mother had shown her. The judges were impressed with the end result of colorful flowers from the candies.
“In a way, I’m kind of reliving what I wish I would have done when I was younger through her,” says Slight, who didn’t start decorating cakes until she was in her 50s.
Cake decorating class sparks longtime interest in making, decorating cakes and more
Kristin Warrick baked various goodies with her mother at Christmastime, but about 10 years ago she decided she wanted to learn more about cake decorating.
She and her mom took a Wilton decorating class at a local crafts store.
“I started getting an interest in it, and I saw they had the class,” she recalls. “I thought it would be fun to do.”
The class met once a week for about a month and went over the basics: how to decorate a cake and how to make different types of flowers.
Warrick admits she was by no means an expert after the class.
“I knew enough to at least get started,” she says. “I just started making things for people.”
Since then, she’s made about 30 cakes for other people, from graduation cakes and birthday cakes to cookie cakes and even her sister’s wedding cake, which Warrick admits was a little bit of pressure.
“That was my first big one,” she says. “Making something for someone you know and you basically know everyone who is coming, is pretty stressful, but it turned out great.”
The cake was all white with little flowers on it. Frosting was piped on in stripes to add texture. It was Warrick’s first multi-tier cake, and she wasn’t sure how to stack the tiers, so she used pillars between the layers.
Warrick’s favorite cake was a first birthday cake with three cakes that spelled out “One.”
“It was one of the first times I actually made a cake with fondant for someone,” she says. “I like the way it turned out. The picture in my head actually worked.”
Sometimes it takes a couple of days to bake and decorate a cake, depending upon the level of decorating involved. Warrick tries to do all of the decorating in one day. She’s spent up to six hours before decorating a cake.
Warrick makes most of her cakes from scratch, using recipes that were handed down from her grandmothers. She’s working to modify other flavors until she gets them just right. She mostly sticks with buttercream frosting because she says she’s not yet comfortable using fondant in a wide-scale way.
“I haven’t used it enough,” she says. “You have to roll it out to a certain thickness or it’ll break or tear. It’s hard to work with, and it’s harder for me because I haven’t used it enough. For larger cakes, to roll it out takes some time.”
Warrick says her ideas come from a wide range of places. Sometimes she’ll look online or follow a design on a napkin for a party. Other times people will show her pictures and ask her to create something similar.
“Sometimes I’ll try it once before, or if I know it’s too detailed and I just don’t think my abilities are that high level, I’ll say: ‘No, but I can do this,’ ” she says.
She learns new techniques from watching shows like “Cake Boss” and “Ace of Cakes” or other cooking shows.
“If I see something on a show I’m watching, then I’ll try it, or if I’m reading something,” Warrick says.
Recently, she spotted a magazine cover that had a flower pot with cupcakes in it that were decorated like roses.
“I thought ‘Oooh, I’ll have to try that,’ ” she says.
Warrick has yet to enter any of her designs in competitions but says it’s in the back of her mind, especially the State Fair contests.
“I always go in there and look at them and think ‘I should do this,’ and I have friends who tell me I should, but I never have,” she says.