Let’s Bake Something Sweet

November 6, 2017

Materials for cake decorating — piping tools, a box of undecorated cupcakes, and icing bags — ready for action.

Whether it’s Halloween or Christmas time, Cake Art always has you covered. This local business, in the heart of downtown San Rafael, supports cake lovers all over Marin County, including reluctant high school seniors.

Arriving at the Halloween Cupcake decorating class, I nervously paced around the small store for as long as possible, trying to avoid sitting at a table with a party of little girls and a sweet old lady. The whispers and giggles around the room felt aimed at me, but maybe my nerves were on edge. Soon, we students sat at the table with all our materials pre-made and meticulously organized and labeled. The smell of sugar filled my nose and immediately got me in the mood – I was ready to take on these cakes.

Kathy Collins, co-owner of Cake Art, had probably spent the whole day getting ready for this event, dying frostings and baking the cupcakes, all for a small group of children, one teenager, and one lady, to enjoy two hours of messily decorating cupcakes. Collins, with her lightly washed blue jeans and black v-neck shirt, walked around the room slowly, piping the chocolate frosting around in a perfect spiral on a cupcake. Her demonstration was thorough and precise, astonishing the cupcake-decorating beginners in the class. Her true skill was shown while she taught the class how to make a spiderweb cupcake.

Foster’s delicate demonstration of her long-standing knowledge of piping techniques.

She swirled and twirled the green buttercream frosting with either a round or star-shaped piping tip, and layered another white spiral on the top. She then used toothpicks to lightly scrape outward, creating the illusion of a spider web. After this, we were asked to create the spider body and head out of black fondant and the legs out of black frosting.

Elaine Foster, with her short, white hair and dark red nails, quietly observed the class, stepping in when the young girls need assistance. As frustrated and clueless about piping techniques and fondant rolling as these girls were, Foster’s attitude remained patient and poised.  After taking classes and buying supplies at the old Cake Art store on the Miracle Mile, Foster bought the store in 1991 when she realized her true love and passion for baking and decorating.  

“Elaine teaches all the basics, from the beginning through everything. She is very direct in how she teaches,” explains Collins. “Everybody that came here always learned everything and kept coming back here because of her…I’m still learning from her after all these years because of her base of knowledge,” Collins explained. You can tell the dynamic between the two cake-fanatics has been long-standing, as they tease each other about Elaine’s “finger-wagging” from back in the day or their laughs about their lack of knowledge about owning and running a small business.

For many years, Collins has practiced decorating cakes and cookies. “My dad was a baker, and I grew up in the back of a bakery. I could always remember piping roses onto to what I thought was a pencil,” she explained about her childhood experiences. Her wide eyes, magnified further by her small reading glasses held close by a royal blue spectacle cord, showed the true passion she has accumulated for decorating cakes and the long history behind it.

Even though the art and love of cake decorating have changed dramatically over the years, both Foster and Collin’s love and enthusiasm for the craft will never die. “When I first started here people did fancy cakes with lots of tiers, very elaborate, lots of flowers and fancy cake tops. They don’t do that anymore. People used to create scenes on their cakes, they don’t do that anymore,” Elaine explained in a disappointed tone. Her poise continued even when a customer walked in the door, unintentionally ringing the little bells hanging from the door. Both Collins and Foster glanced at Collins’ daughter, who rushed to the front to greet the customer, continuing to give me their undivided attention.

Spooky cat and spiderweb cupcake before their finishing touches.

Collins explains the evolution of cake decorating culture ever since the increase in technology and the advent of social media. With YouTube and Google, cake stars and cooking channels have taken over. How To Cake It, one specific YouTube channel made by Yolanda Gampp, has almost 3.5 million subscribers around the world and Gampp has created her own website, cookbook, and store. These types of internet cake stars have contributed to the change in cake culture by modernizing the art and making elaborate and fancy cakes an ancient idea.

“I try to follow the trends of what people are looking for now…. What the latest thing is,” Collins explains.

When Collins and Foster had the store many years ago, decorating was about creating something beautiful and cherished for loved ones. However, in today’s society, conforming to the trends of modern culture has been infectious, even when it comes to cake-making.

“Being a specialty store and not having a huge budget and competing with the larger chains. Internet sales are probably the hardest thing that we deal with. Most of our advertising is word of mouth,” Collins explains when talking about the struggles of owning a cake specialty store. She continues, “Classes and birthday parties, we do a lot of birthday parties.” Even when the holidays are over, cake making is universally loved and is a way to celebrate people.

Although both Foster and Collins get most of their business through advertising and cake-parties and less from selling and distributing, the crucial mission of the store is making other people happy.

This unique fifty-year-old cake shop prides itself on customer service. “Helping others be creative is a big part of what we do,” explained Collins.

“The best part of owning a small business is the people that come in and show us what they are doing and wanting help doing it. [They are] always happy to be here,” Foster adds. A common deep feeling resides between the two of them that cake-making and decorating, no matter how different it has become, should result in happiness for the maker and receiver. They both agree that helping customers make masterpieces for their loved ones is their favorite part. Small businesses like these, that pride themselves on serving the customers and spreading happiness no matter the end result, have a place in today’s society and represent the strong community of small businesses all over San Rafael.

My box of cupcakes that help represent Halloween spirit and my new-found love of cake decorating.

When the class finished, both Foster and Collins took a look inside my box of what I thought to be mediocre cupcakes, but they both seemed impressed. Although we cannot become cake experts in a matter of hours, the environment Collins and Foster have set up for creative individuals to thrive and express themselves is extremely successful and warm.

Be sure to sign up for a Gingerbread House decorating class on December 2nd to be inspired and find your inner baker. You will not regret it.

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