Most of us can proudly say we’ve baked a cake before, even if the majority of ingredients came from a box. Most of us, however, don’t consider ourselves actual bakers. That’s because baking is hard; it’s like a science experiment. It involves precise measurements and following detailed instructions. The smallest deviation from the recipe can lead to big changes in the final outcome, like flat cookies and cakes that crumble. But for three local women, baking fancy cakes with elaborate toppings, flavors and themes is a science they’ve not only mastered, but the act of baking has become a means of self-expression. Oh, and a fun way to earn a living.
For Westchester baker Kelsey Branstetter, it was her love of spending time with her mom that got her started baking sweet treats.
“I grew up baking with my mom mostly around the holidays,” says Kelsey fondly. “She loves to make cookies, fudge and candy. That was always something we really loved to do together. And both of us have always had a major sweet tooth. To me, dessert has always been the best part of the meal!”
As an adult, Kelsey developed a passion for horror movies, even going to film school. But breaking into the highly competitive genre can be difficult, so Kelsey started expressing her creativity in less gruesome ways. She started teaching herself how to make French pastries, pies, tarts–anything she could think of in the dessert category. Soon, she became the go-to person among her family and friends for birthday or holiday treats but didn’t consider baking as a potential side business (her day job is in accounting) until she went through a big life change and decided to take her life in a new direction.
“Somebody around that time asked me, ‘If money were no object, what would you love to do with your life?’ And I just sort of blurted out, ‘Baking!’ and that was the first time I had said that out loud. I know it sounds really cliché and cheesy, but it just made so much sense,” she says.
But one scroll through Kelsey’s website, Sugar Kane’s Bake Shop, and there’s nothing cliché or cheesy about it. In fact, looking at the gorgeous pictures of her cakes, cream pies and custom pop tarts is like peering through the window of a 1950s sweet shop in Technicolor. Many of the cakes are topped with ruby-red Maraschino cherries, her Circus Animal Cupcakes are topped with those iconic pink and white cookies with rainbow sprinkles and her sweet and savory Elvis cupcakes are topped with crispy bacon. All her baked goods have one thing in common: they are a nostalgic dream come true.
“I knew from day one that my brand was going to be an extension of my personal style. I’ve always been into classic Americana and vintage clothing–that’s just my vibe. Everything I do has to be super authentic so it just made sense the brand would be an extension of my personal aesthetic,” she says.
But what about her dreams of making horror films? There’s a bit of that in her baking too. Her coal-black Vamp Cake is made with black cocoa powder.
“It basically tastes like Oreos. It’s really dark!” she says.
One thing Kelsey has learned since starting her business is that people really resonate with nostalgia.
“It transports people back in time and provides a little bit of an escape from their everyday stresses,” said Kelsey. “If I can give my customers a few minutes of joy by offering them one of their favorite childhood treats, like a cosmic brownie or an oatmeal cream pie, then I’m excited about that.”
Kelsey is eager for the community to check out her treats at next month’s WAM Block Party where she’ll have a booth.
Playa del Rey mom Audrey Lai is a true artist when it comes to cake and cookie decorating. Her eye for beauty puts her in a sophisticated class all her own. Audrey decided to turn lemons into lemon meringue (so to speak) when she was laid off from a start up in 2011. To fill time while she was looking for another job, she experimented with making French macarons–those lovely pastel-colored sandwich cookies.
“They are actually one of the most difficult pastries to make because there’s a lot of things you have to get right,” says Audrey. “The temperature, the way you beat the egg whites, how much you fold the dry ingredients, the wet ingredients–all that determines whether the macarons will turn out nicely.”
Pretty soon, Audrey realized that she not only had a knack for pastry making, but it also made her happy.
“What appeals to me most is the aesthetic part of it because I’m a very visual person and as a woman, I like beautiful things. I was 38 at the time, and one day I just thought, why don’t I look into pastry schools?”
But she didn’t sign up for just any pastry school, she applied to the world famous Le Cordon Bleu in France. It was expensive and though she didn’t have a job, she decided to take the plunge.
“I thought, if I don’t do it, I’m going to regret it for the rest of my life! So, I went ahead and applied for it, and the next thing I knew, I was on the airplane going to Paris,” she said.
Audrey hasn’t looked back since. A decade later, her business, Audrey’s Atelier, is thriving. Her cakes and
cookies are simply beautiful, all with fun and fanciful details. Her Busy Bees cake has cheerful black and yellow candy bees buzzing around; the matching cupcakes are decorated the same with honeycomb biscuits and honey-colored frosting. Her classy Tiffany cake, decorated in their signature blue with an adorable image of Holly Golightly in that famous little black dress, will please even the most discerning clients. Take one look at her gallery of chocolate creations to find artistry that is almost too fantastic to eat.
Audrey credits local moms for helping her take her business to the next level, which makes sense since her kids’ birthday cakes are also full of charm and whimsy.
“One mom recommended another mom and then another. Right now, I don’t even do much advertising. I’m kind of known in the community now,” she says.
Now that her daughter has gotten a bit older, she’ll sometimes help her in the kitchen.
“She gets a piece of dough and will work next to me. We just have fun,” she says.
For Playa del Rey resident Michelle Leslie-Ouellet, learning to decorate cakes started as a way to relieve stress. Her love of baking was simply a hobby since most of Michelle’s time was filled working as a legal secretary for a high-powered attorney.
“I would come home like a lunatic every night and my husband thought it might be good if I learned how to make roses out of frosting. I’d sit there and make roses every night instead of being crazy,” says Michelle.
As a holiday present, her adoring husband Jim enrolled her in a cake decorating class at Gloria’s Cake and Candy Supplies in Del Rey, where she took classes for about a year.
“For another Hanukkah, he sent me to Wilton Cake decorating in Chicago for a two-week master class. It was the most fun I’ve ever had working so hard, but it was wonderful. There were 17 people in the class from all over the world, but I was the only one there doing it for fun,” she says.
Baking and decorating remained a hobby for Michelle–until it wasn’t. “When I retired at 70, all of a sudden it became a business,” she says.
It all began when she was asked to make a Frozen-themed birthday cake for a 5-year-old.
“I got a little carried away. I mean, it was a three-tier cake, plus the topper. I was having so much fun, I was still working on it at three o’clock in the morning,” says Michelle.
The impressive cake, proudly displayed on her Facebook page, is a winter wonderland created from frosting, figurines and a fairy tale castle. All those late nights creating roses paid off in the form of perfectly crafted snowflakes and icicles. It’s definitely a showstopper.
“Once I put that on Facebook, I started getting calls,” she says.
Michelle says she enjoys making kids’ cakes most of all.
“I have so much fun, and I love seeing the kid’s face when I deliver the cake,” she says.
She also makes cakes for a charity called Icing Smiles that provides custom gourmet cakes to families affected by childhood illness. She recently made an incredible roller coaster cake for a 16-year-old that featured all the drama and thrill that any theme-park fan would appreciate.
Michelle relies on her social media posts to attract business. She absolutely loves getting positive comments on her cakes.
“I look for the likes. It means more to me than the money,” she says with a laugh.
These days, in addition to making cakes for both clients and charity,
Michelle is busy teaching cake decorating classes at Gloria’s, while engaging in an active social life with her husband.
At 76-years-old, she admits she’s slowed down to making two cakes a week, but lucky for us, Michelle says she’s going to keep baking, “As long as my oven holds out.”
Learn more about the bakers at:
You Take the Cake – Cakes by Michelle: Facebook.com/michellespecialcakes.
Story by Shanee Edwards. Photos by Zsuzsi Steiner.