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Cake is their canvas

Inferior decorating? Hardly. Students learn the art of confectionary frills in the middle of a grocery store bakery.

By JANET K. KEELER
Published August 24, 2005


ST. PETERSBURG - The roses are the most deceiving.

Soft, concentric petals lie so innocently on the cake. Some buttercream flowers are white, tipped with blue; others are kissed by pink. They frame elaborate writing that wishes for happy birthdays or luck or just because.

And while the cake decorating lady makes it look simple, just try it yourself. Imagine forming a flower of 10, maybe 15, petals on a wooden stick larger than a bamboo skewer but smaller than a pencil. Squeezing icing from a pastry bag with just the right pressure to make a petal, twirling the stick to form the next, again and again until a perfect flower blooms.

Now, remove the flower with scissor tips and cross your fingers that your warm hands haven't made the stiff icing too soft to hold the shape. For novices, disappointment is common.

"It's not that hard, especially when you get the hang of it," says Michelle Ames, who has been decorating cakes for Publix for about eight years.

Getting the hang of making roses, and other cake decorating tricks, is what a group of women are doing at Ames' weekly cake decorating classes at the Bay Pointe Plaza Publix on 34th Street S. For one hour each Wednesday, the world is on hold while attention is focused on the art of fancy borders, colorful balloons and curly-cue writing.

Forget what you know about cooking instructors. Ames is no tall-toque chef barking orders. Hugs and positive reinforcement are the norm here.

"It's like teaching your sister, your friend, your kid," she says.

The casual classes began at the request of customer Lisa Robinson of St. Petersburg, who by day works for Healthy Start and by night and weekends plans, cooks and bakes for friends' and relatives' parties. She wanted to learn simple cake decorating and asked the store manager if someone in the bakery could teach a class. For now, this Publix is the only one teaching cake decorating to customers.

"I told him it wouldn't take away business," she says. "It adds business. I never leave here without groceries."

Each series - this is the third - is six weeks, seven if there is something else the students want to learn, Ames says.

"It's not a test," she says. "Whatever they want to do, they do."

The bustling bakery is transformed into a classroom in which everyone wears a hair net and apron. On this night, six students and two Publix cake-decorators-in-training are gathered around a waist-high, butcher-block table. There's room for everyone to work without bumping elbows. Beware of flying icing, though.

Each student starts with an iced one-eighth sheet cake, small enough to manage and big enough to pile on decorations.

Julie Tokotch of St. Petersburg doesn't want a bit of white showing when she's done, and indeed her cake is crowded with balloons, confetti and flowers in rainbow-bright colors. Her daughter, Britni, likes her cakes more spare. "Less is more, Mom" she says. Britni is a master - a perfectionist Mom says - at roses. Robinson is the queen of borders.

At the end of class, Ames tells them their cakes look great. No matter what.

Publix gives students a pastry bag to take home and provides decorating tips, icing and the cake for each session. The class work is theirs to enjoy with neighbors and family.

Ames shares the techniques and tips she's learned through experience; she has no formal culinary training. Robinson's favorite: Simple Syrup sprinkled over a dry cake makes it moist.

Don't expect to learn the high art of cake decorating practiced by uber-decorators Colette Peters or Sylvia Weinstock of New York. They charge thousands for their architectural wonders and are favorites of celebrities such as Donald Trump and Bette Midler.

Peters and Weinstock use pliable fondant and gum base to adorn teetering towers of tea cups or gift boxes. Their whimsical and sophisticated expression borders on art - no, it is art - and the novice who attempts them at home is likely to be let down. Look at their work at www.colettescakes.com or www.sylviaweinstock.com.

Besides, most people agree buttercream frosting tastes better than fondant.

Ames' class is as much about socializing as it is decorating. For the Tokotches, it's a mother-daughter outing. For Robinson, it's me-time, a night away from domestic responsibilities. She makes the evening last by helping clean afterward.

"Honestly, it's a getaway, a stress-free night," Robinson says.

How sweet that is.

IF YOU GO

For more information about the free Wednesday cake decorating classes at the Bay Pointe Plaza Publix, 5295 34th St. S, St. Petersburg, call the store at (727) 867-0146, ext. 235.

-- Janet K. Keeler can be reached at 727 893-8586 or krieta@sptimes.com

[Last modified August 24, 2005, 09:37:46]


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