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WEEKDAY MAGAZINE – My Love Affair With Baking

A lifelike cake of “platano y salami” (photo: bronxcakes.com)

by Carmen Paulino

March 6, 2019

I can still remember the first day I started my love affair with baking. My mom wanted to try a cake recipe her friend had recently shared with her and I, at 12 years old, was thrilled to be assisting. And so we began, creaming the butter, adding sugar, then the eggs and finally alternating between splashes of milk and scoops of flour. We settled on pineapple filling for the cake, as that was the only fruit we had on hand. Then came the hardest part of any Dominican cake, making the “supiro” (i.e., Italian meringue frosting). Pastry chefs around the world work carefully to whip egg whites to the perfect marshmallow looking peaks and use special candy thermometers to ensure the sugar is just the right temperature.

Meanwhile in our tiny kitchen, my mom and I whipped egg whites to peaks unknown and cooked the sugar until it coated the back of a spoon, the way my mom’s friend had described it to her. By the end of the night we had managed to bake and decorate a cake. It wasn’t the prettiest of cakes but it was delicious. And I was in love. 

After that day, my mom and I would go on to make many more cakes, getting better and better with each one. I would spend hours watching the Food Network, taking copious notes for new recipes and techniques to improve our cakes. 

One Saturday afternoon, after watching one of their dessert competition shows, I would attempt to prepared what looked to be the most deliciously perfect glazed mousse cake. I was determined to make it myself. Surely no way I could fail with the guidance of the Food Network and the confidence I had built baking with my mom. I asked my mom to clear the kitchen to give me space to work and off I went. The first step was to bake the vanilla cake, which was luckily a breeze. The second step was to make a mousse, something I had never made before. The mousse turned out a bit runny, but I figured setting it in the fridge would fix this. Finally came time to make the glaze, but no matter how many times I tried, it was just one big clumpy mess. After trying 2 more times and failing to get the perfect consistency, I decided to skip the glaze and enjoy the cake with just the mousse, or so I thought.

When I opened the fridge to check on the mousse, I was greeted with the same soupy mix I had put in the fridge hours ago. I remember being in tears, feeling defeated and ready to throw it all out, when my dad walked in hunting for a slice of the cake. Although my unglazed mousse cake was far from perfect, my dad was excited to try it. Until this day, my dad happily volunteers to try all of my not-so-perfect desserts. However, he says he much more prefers my successful creations, though he chomps them down just the same. 

I continued baking as a hobby throughout my teenage years while attending High School for Fashion Industries, where I studied fine arts, and while at Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), where I learned about visual presentation. I spent many afternoons sitting in Central Park with my giant sketch book making watercolor paintings of the scenery. 

It wasn’t until I was 25 years old, almost six years after I left FIT, that I would fully commit to the cake world by enrolling in the pastry arts program at the International Culinary Center. This was a game changer as it allowed me to be in a place with creative and dedicated peers, who were as passionate about dessert as I was. I worked a full-time job during the day, went to school at night, and interned at Ron-Ben Israel Cakes, one of the most coveted internships in the industry. I had zero days offs, but as exhausting and hectic as this time in my life was, I had truly found my passion and I couldn’t be happier about my sleepless nights. As much as I would beat myself up for not following my dreams sooner, the path that I’m on has helped me to become a much better cake artist today. 

It has now been over 15 years since I made that first cake with my mom and the pastry world has only become more thrilling to me. I find that the line between cake and art has become one big beautiful blurry mess. Our clients are letting us push the boundary of what a birthday or wedding cake has to be. The Central Park sceneries I used to paint in my sketch book have now materialized into edible designs on the cakes and cookies I create. 

Although I have been formally trained as a pastry chef many things remain the same. My recipe for my vanilla cake is still the same one I learned to make with my mom when I was a teenager. And even though I don’t make “supiro” very often, when I do, I open up my kitchen drawer and have my spoon ready to test the sugar the way I first learned.

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Carmen Paulino is the cake artist behind Bronx Cakes, a small home-based cake studio in The Pelham Gardens. Check out their creations at bronxcakes.com

To submit writing for publication on WEEKDAY MAGAZINE, click here.  Fiction, non-fiction, commentary, news, news analysis, and poetry are welcome.  Bronx slant always preferred.

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