Martha Stewart and sentinels from her A-type army have taken over neighbourhood bake sales and cookie exchanges. Simple pleasures like blondies and Rice Krispie squares have been replaced by gourmet cupcakes, elaborate lollipops and anything with salted caramel. Everyone, it seems, is determined to pipe their way to becoming the next Cake Boss.
For a novice like me, who never Googles baking recipes without adding "no bake" to the search field, the intimidation factor is stifling.
And just when it seemed like baking couldn't get any more competitive, Heather Baird has set the bar even higher with a new class of spun-sugar fantasies.
Every creation in Ms. Baird's book, SprinkleBakes: Dessert Recipes to Inspire Your Inner Artist, looks exquisite enough to hang in a gallery. After moving to Knoxville, Tenn., the 36-year-old artist painted her way out of a creative rut by channelling her energy into cakes, candies and cookies. She approached baking the same way she would a blank canvas – and slowly felt her creativity start to rise. "Art was my first love, but baking is my biggest love," she says.
It's hard to even flip through SprinkleBakes without being overcome by performance anxiety.
Calligraphy flows over the open pages of her "Book Cake." Her "Mushroom Cookies" look, well, just like mushrooms, right down to poppy seeds added to the stem for a "freshly foraged appearance." Her marshmallow candy-coated "Snow Apple" invokes all the sensory pleasures of a winter wonderland. And, in case her love of baking wasn't coming through strongly enough, a recipe for an "Anatomical Heart Cake" recreates the muscle with impossible detail (this has to be the only cookbook with instructions on how to fold a piece of fondant to resemble an artery).
Impossible, is the key word here. Does a novice baker stand a snow apple's chance in hell of recreating Ms. Baird's desserts?
Determined to break the cookbook curse, I gathered my measuring cups. My goal was to recreate three of her recipes, with a strong resemblance to what's pictured in the book. Ms. Baird thinks it will be a cakewalk: "It's not rocket science," she says. "It's just baking."
We'll see about that.
BANANA PUDDING CAKE
The promise: An elegant, three-layer cake with a custard frosting and a show-stopping layer of caramelized meringue.
Artistic Inspiration: "Meringue is very sculptural," Ms. Baird says. "I wanted an easy way for people to incorporate that into their baking."
The reality: If by "easy" Ms. Baird means you'll find yourself bent at the waist, arms above your head, drenched in sweat and swearing like a sailor trying to maintain a white-knuckle grip on a hand mixer, then I think I succeeded.
I'm pretty sure if Dante had tried to make meringue, there would have been a tenth circle of hell. The recipe said to use an electric hand mixer, not a stand mixer, to whip the egg whites. I can't tell you exactly how long I whipped them – I must have blacked out for a bit – but it was more than 30 minutes. I gave up when my forearms started shaking and I lost all feeling in my hands – stiff, glossy peaks were MIA.
This was trouble. The aesthetic beauty of the cake hinges on stiff meringue, applied using a "pulling" technique and caramelized with a kitchen torch. Mine was too saggy to withstand any texturing – possibly a blessing, since the closest thing I have to a kitchen torch is a Bic lighter. But even with its wimpy topping, at three-layers tall, my effort put most homemade birthday cakes to shame – and the taste was out of this world.
The promise: Sparkling sugar plums that encapsulate holiday cheer. A layer of marzipan is wrapped around a filling of dried fig, almond and cocoa, rolled in sugar and topped with a fondant leaf and chocolate stem.
Artistic Inspiration: The poem The Night Before Christmas.
The reality: My sugary sculptures turned out more "bum" than "plum," but they were still cute.
Working so intensely with my hands made me feel like a potter at the wheel, and set my creative fire alight. I paced up and down the kitchen, massaging each plum bum between my palms, thinking about all the edible sculptures that were now at my fingertips – apples for the first day of school, pumpkins for Halloween, stockings for the holidays. In the end, my sugar plums were shorter, dumpier and sweatier than Ms. Baird's, but they still sparked a vision.
DALE CHIHULY-INSPIRED CANDY NESTING BOWLS
The promise: Three light-catching nesting bowls made of liquid sugar, in stained-glass shades of red, yellow and blue.
Artistic Inspiration: The work of American glass artist Dale Chihuly
The reality: Can you still call it a bowl if it's full of holes and is mostly flat?
On paper, this is the easiest and quickest of the recipes, but timing is critical. As the sugar mixture boiled, I kept my eyes trained on the candy thermometer as it slowly climbed toward the magical "hard crack" temperature of 302 degrees. When it hit 280, I bent down to scratch my foot. When I looked back up the thermometer had soared to 320 degrees.
Just like that, I thought I had missed my chance – the mixture was hardening quickly, and was too thick to spread properly. But pouring it onto parchment paper set me headlong into another artistic journey. The sugar oozed like a river of molasses across the baking sheet, branching and pooling in weird and wonderful patterns. They ended up looking more like the leaves in The Hungry Caterpillar, but I stacked them together and was surprised by how good it looked. I now have a new centrepiece for the dining-room table – one, Ms. Baird points out, I can smash in front of my guests and serve for dessert.
It may be true that the secret to successful baking is to follow a recipe with military precision – but it's not much fun. Somewhere during my assignment I lost interest in trying to create carbon copies of Ms. Baird's desserts, and became more excited about how I could use her techniques to express my own creativity. She lets her hands be her guide – and it was her tactile approach that awakened my confectionary spirit. I was right there with her, elbows-deep, mucking about in the marzipan, and loving it. Ms. Baird was right: Baking isn't rocket science. The key to unleashing your inner Cake Boss is going off book, and getting your hands dirty.
A baker's trio
Heather Baird always keeps these ingredients on hand:
Use on chocolate ganache tarts, any kind of pie, or on top of a dollop of whip cream, Ms. Baird says, to add a note of freshness and colour.
Aesthetically, it can be transformative to a plated dessert, she says. If a single slice of cake or pie looks underwhelming, a light sprinkling of powdered sugar around the dessert fills up the negative space. (To up your game, break out a paper doily to use as a stencil. Use a sieve to evenly coat the dessert's surface.)
Never underestimate the power of a little melted chocolate piped onto parchment paper, Ms. Baird says. When it hardens, break it into interesting shapes and turn cupcakes, or even just some ice cream into sculpture.