If you walked past my backdoor on Wednesday August 5, 2015, you’d think there was a party going on. Queen and Styx were taking turns blasting from the speakers of our vintage-looking stereo. The smell of icing was pungent in the air. The hum of the standing mixer was in the background. And there, in the middle of the living room, was my dog, Moose, and I, dancing away to Renegade, I Want to Ride My Bicycle, We are the Champions, and many other classics.
There is a reason for this madness, however. Our mission was to create the perfect cakes for one of my best friends.
This past spring/summer, one of my best friends, Kayla, graduated from the veterinary technician program at Lehigh Carbon Community College. She was throwing herself a big soiree to celebrate her great achievement. She had already secured a new job at Emmaus Animal Hospital and was leaving her job at Petco, where she had been with us for almost five years. She was so excited to be continuing on her new journey and I was excited to be by her side through it. She knew that my mom was a boss at making custom cakes, because my mom had made all of my nephew’s birthday cakes for his four years of existence.
See? Pretty cool right? Anyways. Kayla has seen the cute little cakes that my mom has done, and decided to ask my mom to create the focal point of any good party: the cake.
“Hey do you think your mom could make my cakes for my party?” she asks me on one of her final days as a Petco employee.
“Sure, why not. How much cake do you need? How many people are going to be there?” I respond eagerly.
“Eh, I’m not sure, maybe like a hundred?? So, like, two cakes and I can make some cupcakes?” She casually responds.
“A HUNDRED PEOPLE?!?!?!” I exclaim, honestly in shock that she knows a hundred people that she would willingly let into her house and feed.
“Well, I’m Italian, so it’s like 95% my family members,” she laughs in response, as though I am the ridiculous one for being surprised at the sheer amount of people residing in her guest list.
So I go home and present the task to my mom, who is just as eager to accept the challenge as I had been. My mom is always excited to take on a job that involves some type of designing. Before my mom got sick with fibromyalgia which is a chronic and debilitating nerve disease that causes her to be in constant and unstoppable pain, she was going to school to be an interior designer. That was her passion. Design. Her passion is still burning inside her thus why she jumps at the chance to design anything. That night we began coming up with different ideas of what we could do with these cakes that Kayla had requested.
“So, like, I honestly have no idea what to do,” I say to her, at a loss of ideas from the start. “I know her favorite color is purple…if that helps at all.”
“It doesn’t. But thanks,” She laughs and begins to draw. “She likes lizards, right?”
“Well, I should hope so because she has a bearded dragon, two leopard geckos, two red eyed tree frogs (which are actually not lizards, but amphibians,) and is known at work as ‘That Reptile Girl.’”
“Why don’t we make them a lizard theme then?”
“WHY DON’T WE MAKE ONE CAKE AN ACTUAL LIZARD!!!” I shout excitedly, almost unable to contain my brilliant idea.
“Uhh we could try to do that. Would she like something like that?”
“I don’t know, probably. I’ll ask her tomorrow.”
When I go into work the next day, I bombard Kayla with my idea. She responds in the exact way that I had expected: pure, untainted excitement. “THAT WOULD BE AMAZING OH MY GOD IF YOU COULD DO THAT I WOULD BE ETERNALLY GRATEFUL. HOLY CRAP.”
And thus the creation of, what I dubbed, Larry the Lizard cake had begun.
So, what do Queen, Styx, and a dancing corgi have to do with any of this? It’s how my mom and I work. We always make a big hubbub of everything we do. From baking cakes and cookies, to putting up Christmas decorations. Everything is a celebration and everything is important. We like to have fun while we work.
On August 5, we decided to make our main goal of the day to be figuring out the perfect icing recipe to use. When we had interrogated Kayla about what she wanted out of her cakes she simply replied, “I literally do not care as long as it has cream cheese icing and incorporates the vet tech logo.”
Those were two requests my mom and I could easily fulfill.
Our first plan of attack was to try to make one GIANT cake. We soon realized that this plan was not going to succeed. We drew it out and the amount of work and ingredients that went into this one mammoth cake was literally impossible. So we broke it up. We decided to make two cakes. The designing of these was a challenge because even though we knew that one was going to be shaped like a lizard, my mom didn’t have enough reptilian knowledge to be able to carve one. What reptile should it be shaped like? Iguana? Blue tongued skink? Leopard gecko? Fat tailed gecko?? That’s what we finally went with. A variation on a fat tailed gecko. Then we had to decide what color it should be.
“Well, her favorite color is purple…”
“We. Are. Not. Making. A. Purple. Lizard. Cake. What is she five??? No she is twenty-two years old and just graduated from college. She deserves something better than a cake that would look like is meant for a five year old’s birthday party,” my mom says to me in frustration.
“Well okay then, you don’t have to get all salty with me, ma.”
“I will get salty with you whenever I want!”
We laugh and continue on our mission to the perfect lizard. We wade through hundreds of Google image results, none of these lizard designs are up to par. Finally, my mom spots one that she loves.
“IT LOOKS LIKE A CHIPMUNK WE HAVE TO DO THIS ONE!!!!” she yells in excitement, thus getting the dog all riled up.
“WOOF WOOF,” Moose replies.
“See, even Moose agrees. It’s settled we do the chipmunk one,” my mom says with finality.
So there we have it. The final decision on Larry the Lizard.
Amidst the laughter and arguing about which colors to make the cake, I realize how important these little moments with my mom are. One day I’ll look back and pull these memories out of my mental filing cabinet and reminisce on them alone. These precious memories and little celebrations are what make life worth living.
At this point you might be wondering you yourself, “What about the other cake that they have to make?” Well that cake wasn’t nearly as difficult of a decision to make as the lizard cake. We knew we wanted to look like a bearded dragon tank, my mom even ordered a toy bearded dragon off of Amazon that actually looked just like Kayla’s bearded dragon, Collette. We planned to use greenery that we purchased from Petco and make it really look like a tank. “But what about the logo?” you ask. Easy, we use icing spray paint and spray it on. Simple. What a load of barnacles that idea was.
We attempted to use a piece of paper as a stencil and Wilton’s Color Mist, which is in essence just a sugary spray paint. We tried it on a small cake that my mom had made as a tester cake. We placed the stencil in the middle of the small tester cake, sprayed and hoped to the high heavens that it would turn out great. Spoiler alert: It didn’t. It bled, the paper stuck to the frosting that was atop the cake, the color was too saturated in some areas and not saturated enough in other areas. So needless to say, we nixed that idea. Time for plan B: Fondant. This plan failed just as miserably plan A. We rolled the fondant out and tried to carve the logo into the soft, edible playdoh. It fell apart, there were too many small details that compromised the structure of the paper thin sheet of sugar. Once again, an idea was nixed. Plan C: Print out a cute version of the logo and incorporate the real physical sheet of paper into the design of the cake. Boom. Done.
The first day of our mission has come. August 5. F-Day (frosting day). We chose to take an entire day to devote to the icing in order to perfect the most important part, in my opinion, of any good cake. We tried several different cream cheese icing recipes that we found online, because obviously canned icing was not acceptable for our cake baby. We combed through Food.com, MrFood.com, Pintrest, and several other recipe sites. We finally found one that was titled “Pipable Cream Cheese Frosting.” Sounded promising. We gave it a go. Let me tell you this: This frosting was the most amazing cream cheese frosting that I have ever tasted in my entire life. And it was so simple! It only took five minutes to make! While the frosting was mixing, we had music blasting. Everything from Queen and Styx to Taylor Swift and Reba McEntire. My cat and dog even got in on the action of the day: dancing along to “these sick beats.”(Taylor Swift- Shake It Off)
Amidst the dancing and icing making, I constructed the legs and eyes for my lizard cake out of fondant. This was much, much harder than it sounds. I would roll the fondant out, but if it got too dry it would crack, but if it got too wet it would stick to my hands and the dining room table. It was incredibly frustrating. But in the end, I finally constructed the perfect legs and painstakingly attached little toes to each foot. The eyes were a piece of cake (no pun intended.) Those I just rolled into little commas and boom. Done. The day was filled with food, fun, and laughter. Three of the most important things in life.
Then came the true test: making and carving the cakes. My mom spent all day baking the cakes, she made six or eight boxes of cake mix, I can’t remember exactly how many because it was just so much cake. I had to work on the day that she actually baked the cakes, so I wasn’t involved in that part of the process. But when I arrived home to the aroma of chocolate and vanilla cake, I knew what I had to do: eat whatever my mom cut off from carving the lizard cake. Let’s be honest here: I had, and still have, absolutely no idea how to carve anything let alone a dessert. My mom, on the other hand, is an artist with a knife. She artfully carved his curves and edges as though she had done it a million times already. She knew exactly how to hold the knife, what angle it had to be at, what type of knife to use, it was truly amazing watching her carve this piece of spongy artwork. My job came around when it was time to actually ice the lizard cake. This is where I was meant to shine.
I carefully separated just enough icing into separate little bowls in order to make the perfect colors for my lizard cake. I finally came to the perfect colors and began putting globs of the burnt orange frosting atop the bright yellow cake. I was so excited that my idea was actually coming to fruition that I could hardly contain myself. I spread the icing around and covered the whole thing. It was really starting to come together. I prepared the other icings into piping bags, to be ready for when I needed to do the striping down the lizards’ back. Then I put the legs and eyes into place. The final step was to pipe the stripes on. This was the most nerve-wracking of all the steps. One little screw up and the whole cake would be ruined. Don’t breathe. Steady hands. Don’t breathe. Steady hands. Done. The stripes were complete and I didn’t screw up. Score one for me.
While I completed the lizard, my mom finished up the other two (yes, two) cakes. She made a giant one, big enough to feed the United States Army and Marine Corps, and iced it with her own icing recipe.
“I want to make sure people have options, you know just in case someone doesn’t like cream cheese or something.”
“Okay, mom, whatever you say. You just want to show off your icing recipe.”
The big cake is what we made into the terrarium.
We incorporated the main thing that Kayla wanted: the Vet Tech logo. Instead of spraying it on, or cutting it out of fondant, my mom found and printed out a cute little sign. The sign was covered in all different types of animals. It was even better than we could have done with spraying or fondant.
Finally we have the back-up cake. The boring cake. The cake we made just to make sure there was enough cake.
Tada. That’s it. We just made a basic sheet cake with an iguana on top. Woohoo for creativity.
August 8th. The day of the party. I had to work at 11 AM so we took the cakes over to Kayla’s at about 10 AM. We put the lizard and the giagantor cake in my Beetle and the little sheet cake in my mom’s Malibu. We drove so carefully you would have thought that we had newborn babies in our car, on some level we did. We arrive at the house and Kayla is literally jumping up and down with excitement. She hadn’t seen any part of the cake building process. She was just seeing them now, for the first time. The end result. I was so incredibly nervous about how she would react. Would she love them? Would she hate them? Was she going to cry because they were so awful and not at all what she wanted? Would I lose a friend over some cake? The possible outcomes were numerous and terrifying.
“OH. MY. GOD.”
“…Is that a good oh my god? Or is that a oh-my-god-I’m-going-to-murder-you-and-your-mother-and-also-everything-you-love-because-these-are-awful?”
She said nothing. She just stood there open-mouthed for a solid 45-60 seconds. Then she hugged my mom and I and just exclaimed, “I’M SO IN LOVE WITH THEM YOU DON’T EVEN UNDERSTAND.”
And that’s the story of how my mom became the local cake boss. Everyone at the party came up to me and commended me on the wonderful cakes I had made. I told them that I couldn’t take all the credit, that without my mom, none of it would have happened. And, for me, that’s true about most of the things in my life. My mom not only taught me how to cook, she taught me how to appreciate food. How to appreciate the journey to the end result. How to learn to try new things and not be stuck in a single path. She taught me so many things but above all else she taught me this: Food is best when there is a celebration, and everything can be celebrated.
PIPEABLE CREAM CHEESE FROSTING (from RecipeGirl.com)
2 (8 Ounce) packages cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup butter, room temperature
2 1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
In a medium bowl, use electric mixer to combine cream cheese and butter; beat until creamy. Mix in vanilla, then gradually add the powdered sugar. Mix until frosting ingredients are completely combined. Check the consistency at this point. If it seems too soft, go ahead and add a little more sifted powdered sugar. If it seems too thick, mix in a teaspoon or so of milk. Use the frosting to frost your cake or cupcakes immediately-either by spreading or filling a piping bag, or store in a covered container in the refrigerator until ready to use.