Fluttering through my Instagram feed earlier this year, I noticed many cool-girl types posing with photos of retro-inspired cakes: playfully coloured (often in neon or pastel), decked out with tons of loopy buttercream piping and often garnished with fun, vintage-style confections like maraschino cherries and retro candies. These kitschy cakes are decidedly not Cake Boss perfection, nor do they share the subtlety of the simplistic cupcake trend from the 2010s. They’ve seemingly become the prop du jour for social media, whether the occasion be a birthday, a photoshoot or to mark a monumental occasion like a divorce, breakup or even a sobriety anniversary.
Seeing these images and seeking them through the #retrocake hashtag immediately brought back memories of my late mom, a housewife who was known for making the most delicious and intricately decorated cakes for family and friends.
Baking wasn’t just a hobby of hers; it was a passion, and was she ever talented. I loved watching her work away at her cakes, and there was always an element of shock and awe when I saw the final result. For one particular birthday, she presented me with a plastic Barbie whose dress was the actual cake part and whose bodice was decorated with icing; for my brother one year, a memorable Alf cake.
Every one of her cakes tasted amazing—they were made with love, after all—but it was her attention to detail that made them so incredible. They would no doubt garner many likes on social media today.
There’s a photo album in my childhood home filled with pictures of cakes she made over the years. In a kitchen cupboard rests her various tools and baking accoutrements; items that have mostly gone untouched for the more than 20 years since she passed away.
Earlier this year, I picked up her tools again, figuring all these social media posts were some sort of sign. I’d dabbled with recreating some of her recipes throughout the pandemic, but before this kitschy cake resurgence I had never entertained the idea of diving into some of her seemingly more unattainable creations. I challenged myself to flirt with the unknown. I used to be someone who always thought that it was too late to learn something new, but surviving the pandemic changed my mindset. I set up a one-on-one workshop with Brooke Cowitz of Cry Baby Cakes, who seems to be the go-to cake-maker for Toronto’s downtown set.
Throughout the 90 minutes we spent together at her sun-soaked kitchen table, Cowitz educated me on everything and then some when it comes to cake decorating. She taught me about the importance of not having air bubbles in your piping bag, showed me her go-to tools, and went over the various terms and techniques for piping: shells, rosettes and bows, to name a few. I learned how to mix icing colours to get the exact shade I wanted, and how cake decorating—if not being commissioned by someone who has a specific vision in mind—is all about personality.
We created a fun lavender-esque shade for the piping of our multilayer vanilla buttercream cake, as I was inspired by the colour of my mood ring at that moment. Cowitz was very hands-on and threw me right into the decorating process (while acting like a personal cheerleader), allowing me to learn as I went. What was most surprising was how natural the piping bag felt in my hand as I slowly spun the cake turntable and echoed the design methods she taught me.
My piping was a little more rustic than Brooke’s and my mother’s, but there was a sense of playfulness and pride as I started mixing my own colours and really leaned into the process.
At one point, when I was struggling with a pattern, Brooke put her hand over mine, like Patrick Swayze in Ghost, so I could perfect each element. It wasn’t lost on me that I was thinking of a movie about the afterlife while doing something in honour of someone who has passed away. I smiled to myself.
Throughout the process, I snapped some pics so I could follow the same steps when I would try this again in the kitchen in my family home, finally bringing my mom’s piping tips and baking trays out of retirement. All that was left to do was jot some words down on top of the cake before Cowitz boxed it up for me to bring over to my favourite Taurean’s place for his birthday celebration.
May is a monumental month for me. It would have been my mom’s birthday, followed by Mother’s Day, as well as what was once my parents’ wedding anniversary. I piped “taurus szn,” in my signature all-lowercase lettering, on the cake.
I made a last-minute decision to add a few leftover marshmallow-filled ice cream cones (a sort of cookie-meets-candy hybrid they sell at the dollar store that I used to enjoy in the ’90s) to the cake to zhuzh it up, along with some sprinkles beneath them, as if they were falling from the cone.
As I looked at my final product, I felt a wave of pride knowing the happiness, joy and love it would bring to another person. What a gift it is to spoil those you love with something unique and memorable.
The next day, I looked through photos from birthdays past and teared up when I noticed the genuine sense of pride and happiness in my mom’s face as she would present me with the various cakes she made. One photo in particular, from the year I turned nine, stopped me in my tracks. It was a white rectangular cake with pink piping around it that said Happy 9th birthday, Jennifer. On it? Two marshmallow-filled ice cream cone candies.
As if I needed another sign that this was my calling and a great way to carry on my mother’s legacy. What a treat, indeed.
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