Cake maker creates edible works of art

A couple of years ago, a new mom at home with her baby was watching reality shows about cake decorating when suddenly it hit her: why couldn’t she do that?…

CENTERVILLE — A couple of years ago, a new mom at home with her baby was watching reality shows about cake decorating when suddenly it hit her: why couldn’t she do that?

So Whitney Owings started researching how to decorate cakes on the Internet. As it turned out, not only could she do it, she had a knack for it.

“I’ve discovered that I loved it, and I’ve been doing it since,” said Owings, now 24.   

Owings said she always had some interest in cakes.

“Every Fourth of July for about as far back as I can remember, I’ve always done some sort of decorative cake,” she said.

But, she said, her interest in cake decorating probably has more to do with her artistic side than her culinary side. She said she also likes to make picture frames and hair bows, and she has long been interested in scrap booking.

“If I make cookies or something, I’d rather eat the dough than make the cookies,” she said. “Baking is probably the least enjoyable part for me, but once it gets to the point where the cake is frosted and has the fondant on it and I can just play with it and create it, that is so fun. I love to see how it comes together with each little detail.”

The secret to this type of cake decorating is fondant, which Owings described as “Play-Doh for cakes that is edible.” She makes fondant by melting marshmallows and kneading in powdered sugar until the consistency is like Play-Doh. After icing a cake, Owings rolls out the fondant and drapes it over the icing. Then, she can decorate on top of the fondant layer with butter-cream frosting, fondant and other edible materials.

Owings said her daughter, Cadyn, now 3, likes her mom’s hobby mainly because she likes to sneak frosting out of the bowl. But, she said, Cadyn is also fascinated by watching her decorate cakes. Her husband, Nolan Owings, is the youth minister at the First Baptist Church.

Owings said that while she has come up with designs for her daughter’s birthday cakes, most people she makes cakes for know exactly what design they want. She said they often send her links to pictures of cakes online, and she then uses one picture or a combination of pictures as an inspiration.

“Everyone always enjoys being able to see something so neat and then actually be able to eat it,” she said.

Owings said one of the hardest things she has done so far is create a cake with a soccer ball and another with a football. She molded the balls out of Rice Krispies treats, covered them, and then made designs on them with fondant. She said the most labor-intensive cake she has made was one that resembled a princess’s castle.

Owings said that over the past couple of years she has gotten a lot faster, improved at basic tasks, picked up specialty skills and learned how to overcome humid conditions. Humidity, she said, almost ruined the second cake she ever made.

A bride and groom asked for a fake cake to serve as a centerpiece, so the inside was molded out of Styrofoam and Rice Krispies treats. Owings was supposed to decorate the outside of the fake cake with fondant. But when she draped the fondant over the cake, it kept sliding right off.

“Fondant is very picky when it comes to humidity,” she explained.

So, she had to quickly make butter-cream frosting to frost the whole cake. Even so, on the way to the reception, the tiers were sliding.

“But it made it,” she said. “It didn’t fall apart, and I’ve learned a lot since then.”

For instance, she is experimenting with a Crisco-based frosting rather than her normal butter-based frosting. She said she is adding the non-dairy frosting to her repertoire for outdoor summer events because it does not melt or spoil as easily as dairy.

Owings said she has done three wedding cakes, two fiftieth-anniversary cakes, three graduation cakes and many birthday cakes. She said that while she has done many for friends and family, she is starting to do more cakes for hire.

She said cake prices are based on the size and the amount of work that goes into the cake. She said she normally charges $1.25 to $1.50 a slice, with a 10-inch cake feeding 28 people. She said that while she has no plans to make a full-time business out of cake decorating, she really enjoys making two or three cakes a month.

Owings said anyone interested in ordering a cake can call her at (641) 216-9243.

The cakes can be very labor intensive. Owings said that if she is creating a cake for a weekend, she normally starts baking on Wednesday and then decorates until late Friday night, putting on finishing touches on Saturday.

“I’ve had a lot of late nights,” she said. “I think I worked on one cake until four in the morning.”

Owings said one of her most memorable cakes was a pyramid cake she created for a wedding. The bride and groom, graduate students at the University of Iowa, both loved archaeology and wanted a cake that looked like a Mayan pyramid. Owings created a multi-tiered cake with stairs made from Rice Krispies treats and covered the whole structure in white fondant. The bride created a cake topper that looked like the temple at the top of a Mayan pyramid.

For her sister’s wedding cake, Owings created tiny clusters of flowers that cascaded down the cake. She estimated that she cut out 600 to 800 tiny flowers by hand.

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