The cupcake engineer

Junior designs novelty cupcakes as a hobby Although Michi Shank has loved crafting since she was young, baking cupcakes became an obsession last year. It’s the first thing she shares with people during icebreakers. She bakes for her sorority……

Michi Shank’s brow furrows as a Tic Tac-sized piece of rolled candied icing cracks in her fingers. She discards it, and with slow strokes, cuts into the smooth white icing again, working to form the 48 shapes of the flashy state flag.

“Hardest puzzle I’ve ever done,” said Shank, a junior bioengineering major.

But really, this is nothing. For the past few years, she’s had a cupcake “obsession,” and she’s made everything from life-sized monarch butterflies to an iced Vincent Van Gogh painting, plenty more complicated than the Terps design bogging her down now.

When she finishes the state flag an hour later, Shank reaches for a new ball of rolled fondant — a sugar-based mixture that dries hard like modeling clay — squirts it with red food dye and begins to knead, staining her fingers and palms, pressing and turning the fondant with careful, measured moves while mulling over the design of Testudo’s shell.

Although Shank has loved crafting since she was young, baking cupcakes became an obsession last year. It’s the first thing she shares with people during icebreakers. She bakes for her sorority and her friends. And every Thursday, she decorates a batch that her roommates eat for breakfast the next day.

So far, Shank hasn’t taken any baking classes and her ventures involve a lot of guesswork, research and the occasional cover-up (she sometimes fixes new pieces of icing over her mistakes). But a lack of formal experience has not stopped her from tackling rainbow layers and flavors such as Red Bull, chai tea and strawberry champagne — complete with a strawberries flambe. As a joke, she once made not-quite-unsuccessful Old Bay cupcakes.

Mitch Shank said his daughter’s creativity and love of cooking began early. For years, she baked with her grandmother.

“My dad swears she holds out ingredients or steps for him, but she’ll show me the whole thing,” Michi Shank said. By age 12, she was cooking meatloaf and pot roast; her dad’s eyesight had deteriorated, and she made dinner most weekdays, carefully following her mom’s written instructions.

Her father is a diabetic and has been insulin-dependent for 40 years. Due to kidney failure, he became legally blind when Shank was in middle school and has received a new kidney and pancreas.

In November, she was preparing to leave for a winter study abroad trip when kidney failure put her dad in the hospital again. Before she left, she handed him some paperwork and said she wanted to be his second kidney donor.

“It’s a gift I didn’t expect from Michi, and in fact, I cried for quite a while,” Mitch Shank said. “She just said ‘I’ve got two; I only need one.’”

This weekend, Shank completed another round of testing and hopes she can have the operation soon. It wasn’t a hard decision, she said.

Others, she’s still working through. Shank has wanted to be an engineer her whole life — especially growing up around her dad’s treatments, watching him take insulin shots and counting out his pills — but now she isn’t sure it’s the right path.

“I’m just an average engineering student, but sometimes I question if that’s because I should be baking instead,” she said.

Between homework and classes, Shank spends hours scouring blogs for inspiration. She makes frequent trips to Georgetown Cupcake and is working her way through the store’s recipe book, never revealing she is also a “cupcake engineer.”

Shank smoothes a circle of tan fondant over a red velvet cupcake, forming Testudo’s back.

“Should that be bigger? No, it’s good,” she said, adding she sometimes talks to herself when she bakes.

Sometimes she still worries the cupcakes are just a phase. Shank has tried countless other activities while traveling or visiting friends at home, including scuba diving, taking pole dancing fitness classes and learning to shoot firearms.

But this is probably not just a temporary extension of her love for crafting. For Shank, having multiple hobbies runs in her family.

In her Havre de Grace home are a dozen of her parents’ collections, including baseball cards, a battalion of lead soldiers, a Disney-themed room decked year-round for Christmas and thousands of wooden decoy ducks — her grandfather, one of the world’s most prolific decoy-makers, carved more than 100,000 in his lifetime.

When Shank joined the university’s chapter of Alpha Omega Epsilon, a society for female engineers, in fall 2010, she found similar joy in engineering.

Her roommate and sorority big Laken Ensor said she was impressed Shank juggles baking with classes and extracurriculars like Beyond These Walls — a group that volunteers with elementary school children — and her sorority.

“She does so much to help us even though she’s not on the executive board this year, and I think that just shows a lot of dedication and good heart for everything she does,” said Ensor, a junior civil engineering major. “Whatever she’s involved in she puts in 110 percent.”

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