Food & Drink : Have your cake...

And decorate it, too. Grams demonstrates DIY roses.

Grandmas are experts at everything — or so a cashier at the grocery store told me yesterday. And it’s probably true. For example, it wasn’t long after I arrived at my grandmother’s house today for my cake-decorating lesson that I learned I’ve never washed dishes using the correct water temperature.

Today was my third cake-decorating lesson with Grams. Subject: three-dimensional frosting roses. This was my cake-decorating Everest. Since I was little I have admired my grandma for the sugary gardens she created on the plateaus of my birthday cakes.

It was 50 years ago that she learned to decorate cakes at a night class. Since then, she’s baked them almost exclusively for our family. Every one of my birthdays, I have always anticipated Grandma’s big question: What kind of cake would you like this year? She made my mom’s wedding cake, and for a period of time, she even sold her cakes to save money to buy my grandfather a graduation gift.

Over the course of the past two lessons, my grandmother taught me how to make her famous butter-cream frosting, how to spread it over the cake smoothly (I’m still not so good at this), how to make frosting leaves, cursive letters, daisies, and decorative borders.

I knew the rose-crafting practice would be time-consuming, and that it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to make the scrumptious from-scratch devil’s food cake we customarily stir up, so I brought over a butter-yellow cake mix.

As we got to work mixing, Grams served me a traditional beverage from the motherland (that would be Vernor’s ginger ale from Michigan), and showed me the recipe for the icing we would be using.

Generally, Grams and I decorate our cakes with a non-gritty, just-sweet-enough butter-cream frosting. But it tends to “sweat” in the Texas heat, and for learning to make roses, she decided a stiffer icing would be appropriate. It was a snap to mix by hand: powdered sugar, softened butter, shortening, egg whites, more powdered sugar, and voila!

Well, the icing turned out to be a bit too stiff. As we applied a frosting base coat to the tops of our cooled cupcakes, the icing pulled away from the golden cake. We smoothed the snow-white icing as best we could, and moved on. After separating the rest of the icing into three bowls, we added food coloring: orange, pink, a little green. I like saturated colors, but Grams is a pastel girl, so our colors ended up looking rather like rainbow sherbet.

Grams still uses parchment-paper bags when she decorates. After creating a perfect container with one parchment triangle, she spoons the icing into the bag, folds it over, snips the tip, and tops it with a metal tip. Then she takes another piece of parchment paper and secures the tip to the icing-filled bag.

We make our roses on a “pin,” a giant, metal tack-looking object that my grandma twirls in one hand as she squeezes icing out with the other. It takes a lot of coordination, I realized, twirling and squeezing the icing out with a shaky right hand. Tap tap tap tap tap, went the sound of the metal tip on the metal pin.

After a few disasters, I had made my first rose! My grandmother gently lifted it from the pin with a paring knife, and set it on a cupcake. Suddenly, I was unstoppable — twirling rose after rose into existence. Grandma read a Chicken Soup for the Soul-style book out loud as I worked. Generally I find that type of reading material completely annoying (because I’m a cynical shell of a human being), but when Grams reads it, it’s not so bad. “You’re so creative,” she says a dozen times. (I’ve decided she should adopt a screenwriter.)

When I was done, my grandma refused to let me clean up, and sent me packing with a Tupperware container full of rose-covered cupcakes, which I almost dropped as I arrived home (Cats. Alarm system. Connect the dots). I lay in bed for a second, and then my phone rang. It was Grams, just calling to see if I had made it home all right.

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