A FAR CRY from making lackluster cakes in my childhood neighbor's Easy-Bake Oven, the chemistry of seeing flour and sugar and other ingredients morph into a baked confection was our first exercise in creating for ourselves what our mothers and grandmothers so deftly concocted with expert confidence. There is nothing else like cookies, cakes and pies. Sometimes, I wonder if we shouldn't just have dessert first, instead of saving room for it as an afterthought. It's no wonder Valentine's day has become a day to give sweets to loved ones.
MY MOTHER, a consummate homemaker, was seemingly always in the kitchen cooking, canning something from the garden, or washing dishes. She always preferred to make cakes and pies over cookies. A good Southerner wasn't worth their salt if they couldn't bake a decent cake or lighter-than-air biscuits. It's not that way anymore. I think she liked to bake cakes best because of their scene-stealing grandiosity. Biscuits with butter and homemade preserves or with peppery milk gravy are another story altogether. Maybe growing up surrounded by cakes is the reason I obsessively collect cake plates, just as sweet memories of the holidays drive collecting the ornaments which are the raw material for this blog. Growing up in the American South, there were always cake walks, birthday cakes, fruitcakes, and even pancakes and potato cakes. This would sometimes coalesce across the community with fundraiser bake sales full of homemade goodness. Who could resist contributing to a cause that way?
EVERY YEAR at Christmastime, I remember going out to the back porch to drive nails into the eyes of a fresh coconut, drain the milk into a glass, and crack the shell with a hammer. I would bring it to mother in the kitchen and we would peel off the thin outer layer of the slightly sweet meat. She would grate the coconut, toss it with confectioners sugar and press it into the the icing of the tallest layered cake she could make that would stand upright, even if it was held together inside with toothpicks. It was always quite a sweet spectacle and was the first thing everyone in the family would devour from a counter laden with other treats like pecan pies, a wine-soaked fruitcake, date-nut rolls, and even a competing German-chocolate cake. Nothing else seemed to compare to that stately white beauty layered and dressed in fresh coconut. It was mouth-watering deliciousness.
A VALENTINE TREE (above) began with the idea for a tree full of hearts of one sort or another. An Easy-Bake light bulb went off and cookies came to mind. Immediately, I thought of my friends Brandon and John and their venture in becoming professional bakers. They agreed to collaborate with me by baking the cookies along with my initiation to the art of decorating them. We decorated the cookies they baked with colored icing, nonpareils and several types of brightly-colored sugars. The result of our combined creative efforts hang on the tree created from a tree branch painted white and glued at the tips with vintage paper leaves — all directing their attention with curve of the branch. I wanted the tree to match the ethereal and magical fairy-dust quality of Bear Maker Bakery cookies, along with the absolute exuberance and passion Brandon and John show in their baking efforts.
THEY TOO discovered baking in their respective childhood Easy-Bake Ovens, and they never forgot the power of a homemade confection. After they found each other, they ventured out on a limb together with a dream and a goal of making the most delicious cookies possible. While growing their passion for baking into a full-time creative endeavor, they jointly set out (even with separate childhood memories of providing treats for their families and friends) to create cookies "too beautiful to eat," but at the same time delicious enough to make resistance futile! It's not often that decorated cookies taste as good as they look. Labored over in their spare hours with love and care, their attention to flavor and texture along with a keen sense of visual detail has begun paying off. Like a fairy sighting, if you blink, their cookies might disappear. Even in reminding yourself of a growing waistline, if you are to truly enjoy any treat for what it is, both Brandon and John understand that sweetness and goodness in baking always shoot straight for the heart.
CHILDHOOD experimentation with Easy-Bake Ovens may have served as a starting point, but my friends at Bear Maker Bakery have gone way beyond those formative days to perfect their craft by coming up with unexpected ways to combine the right ingredients in making something that is beyond the ordinary. They haven't reached the point of quitting their day jobs either, so it is truly a labor of love [like The Decorated Tree (of life)]. All it takes is a loving tenacity of spirit to begin to realize the sweetest dreams.
TREE OF HEARTS | This Valentine cookie tree (above), made from a painted branch with handmade vintage paper leaves is decorated with cookies (above, right) made in collaboration with Bear Maker Bakery. The Valentine candy boxes by Johanna Parker and "Be Mine Cat Boy" original design spun cotton figure by Crystal Hanehan (left) are from Bayberry Cove (he was hand spun using techniques similar to those of the early German artisans who created cotton ornaments for Christmas). The German glass glitter lovebird ornaments perched in the branch are from Pottery Barn. The ceramic urn holding the branch is from Smith and Hawken. The cake plate from my collection is the Martha Stewart Limited Edition 2009 Cake Plate from Macy's. A cardboard heart box from Michaels is painted chartreuse and sits behind a silver-beaded pocket holding a heart love token (from Bombay Duck London) at the base of the tree.
©2010 DARRYL MOLAND | ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, collecting and styling by Darryl Moland, tree photographed by Harold Daniels Studio / assisted by Shawn May, cookie making collage photos by Darryl Moland and Brandon Tidwell