Had a muffin from the dining halls lately? Chances are Cat Lamb ’13 made it. The enthusiastic sophomore, who said she “begged and pleaded” her way in to the Dining Services Bakeshop, gets up before dawn twice a week to create treats bound to satisfy any sweet tooth.
“I’ve kind of become the muffin girl,” Lamb said. She doesn’t seem to mind. Lamb, who started baking at the precocious age of four, has always loved the activity. To get to do it as a job on campus is the proverbial icing on the cake. “It’s my dream, baking and getting paid for it,” she said.
Though her parents nudged her away from culinary school, Lamb has found other ways to further her passion here at the College. Last spring Lamb and two friends started a company called Cakes on Demand. “Since we started late in the year, we only got one job, catering Stressbusters, which was really stressful, actually,” Lamb said.
Baking as a career is clearly no piece of cake. Cadence Hardenbergh ’11, another student baker, loves to bake and design cakes, but she says that she wouldn’t want to do it for a living. “This is something right now I actually love doing,” Hardenbergh said. “I do it when I want to. I think if it was my job, I would lose some of that.”
At least, that’s the plan for now. Hardenbergh, who describes herself as “one of the save-the-world types,” hasn’t ruled out a post-college career in cupcakes. For now, though, her cakes are just a fun outlet.
“I don’t really claim to be a real baker. I use store-bought frosting,” Hardenbergh said. “For me it’s just kind of relaxing because I really have to be focused – I’m not thinking about anything else.” Through trial and error, Hardenbergh has progressed over the years from basic, monochrome-frosted cakes to buttercream sculptures that seem to defy gravity, like a wave-shaped cake for a surfer friend.
The appeal of baking’s experimental aspects seems to be a common theme for Eph bakers, too. Nancy Dong ’11, who had never really baked before this past summer, dived into cake-decorating after watching a marathon of Cake Boss. She mainly decorates with fondant, the sugary dough-like cover often draped over wedding cakes.
“The first cake I made was for my friend’s birthday, and it did not work,” Dong said. Nevertheless, she plowed ahead and has made major strides even in just a few months. Talking about her latest creation, a zebra-print cake for a friend, she said, “That was something I could present to someone without them thinking immediately that it was made by an amateur.”
A willingness to take risks and try something new seems to be an important quality for bakers, especially when it so often can – and does – go wrong.
Elise Baker ’13, whose baking career dates to the day her parents came home to find their six-year-old making lemon bars, knows this firsthand. One afternoon, she and her sister tried to make brownies from scratch for the first time to send to their older sister who was away at college.
“I followed the recipe, I think,” Baker said. “But when we cooked the brownies they never solidified. It was too solid to go in the garbage disposal but too liquid to go in the garbage, so I put it in a jar.”
Lamb had similar experiences with childhood cooking exploits. “I would get really ambitious sometimes and try to make chocolate sculptures [like Chef Jacques Torres],” she said. “But they never work out the same when you’re eight and sitting in your kitchen and you don’t have any skills.”
Her adventurousness is even more impressive considering that her family doesn’t have much of a focus on cuisine. “My dad doesn’t cook. He claims to make lasagna, but we’ve never seen it. My mom’s not a bad cook, she just has like, six recipes she makes that are good, but she doesn’t explore,” Lamb said. Hardenbergh and Dong likewise claim that their parents don’t bake at all.
“I really have no good explanation for this,” Hardenbergh said, laughing.
There is still something to be said for the strong thread of tradition that is so often a part of cooking and baking, however. Baker, whose entire family is often involved in the process of putting a meal on the table, says that her favorite recipe is her grandmother’s bread, a 12-hour masterpiece that brings her family’s Croatian heritage to the table.
Tradition is an important part of baking here at the College, too. One day, when Lamb was helping making the famous knock-you-nakeds, she ventured to suggest an addition to the recipe.
“I was like, do you think we could do this instead?” Lamb said, laughing as she recalled the baker’s reaction. “He was like, ‘Well, I don’t know, I’ve been making these for 30 years, what do you think?’”
Needless to say, the traditional recipe of the College’s favorite dessert was kept intact.