The Country Cake Cupboard

491 Willow Rd., Long Lake; 476-0222

Everyone has their own idea of what constitutes a miracle: For some it's a vision of a holy figure appearing in a cloud, a cloth, or a fender; for others it's the Grand Canyon or all the petals on a peony. For me, lately, it's sugar. The things you can do with sugar. Rock candy. Cotton candy. Sugared fruits and flowers. Pulled sugar flowers. Caramel. Toffee. Taffy. And then, the things you can do with icing. Starting with gum paste, royal icing, and fondant, and then moving into buttercream and the fanciful compound-icing sculptures that can make a young girl delirious.

April Wysocki is Minnesota's preeminent icing artist, turning sugar into ribbons, lilies, daisies, quilts, grape clusters, Impressionist paintings, or anything else your heart desires. She does this out of her little Long Lake bakery, the Country Cake Cupboard, a converted house just off the hubbub of Highway 12 (what 394 turns into west of Minnetonka). She has two big rooms in the house, one for baking and one for selling little treats and meeting with clients. In the front room there are books filled with pictures of the intricate cakes April has done over the years.

There are photos of cakes that look like stacks of presents, each layer of cake individually "wrapped" in a tight sheet of fondant individually decorated with edible 24-karat-gold quilting patterns, gold sugar beads, or gum paste (a sort of icing). There are cakes that look like opulent bouquets of bright flowers--signature cakes from April's years in Texas, where the tradition is that each guest gets an icing flower as a keepsake with their slice of wedding cake. (While gum-paste and royal-icing flowers are edible they don't actually taste good, they're too pasty.) There's a cake that was a replica of a rambling Minnetonka house with eight separate roof lines, a cupola, and Victorian gardens--when finished, it measured 8 feet by 4 feet. There are the enormous computer silos one Twin Cities company ordered to celebrate an anniversary. There's a chocolate-lidded grand piano. And, of course, there are tales of the one that got away: a 7-foot dragon put together for a Texas bar mitzvah, with dry ice implanted in its big open maw so that it spit smoke.

All this icing artistry started 16 years ago when April began taking extension classes from the Culinary Institute of America while living in New Jersey. When her youngest son turned 1, she celebrated by making an extravagant teddy bear in a wagon that was all-edible, a rarity in an age when most fancy cakes are enhanced with plastic gewgaws. Friends were dazzled by the cake, and orders started pouring in. Ever since then April (who moved to Texas and then Minnesota) has relied almost exclusively on word of mouth to promote her product--which is why you probably haven't heard of her.

To page through April's photo books with her is a study in self-deprecation, as every exclamation over the magnificence of her efforts meets with "Oh, it's a lot easier than it looks," "That one looked a lot better, it was hard to light," or "Oh, it's like anything, simple when you know how." The farthest she'll ever go in admitting the difficulty of what she does is to confess she had to call in her husband, an engineer, to consult on a few. But though she never toots her own horn, admirers continually seek her out--she's booked solid for wedding cakes months in advance.

It's not just because April's cakes are sculptural masterpieces, either. The cakes themselves, the inside food part, are delicious. Anyone who's been to a couple of weddings knows that wedding cakes are almost always dry and tasteless, but April's are moist, flavorful, and, frankly, astonishing. Fresh-fruit cakes like mandarin orange, raspberry, lemon, and peach are light, fluffy, aromatic, and taste, of all things, refreshingly like real fruit. Chocolate cakes like the German Chocolate Fudge are black and practically wet with chocolate. Even much-maligned traditional offerings like yellow and white cakes are luscious. Don't ask April how she does it, for all you get is more self-deprecation, tales of how it's hard to get good fresh mandarin oranges or raspberries out of season, and laments that Martha Stewart's fancy-of-the-month influences people's choices more than their own tastes.

April's overarching modesty is reflected in her pricing. Her incredibly labor-intensive cakes only cost about $2 per serving, far below what they're worth. A remarkable party cake shaped like a basket, fitted with a twig handle and piled high with your choice of fruit or flowers, starts at a low $22. A recent visit to the bakery case at the Country Cake Cupboard found an entire 10-inch cheesecake piled with fat raspberries and dusted with white-chocolate shavings priced at $12. Fresh doughnuts--plump, moist, crispy, and not the least bit greasy--cost 50 cents, and big devil's food cupcakes, topped with a traditional boiled frosting and fresh blueberries or hand-cast chocolate seashells, cost a hefty 65 cents. Light, bright, silky key lime cheesecake sold for $2 a slice, as did a drippingly rich turtle cheesecake topped with caramel sauce. Told that her offerings would go for twice the price in a downtown bakery, April delivers a sharp look, one that I interpret as a mom's warning not to fib.

A few things in the bakery case didn't thrill me. Bite-sized cheesecakes (65 cents) were gummy and lacked the flavor of the larger ones; and the brownies (50 cents) were dry, and didn't hold a candle to the yummy oatmeal-chocolate-chip-M&M cookies (35 cents). Flipping through April's cake books you peek in again and again on happy couples cutting into their exquisite monuments, faces lit with joy. It seems only appropriate that on the most important days of our lives we would commission miracles in sugar. It's comforting too to know that April says no matter how long or hard she's labored on one of her marvels she's never the least bit sad to see it devoured.

TABLEHOPPING

TO HONOR AND CHERISH: If you had been present at Tammy Wynette's wedding, what would you have toasted her with? Why wedding punch of course! Or so she says in 1990's The Tammy Wynette Southern Cookbook, which I just found at the library. Quoth the "Stand By Your Man" queen: "It's good!"

Wedding Punch

* 1 large can of Hawaiian Punch

* 1 large can of pineapple juice

* 1 large can of apple juice

* 1 bottle of pink champagne

Mix together, pour into punch bowl over ice. Chill and serve.

WATERMELON DAZE: Mark Twain felt passionately about watermelons, saying, "When one has tasted watermelons, he knows what angels eat. It was not a Southern watermelon that Eve took; we know it because she repented." And the people of Cordele, Georgia, the self-proclaimed Watermelon Capital of the World, couldn't agree more. Every year they export 200 million pounds of the stuff, and celebrate with a spree known as Watermelon Days, in which they gobble watermelon balls, spit watermelon seeds, and even use the rind for such treats as watermelon-rind pies and chutneys, all helpfully archived at www.foodfestivals.com. Serve this on grilled chicken, pork, or fish, or on top of cream cheese with crackers.

Watermelon Apple Chutney

* 2 cups finely chopped peeled

watermelon rind, red flesh removed

* 2 cups chopped Golden Delicious apples

* 1 cup chopped red bell pepper

* 1 cup brown sugar

* 1/2 cup raisins

* 2 tbls. chopped onion

* 1 clove garlic, minced

* 3/4 cup cider vinegar

* 1/2 cup apple juice

* 11/4 tsp. ground ginger

* 1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper

In large saucepan, combine all ingredients; mix well. Bring to boil over high heat; reduce heat and simmer for 35 to 40 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until watermelon rind is tender and liquid is partially reduced. Store covered in the refrigerator. Allow flavors to blend several hours before serving. Makes about 31/2 cups.

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