Fond Memories

Much like the staff at a psych ward, icing is very forgiving

Sweet Celebrations
11321 Highway 7

I love sugar. I love it so much I sometimes consume it as if I were a hummingbird, dependent on sweet nectar for every shred of energy in me. I enjoy highbrow sweets as much as the next addict, but my fixation is so strong I even appreciate sugar bombs like Mountain Dew, glazed doughnuts, and pixie sticks.

As a child I learned how to sculpt icing clowns using a ping-pong ball and some red royal icing. Alas, the icing on mine always sagged, leaving my clowns hunched over and depressed-looking.

When I was a teenager, I made sugar cookies in the shape of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, complete with little Red Hots for his nose. Cute idea, right? During the baking process, the Red Hots exploded like cinnamon-flavored aneurysms, and my festive cookies ended up looking like bucks that had taken a shot to the head. (The results were a smashing hit with my intoxicated friends and family.)

Most recently I tried making molded chocolates in the shape of various Disney characters. I took special care to tap the molds to fill the tiniest spots on the small faces with chocolate. The bubbles reappeared after cooling, however, leaving Mickey and Donald looking acne-scarred.

Clearly, I need professional help.

It was a very cold day when I wandered into the Minnetonka outpost of Sweet Celebrations, formerly Maid of Scandinavia, for a three-hour icing-piping class, clutching a list of things I would need. I had heard whispers that the supply stash at Sweet Celebrations was the stuff of legends, and the surprisingly small store didn't disappoint. In one aisle I found edible glitter, miniature candy cane sprinkles, and beer- and margarita-shaped candles.

I traipsed across a bin of molds in the shape of crosses, flowers, wrenches, and dentures. There were kits for making two- and three-dimensional cakes resembling just about any character that ever graced Saturday morning TV. Most interesting were the wedding toppers--some in packages of mismatched sets of brides or grooms, and some interracial pairs. Had I entered a world of open-minded baking?

Having found the icing tips I was in search of, I joined my class: two mothers of toddlers, and a store employee looking to brush up on her cake decorating skills. Our instructor, a friendly thirtysomething, informed us that we would be working with buttercream. It's ideal for beginners because it stays softer longer than royal icing, which dries harder and works better for sculptural creations. We set about making several different types of wreaths on sheets of paper. Mine turned out fine, but after an hour, making green hoops started to get redundant. Occasionally I stole a glance at my classmates' work. I was relieved to see that I was keeping up.

An hour of silence is a long time, and it was a relief to move on to more complex shapes, such as snowflakes (since each is unique we couldn't really jack those up too badly), 3-D snowmen (three blobs atop each other do in fact equal a snowman), a Santa head, and the piece de resistance: a 3-D Santa riding a candy cane.

When my classmates finally did begin to talk, it was about their icing failures, dreams, and aspirations. One woman was planning to make an enormous three-dimensional Barbie cake for her two daughters. Another was frustrated from repeatedly failing to recreate the intricate webbing of Spiderman's mask on a giant lollipop for her son. After explaining that The Nightmare Before Christmas was one of her favorite holiday movies, our instructor teased us for making snowmen that looked more like skulls.

She then perked up and brightly informed us that she used to work at a mental health facility, and, much like decorating a cake, suicide involves special techniques. "Gosh, I guess I never really thought about it that much," one classmate exclaimed in the exact same tone she'd emitted when we were told that edible Disco Glitter could help create a fresh snow sparkle on gingerbread houses.

Much like the staff at a psych ward, icing is very forgiving, sort of like clay--though in truth mostly what we were doing was constructing three-dimensional stick figures. It was certainly a leap forward from my depressed icing clowns, but skill-wise I had only touched the tip of the iceberg.

Later that week I rolled in early for a five-hour gourmet candy-making course. Most of my dozen or so classmates this time were members of a group of super-friendly neighbors looking to make candies in mass quantities for a neighborhood Hannukah progressive. The instructor, this time an enthusiastic man in his 20s, immediately proclaimed chocolate to be his passion and handed us each a booklet with a glossy cover sporting professional-looking cordials and truffles.

Inside I was startled to find ingredients and preparation theories reminiscent of a chemistry class. Suddenly words like invertase, glucose, hydrogenated, viscosity, lecithin, and nulomoline were being batted around. This did not bode well for me. I was glassy-eyed and under-caffeinated to start with, and frankly chemistry kicked my ass in high school. Judging from the looks of panicked confusion all around, I was not the only one having pipette and microplate flashbacks.

As we tentatively separated into groups of three, our sunny teacher warned us to wash our hands immediately if we ever touched our face or pulled a hair out of our eyes. I half-expected him to add that we should avoid impure thoughts during the candy-making process. One of my partners, a frazzled new mom of twins, immediately suggested that we merely celebrate the spirit of this rule. I readily agreed, but our other teammate, a perky lady with serious undertones, felt that this was a dubious plan at best. We solved the impasse by sending her off to boil some caramel alone.

Our first project was making truffles, which involved boiling a lot of cream and chocolate, something that I could do. In theory, anyhow. As we stood around watching the ingredients begin to simmer, my partner admitted she was overwhelmed already, and she was only staring at butter and milk boiling on a stove. Our instructor overheard us, and reassured us that it's impossible to destroy chocolate. If it's under-microwaved, just stick it in there for another 30 seconds, he suggested. If it's too crumbly, use it for hot chocolate. And if you burn it, just remove the offending area and use the rest. Unlike most grade-schoolers, chocolate allows do-overs.

Over the course of the day, we made dozens of candies: turtles, chocolates with brandy centers, cordials, lollipops, and truffles. Much to my surprise, we did it without trauma. We kept each other from panicking when the caramel didn't seem to be reaching the desired temperature quickly enough, or when we had to figure out the right amount of citric acid to make fruit chews fruity, or to reassure each other that the cherry snowballs wouldn't look like fruitcake meatballs once we covered them with white chocolate.

If I had been alone, I would have given up midway and eaten everything in partially complete form. At the end of the day, however, I left with a box of candy and a rehabilitated feeling, much like a kindergartener with macaroni fridge art.

I don't know whether mastering the homemade confection will, in the end, be the best route for satisfying my jones. As I type this I'm halfway through a can of Wild Cherry Pepsi, but I'm also sucking on a homemade lollipop. It's a start.

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