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Bakes-Giving: STC Culinary Conjures a Holiday Feast to Fool the Eye

Jennifer Guerra, Chair of the Culinary Arts Department
“Our faculty work hard to develop innovative projects. These types of projects bring out the best in our students.”
Jennifer Guerra, Chair of the Culinary Arts Department

It’s a Thanksgiving to make Willy Wonka drool. For a feast of pure imagination — and pure sugar — welcome to STC’s cake decorating classes. They’ll be crafting all the holiday classics like a turkey, roast pig, and even the pumpkin pie… 100 percent out of cake.

“We think cake, and we think light, fluffy and sweet,” says Culinary Arts instructor and baking mastermind Larissa Reinitz. “But when you’re building something as big as a turkey, it could be as heavy as a real turkey.”

In fact, the term “carving the turkey” has a whole new flavor this year. To build a bird out of sweet bread, students will construct “bones” out of wooden dowels and Popsicle sticks for support. Then, they’ll “carve” the form of a turkey out of the sturdy sugary dough, following all of the curves and crevices of a real roast.

The instructor confides that while the students were a bit intimidated by the new project, they were eager to reach new heights of edible artistry. While discovering a new passion, they might even surprise themselves and their taste buds. “Some of these students have never even picked up a spatula or don’t know what buttercream is,” shares Reinitz, who is pushing cadets to their culinary limits.

“Our faculty work hard to develop innovative projects,” adds Jennifer Guerra, Program Chair for the STC Culinary Arts program. “These types of projects bring out the best in our students.”

In a typical year, students participate in “culinary wars,” Iron-Chef style baking competitions that have produced sugary sensations like carousel cakes that actually spin.

This year, team baking had to be called off for social distancing restrictions, but that didn’t put the kibosh on creativity. Instead, aspiring bakers in Cake Decorating One and Two classes are pioneering the Thanksgiving feast, and it’s been such a success, Reinitz aims to continue the project in the future.

“Students get to expand their imaginations,” says the thinking-outside-the-bakery-box instructor. For instance, this year’s apple, pumpkin, and pecan holiday pies were made with zero actual apples, pumpkins, or pecans, sculpted instead from — you guessed it — pure cake.

“I have never carved a cake before,” says student Freida Marie Luna. “I am very excited to see how it turns out!”

For her faux pecan pie, Luna is using fondant as a fake crust and molding dark brown icing to make “nuts.” She’ll even be painting the bottom and outside of her “crust” with silver luster dust to create the illusion of a foil pie “tin.” Finally, she’ll be topping the cake with a pie-like glaze to trick the eye and tickle taste buds.

The future pastry professional credits her STC professor for inspiring culinary acumen: “Chef Larissa always has high hopes for all her students which, I believe, make us strive to accomplish the best work we can.”

For these “sweet dreamers,” even the plates and utensils will be edible. A thick sugary paste called Pastillage will be processed by the scientists to become a ceramic-like material. So, who says you can’t have your cake and then eat the fork too?

“They’re very proud,” says Reinitz about her bold baking students. “They’re discovering new passions.”

“I hope to take these skills one day into my future career,” confides Luna, who will graduate this December with an Associate Degree in Baking and Pastry Arts. “I want to open my own cake shop one day and be able to decorate and execute any kind of cake that gets thrown at me!”

Baking students like Luna aren’t just igniting interests, they are also turning up the fire on careers. Grads employ their talents to open small businesses or work for bakeries, restaurants, catering companies and hospital kitchens.

“The employment opportunities our graduates seek are as diverse as our students’ interests,” shares Guerra.

Some alum even become culinary instructors… Like Reinitz herself, a proud STC grad of the Baking and Pastry Arts program. Her passion? Inspiring the next generation of culinary artists.

In particular, she mentions a student who mastered molding chocolate into flamingos. Like so many culinary Allstars from the program, he found the flair to bolster his family’s business with a brand-new treat. As Reinitz says, for many of her students, “They’re learning these skills to be able to continue a tradition.”

There’s no doubt in Guerra’s mind that, even amid difficult times, demand for cakes created with love persists. “Our graduates are prepared and still in demand in the marketplace.”

After all, folks are still celebrating weddings and birthdays, including socially distanced quinceañeras. And what would a celebration be sans dessert?

“You can still have that big extravagant cake with just a few adjustments,” advises the boss of baking hacks. If you’re hosting a small wedding, for instance, but still want a cake that looks like it can feed 100… no problem: “Throw in a fake tier, have it integrated, and no one will even know that it’s fake cake!”

It’s the kind of MacGyver-like maneuver that STC students master to make mouthwatering menus. To give culinary cadets in-demand workforce skills, the College consulted with industry and community leaders in its advisory board and added the Baking and Pastry Arts associate a few years ago.

And just recently, STC introduced two new courses to the menu. The College now offers Quantity Bakeshop Production and Advanced Pastry Shop, affording students yet another opportunity to take their careers to the next tier… and make the world just a little sweeter.

“Sugar always makes people happy,” says Reinitz, who’s excited to spread some holiday cheer this year with the cake equivalent of a trompe-l’oeil. As an instructor, she says she’s grateful to keep on learning and sharing her love of the craft. For her, the delicious and ambitious project is worth it, “just to bring that smile to somebody’s face.”

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