Having her cake (and decorating it, too)
November 30, 2013
Elissa Buckley has no background as a performer. But she has noticed that when people see her at work, they tend to become mesmerized.
Part of this is that Buckley is naturally animated — hands that are in constant motion, a big voice and a bigger laugh. And part of it is that there is, as Buckley puts it, "a wow factor" to what she does and the end product of her efforts.
"Most people haven't seen a cake put together," Buckley said. "Except at home, where the cake is tilted and the icing is falling off the side. People have seen their mom or dad do that at home. But it's a new experience, seeing a cake put together in front of their eyes in 15 minutes — which will be insane. People love to be there when I put on the finishing touches. And mine will be something like, 'Wow, you can really eat that?'"
When Buckley gives her first-ever cake-making performance — at the Salon at Justice Snow's today, where she appears on a bill with musicians, dancers and painters — there will be some shortcuts involved; several of the pieces of the cake will have been pre-made. Still, that will leave plenty of dramatic elements — the piped buttercream out of the classic baker's tool, the piping bag; an airbrush machine to do decorative metallic painting; the assembling of the tiers. Buckley hadn't planned the exact design yet, though she had some ideas — a four-layer bottom and a three-layer top, probably a holiday theme, maybe some sugar snow. And almost definitely buttercream rosettes. She has her flavors in mind: almond sour cream cake, espresso buttercream and salted caramel.
Buckley will not be unveiling one of her most innovative ideas — decorating the cake with a watercolor painting. That is still in the concept stage, and Buckley has taken a watercolor class to prepare.
"One day," she mused.
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But she is likely to collaborate with one of her fellow Salon performers — euphonium player Patrick Fagan, who can expect to be asked to provide appropriate cake-making music.
"Maybe polka — something ridiculous," Buckley said.
Apart from the possible polka, Fagan will be playing Bach cello suites on euphonium, a deep-pitched brass instrument. Also performing are New Orleans-inspired musician Russ Chapman, singer-guitarist Bobby Mason and two trios — musicians Greg Cooperman, Mateo Sandate and William Brown; and Andrea Clearfield, Alya Howe and Katalin Domoszlay, who will combine music, dance and painting. (Howe, a Carbondale resident, and Clearfield, who has a long-running Salon in Philadelphia, double as co-organizers of the Salon at Justice Snow's.)
As a kid in Rochester, Minn., Buskley loved the visual arts and the food arts, as well. But she began following her father, a physician. In college, at Boulder, she did four years of pre-med.
"Then I graduated and said, 'I'm going to follow my other passion in life," the 35-year-old said.
Buckley got a job at Spruce Confections in Boulder. She was relegated to the less perilous pastries — no wedding cakes —but she did have a life-changing experience with her first taste of European-style buttercream.
"Most buttercream was sickly sweet, dense — your teeth practically fell out, " she said. "But French or Swiss buttercream is such a difference. At Spruce, I said, 'Where has this been my whole life?'"
A decade ago, Buckley heard there was an opening for a pastry chef assistant at the Little Nell. She applied, but her sense that she wasn't qualified was affirmed when the job she was offered was as a pastry chef at the Aspen Mountain Club at the top of Aspen Mountain. Over five years, she worked her way up to pastry chef supervisor at the Nell.
Buckley and her husband, Brennan, a sous chef at the Nell who had a sudden urge to bake bread, helped start up the Catherine Baking Co. in Basalt. After a year and a half, Buckley returned to the Nell, this time as pastry chef.
"Then I said, 'You know what? I want to open my own business,'" she said. "Not having someone above me, teaching me, I figured I might as well do it on my own."
In 2009 she opened d'Ellisious Cake Studio of Aspen, with exactly one advance order for a wedding cake. But within two months she had paid back her business loan, and the business, which is 80 percent wedding cakes, grew exponentially each year (until this past summer, when Buckley had a baby boy).
Buckley says that, among pastry chefs, wedding cakes are a niche of their own, which is why she is comfortable calling herself a "cake artist."
"Wedding cakes are high stress," she said. "It has to be structurally sound because it's transported. It has to sit out eight hours, have five tiers. A lot of people won't mess with wedding cakes."
Attendees at the Salon today will be able to experience Buckley's skill not only at making a cake look good and stand strong but in making one taste good. Her creation will be served. But don't expect Buckley to do the slicing.
"I've only cut two wedding cakes in my life," she said. "That would break my heart. They're my babies."
The Salon at Justice Snow’s
Sunday, Dec. 1 at 5 p.m.