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posted: 6/4/2013 1:36 PM

Columnist's love of creative cake decorating comes full circle

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  • Stephanie Penick made this luau birthday cake for New York City advertising man Jerry Della Femina in the early 1970s.

    Stephanie Penick made this luau birthday cake for New York City advertising man Jerry Della Femina in the early 1970s.
    Courtesy of Stephanie Penick


A long, long time ago, when I was 12, I decorated a chocolate sheet cake to resemble an American Flag to celebrate Independence Day.

During a recent trip to visit my folks, I discovered a faded Polaroid depicting that cake. The picture reminded me that I had used liquid food coloring that came in a four-pack of tiny bottles with yellow, red, green and blue to color the buttercream frosting.

Consequently, the frosting for the stripes turned out more rose-colored than blood red and the field for the stars was more pastel than night-sky blue.

Still, that photo symbolizes decades devoted to a self-taught hobby that provided countless hours of joy as I used my imagination and ingenuity to layer, mold, carve and sculpt my grandmother's chocolate mayonnaise cake recipe into shapes and 3-D designs.

Unlimited opportunities were presented for me to be creative, allowing my skills to improve every time I designed another one-of-a-kind cake.

All through high school, college and my days at Della Femina, Travisano and Partners, the ad agency where I worked in New York City right out of college, I served as the self-appointed birthday cake baker.

Pop cake art in the shapes of a jar of Skippy Peanut Butter, a New Jersey Turnpike worker shirt, a playbill, a box of L'Oreal and a bottle of Blue Nun, as well as a likeness of adman Jerry Della Femina in a grass skirt for a luau are among photos of the cutout cakes I created after work for a celebration the next day at the office.

Della Femina joked that his birthday cake looked more like him than he did.

The more folks enjoyed my cake art, the more they'd ask, "When are you going to open a cake shop?"

In 1974, I founded Creative Cakes on Manhattan's Upper East Side, where I designed cakes for New Yorkers and special occasions I never could have imagined. That's when I learned about Wilton Enterprises in Chicago, a supplier for paste food coloring that permits cake decorators to mix and match brilliant colors in frosting, much the way painters arrange palettes.

Fast forward to a month ago -- and easily 4,000 cake photos later -- when I received an email from Vallory Farrasso, public relations manager at Wilton Enterprises.

Her news release noted that the Wilton School of Cake Decorating and Confectionery Art is celebrating its recent expansion with an open house on Saturday, June 8.

"We would love for you to attend this exciting, local celebration with a sweet lineup of cake-decorating demonstrations and a live competition," she wrote, having no idea of my connection to the rewarding pastime of cake art.

I responded that in my younger days, I had owned and operated Creative Cakes until I sold it in 1986. I mentioned that I'd used Wilton products -- colors, parchment paper and tips. I added that when I wrote a how-to-do-it book published by Random House in 1978, I'd listed Wilton Enterprises as a mail-order supplier.

Further down the road, I distinctly remember a Saturday morning shortly after we moved to Naperville in 1993 when I was driving along 75th Street and noticed a big Wilton sign promoting a tent sale. I was surprised to find that this Wilton was the same mail-order business I had listed with a Chicago address in my book. My world to find cake-decorating supplies had become smaller.

"I love this connection," Farrasso replied.

The open house for the Wilton School of Cake Decorating and Confectionery Art will be from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at 7511 Lemont Road, Suite 176, in the Chestnut Court Shopping Center in Darien. For information, visit

Farrasso also noted that Wilton Enterprises soon will celebrate its 85th anniversary.

"We recently interviewed Norman Wilton (son of the founder) for an upcoming video we will be producing for the anniversary. It was so neat to hear him tell stories about how his dad started the school, where and how he learned to decorate cakes and how the school turned into a successful business," Farrasso wrote. "It's truly a great American story that started in Chicago."

• Stephanie Penick writes about Naperville regularly for the Daily Herald. Email her at

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