When this year has offered moments for (safe) celebrations, they’ve been creative — a wedding in matching hazmat suits, bring-your-own-everything gatherings outdoors, every possible way to party on Zoom. 2020 remains 2020 with all its tragedy, and steps toward much-needed social change. But there have still been birthdays, engagements, and love that fills and transcends social bubbles. Amy Rhodes sees this daily through the orders for pies, cupcakes, macarons, and custom cookies that fill her inbox. She’s a sought-after custom baker and full-time graphic designer in Michigan, once recruited by the Food Network for a competitive cooking show. I spoke with her for an occasional Spectrum Cafe series on vegetarian-friendly small businesses.
Amy Rhodes: I’ve been in art since I could even remember. Drawing, music — I play the cello — and fine art have always been in my background, and I asked myself, how can I make money doing this? I realized that being a graphic designer was the best option for me.
But I always loved baking, though I never considered doing extremely decorative baking until after I got married and Instagram became a thing. Suddenly, you could see all these magnificent creations that people were doing on Instagram, and it inspired me to try it out — more than just making something delicious, making it look incredible, like a piece of artwork.
Question: What’s the value of something beautifully decorated that’s designed to be eaten?
Answer: When someone orders something highly decorated from a bakery that features highly decorative baked goods, it’s usually a gift. While people always remember things that tasted amazing, it’s another level of remembering something when it looks crazy-amazing, when it looks like something that couldn’t be edible, but is. People get such a reaction out of seeing something that they don’t want to eat, because it’s too pretty, but they do, and are amazed that it tastes so good. It makes me so happy that my desserts offer people both beautiful decorations and fantastic taste, because I strive for both — I would never make something I wouldn’t eat myself.
What are some ways we can support small business owners?
Especially in times like now, one order a day makes a huge difference for small businesses, and they truly appreciate it. Why not make it local? I know that I appreciate it, so why not pass it along to the next small business? I’ve worked with a lot of small businesses, hosting pop-up events, and I try to encourage people who buy from me to also support them. I try to pass along to my followers any events they might have.
How did you start doing pop-up events?
I never really thought I’d be selling as much as I am now — I started by just funding my baking hobby. I began posting my work on Instagram and tried to get recruited by Food Network competition shows a couple times. I went halfway through the interview process to join a show, but realized I was too nervous to pursue it. Then, a local restaurant that had just opened reached out to me about doing a pop-up during a holiday to increase traffic for both of us. I stayed up for two days straight making cookies for the event. It went well! My next pop-up was at a local salon event, and I created winter-themed cookies and macarons. Then, a coffee shop. Of course, COVID has put a pause on pop-ups for now.
How’s your business doing in the midst of a pandemic?
It’s been up and down. When things first began to shut down, orders dropped off. I baked a bit for Instagram, just for fun. Then orders picked up, especially in August to October. I think people became tired of baking and wanted to make things feel more special again.
I have a full-time job, and if I have orders, they take up all of my free time.
I think with COVID, people wanted to make celebrations that little bit more special for their intimate bubble of family or friends. So they splurged on things to really feel special, since they were isolated. I had a lot of orders for really unique personalized desserts.
Some bakers get really busy during the holidays, but for my business, I’ve noticed that people want to bake for themselves during the holidays.
What was your most memorable order?
My first portrait cookie, featuring a drawing of the birthday girl on top of the frosting. I have done a lot of painting, just never before on cookies! It was a surprise for the recipients. The girl’s mom sent me a great photo of her daughter, which was the inspiration. I tried a couple of different versions and included one as an extra cookie. After the girl’s family received the box, they messaged me to express how much it meant to them; the girl’s mom cried when she saw the cookie. The girl was heading to college and had recently taken her senior photographs. For her family, it was a big surprise at an already emotional moment. It made me melt to hear about their reaction.
I love it when customers tell me their stories about how their baked goods were received. With every order, I’m very nervous that the customer is going to hate it. No matter how good my work looks to some people, I’m my own worst critic. Hearing that customers loved their order is a huge relief for me.
Tell me about the process of applying to be on a Food Network competition show.
I used to post photos of my baking on my personal Facebook profile. Somehow, a Food Network recruiter reached out to encourage me to apply for a competition show, and start an Instagram account to highlight my work. After I did, she recommended making a croquembouche — a cream puff tower, covered in hard caramel and spun sugar, which was popular in Food Network circles at the time. It worked the first time I tried it, and got me started on trying other things to fill up my Instagram portfolio. From there, family and close friends began asking me to make what they saw on my Instagram account for their brother, their aunt, etc. It was just for fun, and I tested out my recipes on them, which is how I justified not charging them anything — I never knew how anything was going to turn out.
My best friend encouraged me to start a Facebook Business Page, and soon I got my first paid order: an edible flower tart for the customer’s daughter, who was graduating from college. And it had to be vegan. It was delicious. Through more word of mouth, and eventually pop-ups, I’ve grown my customer base to what it is today.
What’s next for your business?
In the short term, I plan to keep doing what I’m doing, especially since we don’t know how long the pandemic will last. I don’t think I want to run my business full-time — I don’t think I would enjoy it anymore. I get enjoyment out of it being once a week, or once every other week. I really like where I am right now. But I may need to re-evaluate if I have to consistently turn down more orders. I just know that I don’t want to start a full-time bakery. My mom and I have always joked that once she retires, she wants to run a bed and breakfast, and I can bake for that, and have a little gift shop with baked goods and tea.
What types of projects are next for you?
I’d love to make more exotic flavor combinations, like matcha-strawberry-balsamic, but no one wants that! A good way for me to test recipes, pre-pandemic, were my work potlucks. I always had to make something vegan, since I’m in an Adventist workspace, and once in a while, gluten-free. One of the most interesting projects I’ve tackled involved making my own aquafaba, the liquid leftover from hydrating chickpeas, which is used as an egg substitute. I prepped the beans by soaking them, then reduced the aquafaba and used it to make meringue cookies. I’ve also made meringue and marshmallows with the aquafaba. The flavor was great, but the baked goods had more of a delicate texture, not as strong as an egg protein. But, it worked. I’ve also made my own tapioca pearls for tiger boba tea, which turned out really well. I’d love to try more types of baked goods, but I hate to waste ingredients and I don’t want to have to be ultimately responsible for eating them.
Have you had any spectacular failures?
For the longest time, lemon meringue pie was my nemesis. I could never make all three components of the pie perfect at the same time. The crust would be too thick and hard. The lemon filling would be complete soup. The meringue would be weepy, and I couldn’t torch it just right. But, the very last time I made it was for my husband’s birthday. I reminded myself that I was a better baker than the last time I tried making it, two years prior. It turned out absolutely perfect. The meringue was mile-high perfect Swiss meringue, torched with a kitchen torch, and I even piped the design of the meringue all over the pie. Pie servings came out in perfect wedges. I could’ve cried.
When I do fail, and I’ve spent so much time and energy, it makes me upset that I wasted all of the ingredients, that I wasted all of my time, and that the person I was baking for wasn’t going to get what I’d made. (Most of the time, the mistakes I’ve made were for people I knew, so I just start over again.) They don’t know what went wrong. And when I do succeed, I almost don’t want to make it again! But I can rely on some neat tips and tricks I’ve learned over time to make the process easier, like a dehydrator to set icing on cookies faster.
What are your recommendations for folks at the holiday cookies level of baking at home?
Just try whatever you’re interested in making. You’re never going to get good just watching bloggers make things. Actually trying it is the only way I’ve ever gotten better. You can get all the tips and tricks from Instagram, but you can’t apply them until you’re actually in the kitchen and getting your hands dirty. Go on Pinterest, find something that looks good, read the blog post and get all the tips and tricks they recommend, and just make it. Don’t make a big production out of it. If you don’t like it, try a different recipe next time. Eventually, you’ll find something you really like, you’ll add more or less of an ingredient, and eventually, you’ll come out with a custom recipe.
How do you source good recipes from blogs?
A good thing to go by is watching somebody make their own recipe. I really appreciate when bakers go through their process with you, and they have success more than once. It seems like it’s something they’ve made every day, and they’ve had success with it many times, not just once. You can listen for their buzzwords and keywords — if they like things that are crunchier and you do as well, you’ll know you’re going to like what they’re making. Go with something you vibe with. And if you have some inspiration from somewhere, it makes a big difference to credit where it came from.
ZoeBakes is a great place to start. She’s more into restaurant-style desserts. I started with her star bread, filling it with things I made up, like she recommended. I used my homemade jam, then added chopped nuts, or cream cheese, and it always turned out amazing because of her bread recipe.
Beyond what’s on your social media sites, what do you want people to know about your business?
I really want to work with people on something they’ve only dreamed about, something they never thought could take a physical form. I want to make their wildest dessert dreams for birthday or celebration extravaganzas come true. I love brainstorming ideas, especially showing people some ideas and hearing them say, “Wow, can you actually do that?” I want to try out all my techniques and encourage people to step outside of their comfort zone because the end result is so much more exciting when they couldn’t imagine it alone. Letting me add my creative input gets the best results. Whenever people dictate exactly what they want, 99 percent of the time it isn’t as good as it could have been. It’s always better if I can add my ideas.
What are some baking tricks you’d recommend?
Small things like calibrating your oven. You think your oven will be the temperature it says it is, but sometimes it can be as much as 25 degrees off. Get an oven thermometer to see if the temperature in your oven is what you set it to. If you know that your oven has a hot spot, that can completely change the results of your baking. To find out if your oven has a hot spot, put a thin layer of flour on a baking tray and bake it at 350-375 degrees for 15-20 minutes. Pull out the tray and look at the flour on it — you’ll be able to see if flour in one corner is darker than in another, showing where the hot spots in the oven are. Then, you’ll know to rotate your cookies part way through baking next time if one corner always gets more brown and crispy.
I also recommend getting a kitchen scale: Measuring cups can’t measure the weight of flour. You can have such a difference in the actual amount of your flour if you weigh it versus using a measuring cup to scoop it out. Most recipes now include measurements in cups and grams or ounces. Your baking will improve, and it will be consistent every time.
What’s the first thing someone should order from you?
It depends on whether the person plans on eating it or giving it as a gift. If you want to eat something, you want it to be an experience. I’d recommend a tart or a cake. I always do really luxurious filled cupcakes, so you’re getting textures, different flavors and a less sweet, less dense frosting and toppings. For the dessert person who’s going to eat something and revel in the glory of a magnificent dessert, then you want something like that. It may be just a small cake or a dozen cupcakes, but make it extra — not just a regular cupcake.
For the person giving something as a gift, I find that personalized things such as cookies are a big deal for people. Kids especially love personalized cookies. Before Christmas, I did Christmas elf cookies that look like the kids who are getting the cookies, such as red-headed with freckles. The plaque each elf is holding will have the kid’s name on it with, with “Nice List” above it. Anything that’s ultra-personalized and also tastes good is a major gift.
Midori Yoshimura is a content and communications strategist in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Photos courtesy of Amy Rhodes.
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