A Slice of Genius: Spotlight on Cynthia's Cakes
Since decorating her first humble loaf cake in 1983, Cynthia Ebrom has come a long way. She’s baked elaborate cakes for the likes of Bill Clinton, won countless competitions and seen her creations displayed in flashing lights in Times Square. Lucky for us, she shared how her business got so big, how she just can’t bring herself to cut the cakes she lovingly makes and how to handle any wedding cake disaster.
How did you first get into cake baking?
I got into cake decorating in 1983 as a single parent trying to make ends meet. My sister-in-law brought home a cake that she had learned to decorate at a crafts store. And it just clicked. I thought, I’ll make some extra money decorating cakes for people! But I had no training or money to go to a class. So I bought a $5 kit and taught myself how to decorate using a Wilton book.
When did you turn that into a business?
I didn’t begin earning any money until 1987 when I started making cakes here and there for people at work. I was charging very little, like $5 for a banana loaf, because I didn’t feel I was very good. I had perfected the frosting borders, but I didn’t know how to make flowers. That’s when my husband said, “Why don’t you go and learn from the big dogs in Chicago?” So I took a course at Wilton School of Cake Decorating, and the rest is history.
What was the first wedding cake you made?
It was my own wedding cake! It had silk flowers, and we’d gotten married on the hottest day of the year in a park. At the time, I didn’t know about dowel rods or that you’re supposed to put support under each tier. But the cake stood up all day and only started leaning a little bit. It was so stressful that I swore I would never make another wedding cake ever again. Since then, my business has evolved to just wedding cakes -- so never say never!
What was your big break?
The University of Texas Pan-American contacted me about doing a cake to commemorate President Bill Clinton’s visit to Edinburg. I made a cake in the shape of the White House, and one of Clinton’s cabinet members actually cut the cake and took a chunk of it onto Air Force One with the president. I think that’s when we became known -- people were saying, “She did a cake for the president!”
what’s your most satisfying career moment?
I used to make cakes at the university when they would bring in big-name people to speak. I got to meet the CEO of Dell, Michael Dell, when he was a keynote speaker at the university, and he loved the cake that I made in the shape of a computer. Several years later, I entered a small-business contest through Dell and won a free ad in Times Square for three days. I took my staff and we all flew up to New York to see it. As I stood in Times Square with all these people taking pictures of my cakes, that’s when it dawned on me how far I’d come from those $5 banana loaves.
What was your most stressful moment?
When my first cake fell -- and that was the very first wedding cake I took money for! They had asked me to set the cake up at 9 a.m., but the reception wasn’t until that evening. At about 7 p.m., somebody called to tell me that the cake had fallen. I was devastated, and I cried for two days. When someone walks in here and gives me money, I have such a huge responsibility to come through for them, and I didn’t that day. But I learned a huge lesson from that experience: You don’t set up cakes 12 hours in advance! That’s also when I learned about supporting the tiers of a cake. Although that first experience was awful, mistakes have to happen for you to learn. After that, I said I wasn’t going to do any more wedding cakes. I thought, Forget this -- it’s way too much stress, it’s not worth it, and I ruined somebody’s day. And then customers came to me and told me to stop being so hard on myself. It was those customers who trusted me that brought it all back around.
What's the coolest cake you’ve ever made?
We’re really close to the Mexican border and Talavera tile is a big thing here -- everyone has it in their house. One day, this girl brought in a tile that she was putting in her kitchen and asked if we could copy it. Lo and behold, we made a cake just like it. It was the coolest thing. And there’s this great photo of the expression on her face when she first saw it -- she’s staring at the cake with her mouth open. It was unbelievable how much she loved it. We all did.
What happens after you finish a cake?
Once I get the cake on the table, I let the servers come in and cut it. I just can’t cut them -- it would break my heart too much. Like the tile cake -- there was no way I could’ve cut that cake. The same thing happened with my son’s groom’s cake -- there was no way he was going to cut it. I have it here, sitting at the shop still. I put so much energy into my cakes. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday, I live on adrenaline. My mind just attaches to that piece of work for that bride, and all of my energy goes into it. And then Saturday afternoon once it’s delivered, I come home, collapse and recover.
Are there any memorable moments you’ve had with a bride you’ve worked with?
I’ve had many brides come in and cry because they love their cakes so much. But here’s a special story that stands out for me: I’ve been baking cakes for a long time. One of my brides whose wedding cake I made years ago came in with her daughter, who was turning 15. The couple loved their wedding cake so much that they came back and asked me to do the daughter’s Quinceañera cake. They cried over how meaningful it was that everything came full circle. And I’m sitting there thinking, Oh my god, am I that old already? But I love that they’re back for a second generation.-- Vi-An Nguyen