Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Weekend with the Sugar Plum Fairy

Buttercream Roses.

Just a short drive from the CIA, tucked away in an unassuming neighborhood, lies an inveritable land of sweet treasures, perfectly crafted by expert hands.

    The master behind this amazing work is someone that all prospective and current CIA students, as well as Baking and Pastry industy leaders should know about, yet few seldom do.

Betty at her work station 

    Picture the person who taught many of the CIA Pastry Chefs the majority of what they know about cake decorating. Then picture the same person also fostering the careers of Sylvia Weinstock, Ron Ben Israel, and Buddy Valestro. She is a master sugar artist, has traveled to and competed in the World Culinary Olympics in Frankfurt, Germany, and has perfected the art and craft of cake decorating, paving the way for aspiring cake decorators and sugar artists across the country.

One of Betty's Famous Pieces

    I was fortunate enough to spend two days with the legendary Betty Van Norstrand, after I enrolled in one of her many cake decorating classes. This particular class was on Advanced Sugar Flowers, and was taught in the comfort of her home in Hyde Park. I have wanted to take classes with Betty since one of my chefs recommended them during my first year of my AOS degree. Although I might have put it off until four weeks before I graduated my BPS degree, Betty was more than willing to accommodate my schedule.

    Taking classes with such a renowned cake decorator was a must on my list of to-dos, since I aspire to own my own wedding cake business in the future. The only people on the class roster were myself and my friend Dominique, so it was certainly the perfect atmosphere to learn and ask Betty anything that popped into our heads.

    The class took place in the basement of her home, and let me tell you, it is like Candyland; a pure sugar-filled heaven on earth. As we descended the stairs and entered the room, I wasn’t sure what to look at first. Betty has cakes, flowers and showpieces that are several decades old, and still in impressive condition. It was surreal to see gorgeous displays of perfectly piped buttercream flowers from 30 years ago, or a pastillage egg that has traveled to Germany and back, and then all over the World to various decorator shows and competitions.

Dominique at the work station

    We sat down at our workstations, and were surrounded with all of the tools one could possibly need to create anything their heart desired. Flower drying racks, glue pens, ball tools, flower and leaf cutters, veiners, imprinted rolling pins, and that wasn’t even the beginning. After perusing the racks upon racks of finished gum paste flowers, we chose which ones we wanted to produce during the two days we were in class, including a poppy, pansy, rose, fuscia, peony, and hibiscus. One day would be devoted to the fabrication of the flowers, and the second would be to the finishing, taping, assembling, and coloring the flowers. As we worked we spoke of the complexities of running a cake business, tips and tricks for fondant, royal icing, and pastillage, the best place to buy supplies and tools, and about Betty’s newest great grandchild, who was on the way at that moment.

My Finished Rose!

    I was truly amazed at Betty’s creativity and persistence, especially since she started decorating at a time where women weren’t extremely respected in the industry, and when the tools we are so accustomed to using today did not exist. In fact, she created a lot of those tools simply by trial and error with items that she found around her house. What’s the best way to get your fondant or gumpaste to look like leather? Use sandpaper! She showed us how she holds extra flower stamen inside of a tic tac container, and taught us to really look at how the real flower is shaped, and then think about how we can recreate that effect in our work. Even her simple tips on how to save your joints, how to produce more flowers in a faster manner were extremely helpful.

All Of My Finished Flowers!


 It was purely an honor to be in the presence of such a successful and industry-altering woman for as long as we were, and I am truly grateful for that experience. For those of you who are interested, you should certainly take the opportunity to learn from this incredible person. Betty is more than willing to accept students and teach classes on a number of cake decorating techniques; all you have to do is ask! I hope that we all can aspire to introduce such change to the industry we know and love.

Thank you for all you’ve done, Betty!

For information on Betty’s classes, please contact CIA Baking and Pastry Chef Dieter Schorner, or e-mail blogger Blayre Miller at BM680250@mycia.net

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