Mother, daughter team up to make sweet combination

By Emily Van Zandt Originally Published November 18, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated November 16, 2012 at 10:36 a.m.
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Emily Van Zandt

Elizabeth Johnson and her daughter, Aurora, often collaborate on cakes for Johnson’s home-based business Covered in Cake. They deliver cakes across central Arkansas in their PT Cruiser.

The story of how Elizabeth Johnson found her way into the cake decorating business isn’t a pretty one.

Her daughter, Aurora, was turning 5, and Johnson had ordered a cake from a grocery-store bakery. It was to be pink — no blue — with a Disney Princess theme.

But when she went to pick up the dessert, it was slathered in tombstone gray icing. Her daughter’s name was misspelled.

“Of course I started crying,” said Johnson, a self-described control-freak Mom. “Then I started thinking, ‘I could do this, and maybe do it better.’”

In 2009, after decorating cakes for friends and family for some time, Elizabeth took her hobby to the next level, launching Covered in Cake. In 2011, she started decorating full time.

Johnson’s main focus is designing and covering the cakes — she leaves baking up to a more oven-skilled partner in crime. With a background in art and graphic design, Johnson uses colored, flavored fondant to craft whimsical, intricate designs. There’s been a Burger King Whopper cake, skull cakes, guitar cakes and beer-can cakes.

“I love drawing, so if someone comes to me wanting a purse cake, I’ll ask them specifically what brand,” said Johnson, who runs Covered in Cake out of her home in Lonoke. “If it’s a Coach purse, I’ll Google the style and find a way to make it 3-D.”

When she was first learning the trade, Johnson practiced on foam dummy cakes and turned to online video website YouTube to learn many of the skills she uses today. Though cake decorating classes are widely available, most don’t teach the kind of fondant creations that have become stylish, thanks to shows such as TLC’s Cake Boss and Food Network’s Ace of Cakes.

“But there should be!” said Johnson’s now 11-year-old daughter.

From the beginning of Johnson’s cake career, Aurora has been in the kitchen watching. Soon she was carefully rolling out layers of fondant for small cakes of her own, hand-painting the smallest details.

The duo, who don’t hesitate to finish each other’s sentences, travel together to cake conventions all over the country. But so far, only Aurora has gotten up the nerve to enter her cakes in contests outside the central-Arkansas area.

“She’s not a competitive person, so I was really surprised when she wanted to enter the contests,” Johnson said. “I’m so proud of her.”

Aurora entered a Medieval castle-themed cake for a competition in Austin earlier this year, and she won first prize for a red-dragon cake she decorated for a kids’ competition at a local Chinese New Year celebration.

“I like doing the competitions for the fun and for people to see my hard work,” Aurora said. “But I’m not upset if someone beats me or I don’t win.”

Aurora, who takes fifth-grade courses online through the Arkansas Virtual Academy, helps with the big orders for Covered in Cake as often as she can. She’s especially good at keeping the cakes safe in the back seat of the PT Cruiser when her mom is delivering orders.

Both mother and daughter agree that the business is about more than just cake — the work they do is art. Just don’t tell Aurora her work is too pretty to eat.

“I’d be offended because it took me such a long time to do,” Aurora said.

An average cake takes roughly three to four hours to decorate, but multi-tiered cakes can take much longer, Johnson said. The bakery only takes on a maximum of six cakes a week, with birthday-cake requests serving as the company’s bread-and-butter orders.

The popularity of cake decorating on TV has given Covered in Cake a big boost, Johnson said, although she laughingly describes the shows as “fakes.”

“They’ll drop a tray of decorations made from gum paste that takes hours to dry, and then the cake is miraculously remade in 15 minutes,” Johnson said.

But seeing the amount of detail pastry chefs put into those TV cakes has helped some customers appreciate Johnson’s pricing. Others still have to be convinced.

“Some people still don’t understand why we can’t compete with Walmart prices,” Johnson said. “But if you bought a tailor-made dress, you wouldn’t ask why the dress wasn’t as cheap as something off the rack.”

Johnson gets most excited when the designs in her head come out as well on paper and on the cakes. She’s currently experimenting with thin slices of gelatin to create delicate butterfly and dragon wings.

For Aurora, the best part of living in a cake store is the occasional snack.

“[Our kitchen] is a labyrinth of cake supplies, but it’s worth it,” Aurora said. “I could eat a whole cake.”

After years of delivering cakes all around Cabot, Jacksonville and across central Arkansas, Johnson isn’t so sure she could eat one more bite.

“I don’t think I can even taste cake anymore,” she said, laughing.

Staff writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or evanzandt@arkansasonline.com

Staff Writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at 501-399-3688 or emily@syncweekly.com.

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