Story by Adrienne McGee Sterrett
Like every mom, April Spencer just wanted a nice birthday cake for her baby.
“It all started when my oldest had her first birthday party,” Spencer said. “I did a pretty epic cake for my oldest’s first birthday.”
Epic is the correct word. The theme was “Under the Sea,” and she made a main cake and a smash cake.
“It was my first ever two-tier cake … and I made about 100 tiny little sea creatures to go all over it and seaweed and coral. … It took me about a month and a half to do all the little (fondant) decorations and a lot of YouTube research to be able to pull off that cake.
“I had never stacked a cake before,” she explained. “I was pretty petrified that it was going to fall. Knowing what I know now, it should have fallen, but it didn’t. I got really, really lucky.”
Such an ambitious project surely means her story begins at her mother’s elbow in the kitchen, growing up in a Norman Rockwell painting. Try again.
“My mom was a single mom, so she worked a ton. She had like three jobs when we were growing up. … My grandma was there to help us … but she wasn’t necessarily your Betty Crocker. She taught us how to play solitaire and poker and not really how to bake cookies,” Spencer said, laughing.
She learned how to cook meals out of necessity. She moved frequently as a child and came from Florida to Allen East schools her sophomore year. She met Matt, who she would marry in 2013, and now they have three girls, ages 6, 4 and 1.
Spencer, 32, has worked as a bartender and a vet tech — but her dream was to go to art school. An older sister, who lives in North Carolina, is a baker and caterer and encouraged her to lean in to baking as a business. Once the “Under the Sea” cake was under her belt, Spencer began making cakes and cookies for family members and people at her husband’s work. It allowed her to be creative, help her family’s finances and stay at home to raise their children.
“I’m a doer,” she said. “I’m actually kind of bad at that. If there’s something that I can learn how to do, I’m going to learn how to do it.
“I’m a very visual learner. I can’t do recipe books. It’s not my thing. It’s not how my brain likes to process stuff. I can watch a video and have it like that,” she said. “And I still YouTube stuff. You can learn anything off of YouTube. … If you fail, nobody has to know.”
Two years ago, she crept carefully into doing wedding cakes — admitting to being petrified — but most of her fears were allayed with the purchase of a special cake box that will protect the cake in the car during transport. Around the same time, she began to explore sugar work.
“It’s a lot of fun. I’m starting to get more adventurous brides,” she said, explaining a geode cake with a missing tier in the middle. Cake and poured sugar can combine in exciting ways.
“It was another one of my little one’s birthdays,” Spencer said. “I remember the neighbor lady that I grew up beside, she would make lollipops for us.”
The recipe was basic hard candy — sometimes called hard tack candy or what is known as Jolly Ranchers. The friend made basic flavors and simply poured it out onto a cookie sheet. But Spencer was allowed to add the sprinkles she wanted and has very fond memories of the process. She wanted to delve back into that for the birthday party coming up.
She did an internet search for the recipe, and her mind was opened.
“Then I realized the lollipop universe had gotten quite sophisticated,” she said. “And that led me down a big black hole. … I knew that you could get chocolate lollipop molds, but I didn’t realize how big this was. … The options were just absolutely endless.”
But first, practice.
“There’s definitely a science to it. If something is off just a tiny bit, things can go really, really bad. They won’t set up or if you get 3 degrees above your boiling point, it turns yellow. A lot of batches have been thrown away before I got really good at it.”
Using the right mold is key.
“You can’t use a chocolate mold because it can’t withstand the (300-degree) temperatures of the hard candy. … I actually did that once. It’s really bad. You have lollipop all over your counter,” she said. “I have quite a few burns before I got really good at it.
“Probably the best thing about sugar is you can do so much with it. Once you get past the scared aspect. It can be very scary. It can cause a lot of damage. Once you know how to work with it … you can do the most amazing things,” she said. “It’s just beautiful. It’s just a texture that’s like no other.”
She currently bakes wedding cakes and makes lollipops in her home kitchen. In the past, she has rented commercial kitchen space for the lollipops to satisfy the cottage food law requirement of baking goods that are shipped out of state in an inspected kitchen.
“I had way too much time during the stay-at-home order, and we blew lid off of it,” Spencer said, explaining she found a new line of flavorings online. New: a booze line (think mango margarita lollipop with lime salt, sangria with a piece of dried blood orange inside), a “Dad box” (whiskey and cola, bacon, cheddar cheese) and a dessert selection (angel food cake, tiramisu).
She originally had these interesting flavors in mind for lollipops, but she has pivoted to incorporate them into wedding cake and icing flavorings.
For now, she is focusing on wedding cakes — as her August schedule is full of weddings that were postponed from June and July. But lollipops will be back as a major offering, as soon as the pandemic allows.
“The husband keeps saying I need to pick one, but I just can’t. They’re both really, really fun.”
Spencer’s Sugar Shop LLC
• Lollipops start at $1 each. Pick-up only. Lollipops will not be shipped, as the pandemic interfered with prompt delivery.
• Use the “Contact Us” button on Facebook to detail your wedding cake needs.
Almond/Vanilla Cut-Out Sugar Cookies
— In the past, Spencer has taught in-home cookie decorating classes with this recipe.
1 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons almond extract
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt, fine
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
With a mixer, cream together butter and sugar. Add egg, extracts and baking powder. Once mixed, add in flour 1 cup at a time.
When combined and dough is not sticking to sides, place on a floured counter. Roll out to your desired thickness and cut out. Place on baking sheet and bake for 8 minutes.
3 cups powdered sugar
2 tablespoons meringue powder
1/3 cup water, plus additional by the drop to thin
Add powdered sugar and meringue to mixer bowl and combine. Add water slowly while mixer is on low. When combined, mix on high for 2 minutes. Color and add water to thin.