Lynnette MacDonald is getting ready to put together a three-dimensional cake for a child’s birthday party. The cake, which will eventually look like a sweet little horse kneeling prettily in a meadow, involves the flavourful made-from-scratch cake and rich buttercream that MacDonald uses for all of her cakes, but this horsey also needs a metal rod to keep his head aloft and some other engineering tricks to give him his shape. MacDonald is thrilled by the challenge of getting this little guy together and earning the “oohs” and “ahhs” that are bound to come from all the party guests.
MacDonald is the owner, baker, and cake decorator for Swirl Cakes and Cupcakes, a local custom bakery that specializes in ornately decorated and deeply delicious baked goods for special occasions; weddings, birthdays, retirement parties, or corporate events. Through her high-end creations and business savvy, MacDonald has created a unique business model that manages to turn a profit while fitting in with her other career as a registered nurse. Two days a week MacDonald bakes out of an otherwise rarely-used commercial kitchen in the back of a ritzy volleyball facility, eliminating the need to pay full-time rent on a dedicated bakery kitchen. She bakes by custom order only, and those orders come in at a pretty fast clip.
“We usually book up at least two weeks in advance and take six to ten orders a week,” MacDonald says. “I think Calgary is already served really well with on-demand bakeries, so we’re really targeting the specialty cakes and the 3D stuff — the gravity-defying cakes.”
The “wow factor” of MacDonald’s cakes is indisputable: over Swirl’s four-year existence she’s made countless breathtaking wedding cakes, themed cakes, and custom-made cupcakes. Some of her crowning glories include a cake for the cast and crew of Cirque du Soleil’s Amaluna that featured several different shapes balanced on top of each other, a helicopter flying off an oil rig that she made for STARS, numerous teddy bears for baby showers and first birthdays, and more standard, but still elaborately decorated square and round cakes, often arranged in tiers. While MacDonald does enjoy the creative aspect of her job, she says that her fascination with 3D cakes doesn’t just lie in the artistry — it’s about the science.
“I’m an RN by trade and I did a lot of science in university and I love physics and engineering,” she says. “This allows me to combine that with baking.”
MacDonald’s interest in cake decorating stems from a lifelong love of baking, but kicked into gear years ago when she started attending cake decorating classes with a friend who wanted to jazz up her kids’ birthday cakes. MacDonald realized that she was good at it (and loved doing it as well), so she continued on. Friends started asking her for cakes for special occasions, then their friends started asking for cakes, and so on. That, coupled with public awareness about what can be done with cakes thanks to shows like Cake Boss, the market is prime for Swirl’s product.
But it’s not all about the flash. For MacDonald, the taste of the cake is just as important as the look. Swirl offers a number of different flavours of icing, filling, and cake, all of which are interchangeable by custom order. She says chocolate and vanilla remain the most popular, but she’s done everything from chocolate chili wedding cakes to Corona cupcakes with lime cream cheese frosting. She’ll do gluten and dairy-free cakes (though can’t promise nut-free because she doesn’t use a nut-free facility) and everything that goes out of MacDonald’s kitchen is made completely from scratch.
All of this means that Swirl cakes are more expensive than something you’d find in a grocery store or most neighbourhood bakeries (the cakes price out at $6 to $20 a serving), but since she’s dealing with a segment of the food community that values a certain level of quality, the higher-end pricing hasn’t posed a problem at all.
“With custom and made-from-scratch you get what you pay for,” MacDonald says. “Nothing’s coming out of a box. People recognize that and all the artistry that goes into the final product. And they’re willing to pay for that.”
With orders like the aforementioned Cirque du Soleil cake and a recent project for the Canadian Country Music Association Awards in Edmonton, MacDonald’s measure of success is as much about the reaction she gets to her cakes as the number of times her phone rings for new orders. Hearing people say “can we really eat that?” when they see her elaborate cakes and then be blown away by the deliciousness is her greatest reward.
“To get someone like the CCMAs to ask us to come up and do their awards and get the feedback we got is incredible,” MacDonald says. “When I have professional musicians and actors and creative minds tell me that they think my cakes are amazing, that’s when I know I’m doing a good job.”
Elizabeth Chorney-Booth is a Calgary-based freelance writer, and co-founder/co-editor of RollingSpoon.com. She enjoys exploring the connection between music and food through interviews with musicians and chefs.