Carmen Harrison knows a lot about cake.
The veteran baker has been making cakes since she was in high school. She's even been to pastry school. Today, the busy, stay-at-home mother of two finds the time to work her magic in the kitchen at night.
"I don't do it professionally, but I have a passion for it," she said. "I do it because it's fun."
Harrison won Best Decorated honors in last year's Tucson Cake Bake-Off Competition, an annual event that is part of Tucson's Birthday month. (Full disclosure: Linda Ray, the Tucson Weekly's City Week listings coordinator, organizes Tucson's Birthday month.) Other categories include Taste, Creativity and Representation of Tucson, as well as a Youth division for the kiddos. Harrison's winning cake, titled "Great Things in Tucson," was an ambitious work of art that included Tohono O'odham baskets, Spanish paper flowers, and Sentinel Peak, aka "A" Mountain. It was also topped with an intricate model of the Mission San Xavier del Bac.
"It probably took me six hours to make the whole thing," she said.
Not only were her decorations complex; so was the inside of the cake. It had three layers: chiffon cake with raspberry filling, French vanilla cake with strawberry filling, and chocolate cake. She covered the cake with buttercream icing and fondant, a type of icing used to cover the outside of the cake to make it look smooth. "It's sweet, but it doesn't have flavoring," said Harrison.
Abby Smith is a cake master, too. Now 7 years old, she won her first cake bake-off competition in the Youth category last year. With the help of her Aunt E.B., she made a cake, titled "Cactus," that was topped with a miniature saguaro cactus, which Smith shaped herself. The cake also included crushed graham crackers sprinkled across a smooth, red-orange sunset and a brown desert floor.
Smith's favorite part of the whole process was "frosting it." She explained how she rolled out fondant with a rolling pin and used cookie-cutters to make shapes, like a sun.
She said that making a cake takes a lot of planning and practice. "We had to draw out what we wanted our cake to look like," she said. "I did the drawing."
This year's Cake Bake-Off should be quite the show. With four celebrity judges—including UA head baseball coach Andy Lopez, local TV and radio personality April Madison, former UA basketball player Corey Williams, and Ward 2 City Councilman Paul Cunningham—there is already a lot of excitement buzzing around the event.
"Quite a few people are doing it again this year," said C.J. Fitzgibbon, a member of the Tucson Ward 2 staff. "Most of the cakes are pretty elaborate."
Indeed. Abby Smith's aunt, Elizabeth (E.B.) Kamp, won Best Tucson Representation honors last year for her 2-foot-tall replica of UA mascot Wilbur the Wildcat.
Here's the lowdown: From 9 to 11 a.m., Tuesday, Aug. 16, there will be a public viewing of the cakes. Refreshments, like coffee, tea and lemonade, will be provided. At 11 a.m., the judges will taste-test the cakes. At noon, the winners will be announced, and the cake will be served. From noon until 1 p.m., there will be free tastings for everyone to enjoy. There will be a bouncy house for kids, and finger foods to snack on, in case you aren't full from the cake. Prizes for this year's winners will include dinner for two at Luna Bella, and a $50 gift card to the Tucson Racquet and Fitness Club.
While baking cakes for the competition is fun, it's also a chance to brush up on your Tucson history.
"I learned so much about Tucson as I researched for my decorations," said Harrison. "Tucson is so culturally rich. I want to represent that diversity on my cake this year."
While Abby Smith doesn't have plans to enter the competition this year—she'll be busy starting the second-grade this month—she said she'll be helping out with Aunt E.B.'s cake.
"I love baking," she said. "I want to be a baker when I grow up."
Smith's mother, Anna, added that Abby is always whipping out kids' cookbooks and wanting to make something new. In addition to cakes, Abby has other culinary interests.
"I like to make brownies," she smiled.