Ace of cakes: Senior starts cake business out of her apartment

Aimee Burch

ISU senior Mary Burroughs is a mastermind of tools atypical to most civil engineering students.

When she is not in class learning the ins and outs of structural design, Burroughs can be found mastering the fine art of cake baking and design. Her business, aptly titled Cake Engineering, provides Burroughs with a creative outlet away from her 19-credit hour course load.

“It’s just something I do for fun,” Burroughs said.

Cake Engineering got its start in Burroughs’ senior year of high school. While planning her graduation party, she knew she did not want a typical sheet cake. An avid fan of Duff Goldman and his Food Network show “Ace of Cakes,” Burroughs used this as inspiration and signed up for a fondant decorating class at her local craft store to create her first cake masterpiece.

Other than this class, she has no formal training in cake baking or design. She taught herself how to make cakes from scratch and other design aspects from magazines, books and television shows.

From there, her hobby grew to include making cakes for her friends during her sophomore year of college. Her cakes have gone on to win numerous awards, including a fourth-place finish in the KJJY Cool Cakes contest in fall 2009. As a finalist, she was able to attend the Des Moines Food and Wine Festival and meet Goldman. She also won multiple awards at the 2010 Iowa State Fair, taking home first place in the amateur shaped cakes category and second place in the amateur square wedding cakes category.

Her most recent awards come from the 2011 Iowa State Fair, where she won first place in the amateur single-tier cake and butter cow replica cake competition. Burroughs also took home second place in the amateur mixed shape wedding, square wedding, and shaped cake categories, as well as fourth place in amateur round wedding cake.

Burroughs acknowledged the difficulties that can come with balancing school, jobs and extracurricular activities. Aside from school and Cake Engineering, she works for ISU Dining in the Central Bakery and acts as co-captain for the Concrete Canoe and serves on the Frederiksen Court council.

“Sometimes you just have to sacrifice sleep to get everything done,” Burroughs said. “I plan it out ahead of time. I usually will bake a cake a couple days in advance and divvy up the time to get all the decorating done.”

Burroughs’ civil engineering courses have also shaped how she builds and designs cakes.

“My structural class helped me understand the basics of how to build a cake,” she said. “I’m currently taking a class in project management and it has taught me how to divvy up the basics of your project. Building a cake is similar to a construction project where you design a project and then determine the steps you are going to take and how you are going to build it.”

Beth Hartmann is the professor of the project management course. Hartmann has students fill out a personal data sheet and when she saw cake decorating on Burroughs’, Hartmann became intrigued. Hartmann first ordered a cake for her son’s birthday party. She said she had tons left over, so the following Monday she brought the leftovers to work along with some of Burroughs’ business cards to further spread the word. Hartmann also has ordered cupcakes as treats for some of her classes and speaks volumes of praise for Burroughs’ work.

“[Burroughs’] cakes are some of the best I have ever had,” Hartmann said. “The cakes are beautiful, delicious and amazingly awesome. Her prices are also incredibly reasonable too.”

Burroughs said her most memorable cake was a chocolate cake carved to look like a skull with a crown she made for a Threadcakes competition, where you make a cake based on a T-shirt design.

“It took about 40 hours and was my most artistic cake,” Burroughs said.

Another memorable cake for Burroughs was one she made for a friend’s mom who recently lost her job. The cake was originally canceled, but Burroughs wanted to liven up the spirits and still went ahead with the cake. Her friend’s mom was very tearful when she received the cake, Burroughs said. Her spirits perked up and Burroughs said the woman found a job soon after.

Burroughs also has had her share of cake catastrophes. Her most memorable one came while making a 20-sided dice cake for a fan of “Dungeons and Dragons.”

“I spent about one-and-a-half to two hours carving it,” she said. “When I went to apply the buttercream frosting layer for the fondant, the buttercream was too stiff and pulled up crumbs. All that work was gone and it went from 20 sides to a sphere; I was devastated.”

When someone orders a cake from her, she initially asks what they want and looks to make sure she can fit it in her schedule. She recently added three new flavors to her repertoire: strawberry, lemon and chocolate mud cake, which she said is very popular in Australia.

Despite the busy schedule and infrequent baking mishaps, Burroughs plans to keep Cake Engineering as a side business for now. Burroughs will graduate in December 2012 and she plans to keep decorating cakes at night and on the weekends. She plans to keep things going no matter what may come her way.

“It is something fun and relaxing from work. I am definitely planning on continuing,” Burroughs said.