Watch the live version, listen to my podcast or read the transcript below with Elisa Strauss! Also here’s a video demonstration for making the perfect swirl!!!
I am so excited to be here with my friend Elisa Strauss today. Elisa is the author of The Confetti Cakes Cookbook and Confetti Cakes for Kids. Founder and head designer of bakery Confetti Cakes in New York City, in 2000, Elisa and her creations went on to appear in more shows than she can count including the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, The Martha Stewart Show, The View, and in many publications. Her stylish, elegant, modern, and creative designs really set her apart from other cake makers. She even designed Charlotte’s wedding cake to Harry on Sex and the City, which was my favorite show for a very long time. She won the grand prize on the Food Network’s Extreme Cake Challenge and went on to judge many other reality cake competitions. In 2010, she shifted to teaching, product design, and consulting projects. She's a graduate of Vassar and the Institute of Culinary Education and lives in Larchmont with her husband and three children.
Hi, Elisa. Thanks for being here on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” This is the podcast version after we did our great, little video shoot. Thanks for teaching me how to do a cupcake swirl and a snowflake.
Elisa Strauss: See? It wasn’t that hard.
Zibby: It wasn’t that hard. You are this master cake maker artist, amazing. How did you even know you were good at this? When did this gift start to come in your life?
Elisa: Oh, my gosh. There are pictures of me when I was three years old drawing on the floor. I always gravitated towards the kitchen and art and anything that was very detail-oriented. When I was a little girl, I would make these little puzzle drawings and submitted them to art fairs. It’s been forever. Really, baking with my grandmother, nothing elaborate, but she would make these delicious butter cookies and put everyone's name on them and bring them to my mom’s musical concerts. It’s always been such a joyful thing to be in the kitchen.
Zibby: How did you go from taking joy in being in the kitchen to thinking it could be a career for you?
Elisa: Really by accident. I went to college. I thought maybe I’ll be a teacher. Maybe I’ll be an art teacher. Maybe I’ll be a doctor like my father. The world is my oyster. I gravitated towards art, obviously. It wasn’t until after college that I picked up a book by another cake designer, Colette Peters. She made these beautiful cakes that looked like things, really representational art. I knew after graduating I was never going to sit in a studio and paint somewhere, although that does sound appealing to me right now. I love making art, but I also love the art being used. That's probably what led me to fashion. I jumped around. I was interested in pastry, but I wasn’t ready to make that full leap. I didn't know about being in the kitchen for life aside from just baking. It was after I went to fashion where I was doing textile design at Ralph Lauren that I really loved design, color, and all those details. I love making them into fabrics. That's what I was doing. I was a textile designer. I made children's clothes and scarves.
As a hobby, I started baking more and more. I loved the reaction that came, whether I was just bringing a plate of cookies to a holiday party -- I had Lasik surgery. For my eye doctor, I made a cake in the shape of an eye. He was like, “This is what you were doing the night before you had eye surgery?” I'm friendly with him to this day. I knew nothing. I took the four food coloring gels that you find in a grocery store. I painted the iris. Obviously, it was my love of art and feeding people that all led to this. It was after I was in fashion for a while that I thought, “Let me try this.” I still had my foot in fashion. I went from being a full-time employee to a freelancer, and then making more and more cakes on the side. Then I met someone who loved one of my cakes, put it in Time Out New York. Then, the rest is history.
Zibby: Wow. Then you decided to go back to International Culinary?
Elisa: At that point, my brother, who’s very computer savvy, created a very ordinary website for me. This is many years ago before Instagram or any kind of social media. I created the website. I went to pastry school. I went to pastry school first on the weekends while I was still working in fashion to make the dough, literally. I thought it was too difficult. At that point, I had left Ralph Lauren and went to Frédéric Fekkai, who everyone knows as a hair designer, but he had a small leather goods line. I became a designer there. We were travelling a lot. It was great as a twenty-something-year-old travelling to Italy and France. It made it really impossible to stay in pastry school. Eventually I left fashion, went to pastry school full time, and then really launched Confetti Cakes.
Zibby: So cool. What were some of the biggest successes and failures of the very early days, or just one success and one failure?
Elisa: I feel very lucky in the sense -- it’s not a specific answer, but in terms of when I started the business, the Food Network was just starting. I was featured on a lot of these programs, all these Food Network challenges and morning shows and a show called Sugar Rush about career changers. It was made to order, going from a fashion career to a cake designer career. That success just came so quickly, which was so nice. Then that led to getting a book deal and all that stuff.
The failure, I would say that my whole life was wrapped up in it. I felt extreme stress, constant stress. Every week, the cakes would go out. They required tons of work, tons of client interaction. To this day I still say to my husband, “I've been doing this for over twenty years, and something always goes wrong.” It could be the weather. It could be your ingredients. It could be mismeasurement. Especially for what I'm doing, custom cakes, I'm usually not making the same type of dog every time. If you're making a German Shepherd versus a little poodle, the hair’s different. Things always took a really long time. There were a few mishaps. I made one wedding cake round when it should've been square. To me, that was disastrous. I remember I had to call the bride. I said, “Someone in my company along the lines didn't check that they made --” Of course, everyone was always so nice. It wasn’t a complete disaster. It’s like I tell my kids, not everything is perfect, even when you plan.
Zibby: I feel like you need to have so much patience. Even just learning the swirl and everything this morning, you have to really take your time and be so present to make it so perfect. That's a testament to you. It’s true. I didn't realize you have to have such a steady temperament. I love to bake, but maybe this is why I could not be a -- I'm too crazy.
Elisa: It’s so funny. On one hand, people always say that baking is therapeutic. I do that. When I go away, let's say I'm a beach house and there are no mixers, I love to just make a simple banana bread, unadorned chocolate chip cookies. That really is a love. What I do as a career is so stressful. There are so many levels. People see the end result or even what we were doing with the cupcakes. We had to bake the cupcakes, make the filling. You have to make so many things, especially making everything from scratch with the best ingredients. Even just shopping, everything takes so long. Then you have to decorate it. It’s more about being a perfectionist than anything, which is sometimes a detriment. I just can't stop. I used to share a commercial space on the Upper West Side. I shared it with another baker, my friend Geri. She would look over. She’d say, “You're done with the cake.” Then I'd keep working on it another hour. She’d say, “Oh, you're done with the cake.” The details were everything to me.
Zibby: In a way, it’s like writing. You're never really done. You can always tweak it a little more, make it a little better. At some point, you have to say stop.
Elisa: It’s true. Even our little, cute penguins, I was trying to make it a family, but I thought I could've added some cheek color. I could've done some eyelashes. At a certain point, you just have to stop. There's always more to do.
Zibby: Tell me more about the books, Confetti Cakes and Confetti Cakes for Kids, both books. How did you go from your success on TV and all of that to the book deals? What was that whole process like for you?
Elisa: I always wanted to write a book. I felt like that would be such a great vehicle to get sharing my recipes, and also a marketing thing. I was starting my business. I thought this is a great way to show people I actually know what I'm doing. I remember I was dating someone, not my husband.
Zibby: Before you were married.
Elisa: Before I was married. I took a whole bunch of cake decorating books that I had and through that ex-boyfriend’s friend, he had a literary agent. I got a meeting. I said, “I want to write a book, but I want to do it not like any of these.” I had a vision. Then, I was running my business. She's like, “Great. Write a proposal.” I went back. It was six months later. I still didn't have the proposal. She had seen me. She was on a JetBlue flight coming back from LA, and she saw me on TV on the Food Network. She's like, “All right. We have to get this book done.” She paired me with a writer who, again, is my friend ‘til today. That got me to really sit down and think about what I want to do. We wrote the proposal. I had some photographs. I wrote out some recipes.
The publishers, at the time it was Bullfinch, which was later bought by Little Brown, they loved the idea so much that it was a two-book deal. The first one was more of a general cookies, cupcakes, mini cakes, sculpted cakes. Again, each chapter goes from easiest to most difficult. The second book, there were so many ideas. Even the adult cakes I make, so many of them are stuffed animals or kids-liked themed that we ended up going with a kid’s. It’s called Confetti Cakes for Kids. I sometimes laugh at that because it’s not really for kids. The people who are making the cakes aren’t kids. It’s usually for thirty-year-olds that are celebrating their birthday.
Zibby: I have to say, I'm not just saying this. My kids, these are their favorite books to look at. We have all these cookbooks here. Visually, it’s so appealing to them. They’ll paw through it. At dinner, “Let me just look at the cake book.” I was like, “The cake book lady’s coming today!” They were really excited about that.
Elisa: Now they have cupcakes and cookies to eat, even better.
Zibby: If you could go back to the beginning of the whole book writing, editing, publishing process, is there anything you wish you had known at the beginning having gone through it?
Elisa: Oh, my god. Everything. All the stuff that no one ever tells you, like when the publisher comes back with the deal memo, how important that is to get all that stuff -- by the time I took it to my lawyer, he was like, “You already agreed to half this stuff,” down to working with the photographer. The two books are so different in so many ways. The first book was still photography. The second book was digital photography. Even though they weren’t created that far apart, they were made so differently. I look at them. I'm proud of them. Of course now looking back, I wish I could do another book. Being any kind of artist, your work evolves, probably as a writer too. I feel like I should write another book to evolve.
Zibby: One thing I liked about your book is how you casually kept mentioning people in your family throughout, like your Grandma Pearl’s cookies and your mom’s little duck and your brother. I almost wanted to hear more about your family. You had referenced friends throughout. It was really nice.
Elisa: That's nice. Really, who do you bake for? Around the holidays, maybe you bake for some strangers. Really, you're baking, especially if you're going to spend all this time, it’s for your friends and family. People don't need another scarf or gloves, in general. Even to this day, I made a little TV for my brother in the book. He’s a TV producer. I remember for his thirtieth birthday, I made him a pizza burger. He loves pizza burgers. It has a little Mexican flag because he was actually born in Guadalajara, Mexico, which many people don't know. It’s such a way of personalizing something to someone. It could just be a tiny cookie.
Zibby: For those people that can't bake as well as you, even the cookbooks will be a nice gift this holiday if you can't manage to start rollin’ out fondant yourself.
Elisa: People are pleasantly surprised. More than anything, it’s not difficult. It’s time consuming, just like if you're making a quilt or something else. It’s perishable. If you are an organized person, you can do it. What I love, whether it’s the cookies or in the kid’s book I have a delicious brownie recipe -- how many people make brownies from scratch? It’s so easy. Who doesn't love getting brownies?
Zibby: We made your frosting the other day. We bought store-bought -- I have to say -- a mix, but we did your frosting. It was out of this world, the chocolate. It was really good. What else do you have coming up? Weren’t you just in Mexico? I saw on Instagram, you were in some mix masters something.
Elisa: Cake and Bake Masters, Mexico. It was so great. I did two demos, live demonstrations in this stadium, which was great, got me out of my regular routine of dropping my kid off at school to entering this stadium where people were asking for your autograph. That was a great feeling, and people coming up with the books to sign. I also judged two cake competitions. It is interesting to think of myself at this point in my life. I was in so many cake competitions that it was nice knowing how they feel, and then also being on the other side, and also not just giving them cake advice, but saying not to be so hard on yourself. One of the people in the competition made a horse. One part was cracking. It’s like anything. We've all been there. It’s only cake.
Zibby: For only cake, you are a true artist. It really comes through. It’s one of a kind. It’s really neat to see. Do you have anything else coming next? Any advice to young writers or somebody out there maybe who wants to do a cookbook?
Elisa: Practice, practice, practice. One of the greatest things that I teach a lot and I see, especially with all these great shows out there, a lot of young kids are really getting into cake decorating. I just love it. It’s such a healthy way to be in the kitchen. You're using science and math and art and being able to use all those things together. People should just keep practicing. Try it before you think it’s too difficult.
Zibby: Love it. Thanks, Elisa. Thanks for coming. Thanks for the whole day.