Cake deco diva

OK, no one who knows Shirley Culver would call her a diva. Former City councillor, yes. Current staffer at Community Futures, absolutely. But she's also a certified Wilton method instructor who teaches cake decorating classes at Michael's that hav

She doesn't even like sugar, but Shirley Culver spends hundreds, probably thousands of hours with the stuff in its various combinations and permutations of icing, fondant, piping gel and, underneath it all, cake.

To her, a plain cake is like a blank slate or a stark white artist's canvas. The end result is edible.

"I don't eat it. I don't like sugar. I don't eat baking," she confessed.

It's not that she doesn't like food. In fact, she describes herself as a foodie. And growing up on a farm, Culver was around food all the time - canning, freezing, baking, etc.

Her mother cooked meals for the farm hands, usually grabbing whatever fruit was available and turning it into pie. Cake wasn't a common item at the table.

So Culver's relatives are mystified by her fondness for fondant.

A self-taught cake decorator, Culver said she has made creations for special family occasions for years. At Christmastime, she makes a signature cookie that many people keep as ornaments rather than eating them.

"I have people who have collected them over the last 10 years."

This year's holiday cookie is a mitt covered in red icing featuring a white maple leaf and five white linked rings. It's symbolic of a major event occurring in B.C. between 2009 and 2011, but due to copyright, we won't say what it is.

Culver toyed with the idea of getting into the catering business in her 20s, but she was a single mother with three kids then and feeding them was her priority.

But there has always been cake. Decorating is intricate and above all requires patience; creating gum paste flowers for a wedding cake can take hundreds of hours, she said.

The end result, though, is something like the cluster of stargazer lilies, pale pink with a hint of sparkle, that she shows off on her kitchen table.

"The pickier the details, the better I like it," she said.

"It's therapy for me."

Her therapy has resulted in wedding cakes for those close to her. She made a three-tier cake for a friend

She made a wedding cake for a granddaughter with a long cascade of stargazer lilies trailing from the top down.

And for her mother, she made birthday cake with a dozen fondant sock monkeys on it. Each monkey had to be made in stages.

Next May, Culver will make another granddaughter's wedding cake. And she's making wedding-cake shaped cookies with similar flower decorations on them for the guests.

"My favourite part is the oohs and ahhs from people - the appreciation."

Culver has been teaching cake decorating for nine years. For the past year, her 14-seat classes have been packed.

"Those cake decorating shows have pushed enrolment," she said.

In those classes are everything from young moms to grandmothers, women out for a night with a friend, and even people coming in from out of town.

By the end of the four-class program, they'll go home with their own cakes, resplendent with smooth icing and a piping-gel picture on the top.

They're not quite ready to face off at Ace of Cakes, she warned.

"It's practice, practice, practice, like anything else," said Culver.

Knowledge of the various icings and their consistencies comes with time and experience, she said. Good tools also help, and about $100 will cover the basics.

Culver doesn't sell her cakes, but with all the work she puts into them, she makes them mostly for family, friends or special occasions.

Her audience usually appreciates her talent.

"When they don't want to cut it, that's the ultimate. Then they look at it as a piece of art."

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