When I arrive at a Burlington kitchen to watch wedding cake maker Arie Kidder, she has already baked the layers, stacked them into four tiers and frosted them. "I didn't want to make you sit through all that," she says. She's right, of course; it would have taken hours, and what I've mainly come to experience is the decorating part. That is, Arie Kidder's amazing artistry, which has quickly elevated the 31-year-old pastry chef to in-demand status for Vermont's most elegant weddings. One of her statuesque creations, bedecked with lifelike lemons, leaves and twigs made of sugar, appears on the cover of the current Vermont Vows magazine.
I swallow my private disappointment - I didn't get to smell the cake, or lick a bowl; instead my mouth begins to water as Kidder describes what lies beneath. This is a chocolate cake with a white-chocolate-flavored buttercream frosting; the four tiers are composed of three layers each, she explains, and in between them she has spread the buttercream and fresh raspberries. The bottom and third tiers are round; the second and top, hexagonal. This kind of architecture is one of her trademarks. But when I ask what sets her cakes apart she says simply, "I like clean lines, very modern."
This from a woman who has also made cakes in the shape of a fishing creel - with a sugar trout flopping out - a wine bottle, a Victorian house, a wrapped present, and a pansy patch. Her business, after all, is custom cakes: Kidder's culinary art often reflects her recipients' own passions.
After she has stacked the tiers, Kidder will adorn this cake with buttercream snowflakes squeezed from a pastry tube. Then come the stiff sugar snowflakes, about 1 to 3 inches across, which she has also made beforehand and affixed to the tops of thin metal wires - the kind used by florists. These she will arrange in a cascading spray, making the flakes appear to float above the cake. I know this because Kidder shows me a picture of a similar, earlier version - she's made flake cakes for a couple of cold-weather weddings. This one, however, is bound for the Burlington Winter Festival.
Kidder demonstrates how she stacks the tiers: Using a narrow wooden dowel, she pokes six holes - one in the center and five in a circle around it - all the way through the layers, then inserts plastic straws in each "tunnel." This trussing supports the tiers as she piles them up, each separated by a small round of parchment paper. "That's so they won't stick together," Kidder explains. I'm startled when she unceremoniously plops a tier on top of another - perfectly centered and with nary a crack in that oh-so-smooth frosting. Don't try that at home, I'm thinking. Bemused at my expression, she says with a smile, "I'm used to it."
Indeed. Kidder has lost count of how many cakes she's made, estimating simply "hundreds - though not all in Vermont." She graduated from the New England Culinary Institute nearly a decade ago, but found her pastry-flour power as a child. "My grandmother had a bake shop in the Philippines," she says. "I grew up in the kitchen, and I used to make a lot of cakes."
In fact, Kidder grew up partly in the Philippines and partly in New York. Her glossy black hair and warm, almond-shaped eyes announce her Asian heritage, but Kidder's accent is all-American. "I speak a little Filipino, but I don't think in it," she explains. "My main language is English."
Kidder made her first wedding cake at age 21. Sadly, her grandmother passed away before she finished NECI and launched her career. "She would have been the most proud," Kidder says. The bake shop is still in the family, however; when her parents retired to the Philippines, her father took over managing the business, and oversees the same bakers who have worked there for years. "I go back once a year to visit," she says. "So I consult."
Kidder applies buttercream snowflakes to the sides of her cake as we talk. She pauses, pastry tube in mid-air, to appraise her handiwork. "More flakes," she decides.
"Are no two snowflakes alike?" I ask.
Kidder laughs. "No, never! It's a good excuse for flaws."
I find it hard to imagine this perfectionist screwing anything up, but I suppose it's possible. She begins to squeeze out pearl-sized beads to cover the small space between the tiers.
"What do you do if you make a mistake?"
"You scrape it off and start over," Kidder says, and resumes her story.
She met her husband, Gary Kidder, at NECI, though he's since left the chef business for sales. After graduation, she "did the pastry circuit" in Boston, eventually landing a job at a matrimony-minded bakery called Cakes to Remember. Kidder stayed there three and a half years. "We won Best of Boston for wedding cakes three different years," she says with evident pride.
"I learned a lot from the owner of that shop," Kidder continues. "She'd gone to Brown and had an art degree. I learned a lot about color palettes."
Kidder's own uninhibited color sense is abundantly evident in her cake photo album, which I flip through, trying not to drool.
One of my favorites: a multi-tiered model, each tier a different shape and hue, gaily detailed with dots and harlequin diamonds. This cake makes me happy just looking at it. But one jaw-dropper is coolly monotone: Called "Blush Drape," the cake is the palest-possible pink and looks as if it is swathed in velvet, its folds held in place by bunches of calla lilies and roses. All handmade, all edible. How can anyone take a knife to these things? I wonder.
The cake Kidder made for her own wedding might have been literally hard to cut. Named "Peace! Bird House," it was three topsy-turvy, asymmetric tiers with little avian nesters perched here and there. In the photo, the birdhouse roof appears to be solid sheets of chocolate, but it was probably made of a thick sugar concoction called fondant.
Before I can ask, Kidder points out a coral-red hibiscus with green leaves that's sitting on the kitchen counter. It's a leftover from some previous cake that she's brought in to show me. "Each petal is made of gumpaste, and it's assembled with floral wire," she says. It looks good enough to eat and, in fact, one could. The paste is a sort of moldable dough made of glycerine, powered sugar, corn syrup and a fattening agent such as shortening. "It takes time to dry, so you have time to shape it," Kidder explains. "When dry it is very brittle; you can paint it with edible colors to give it depth."
Kidder has two small children - Gian, 3 and a half, and Maya, 18 months. I ask whether she ever makes just plain old cakes for her family. "Never!" she exclaims with a grin. "People are always saying, 'Your children must have the most beautiful cakes.' We get ice cream cake."
The little ones don't get to stick their fingers in the frosting, either; they're with a sitter when Kidder works in her licensed kitchen at home in Williston. That's where she launched Arie Kidder Custom Cakes in 2001, after a one-year stint at Champlain College as the assistant chef for a campus café. "I also taught a class in nutrition and food service for their hospitality degree," she notes. Cake making beckoned, however, and Kidder believed she could fill a niche in the Green Mountain State. "No one here was really doing what I do," she says.
Now there's more competition; Vermont's popularity as a wedding destination has soared in recent years, and along with it an upscale industry has grown. But Kidder's reputation within it seems secure, acquired primarily, she says, by word of mouth. "I don't have an advertising budget, so I'm really grateful for all the referrals from vendors," she says modestly. Even with cakes that start at $5 per person - $250 minimum - Kidder has no trouble attracting blissful brides.
Sensibly, though, she paces herself. "When I was in Boston I thought I was going to need surgery for carpal tunnel - it's a lot of work for your hands," Kidder says. "Then, I was doing 14 cakes a weekend; now I only do three, max. And there are not many weddings in winter, so I get to rest."
Recently, Kidder joined the Burlington catering company Market Fresh, which just last year bought Let's Pretend Catering from Barbara Bardin. It's Bardin who has loaned her kitchen for today's demonstration. "Arie is wonderful!" she shouts from the next room. "We're so happy to have her."
Kidder inserts the last sugar snowflake into her cake and steps back with a satisfied smile. "I'm really lucky," she says. "I really do enjoy what I do."