“It’s just sugar.”
That is what Dawn Parrott tells herself as the painstakingly intricate, lacy sugar topper for her four-tier showstopper of a cake crumbles upon her arrival in Tulsa for the Oklahoma State Sugar Art show.
Parrott, last year’s grand champion, had just arrived in town to defend her title and was unpacking in her hotel room while chatting with a friend.
Smash. The delicate, hand-piped royal icing crown of her cake fell and shattered into a million pieces.
She had spent months working on this year’s cake, an interpretation of an elaborately embroidered Indian dress (this year’s theme for the competition was ‘Fashion Week’).
She had stayed up late Thursday to finish and was up early Friday to drive nearly nine hours from Houston. All she wanted to do Friday afternoon was set up her cake inside the expo building, head back to the Doubletree and drink a lemon drop martini while catching up with friends.
Instead, now she would have to stay up late Friday finishing the last piece of her cake before the competition officially began Saturday morning.
It was her third “caketastrophe” in three days, two others happening just before she left town.
She breathed a large sigh of relief as she unloaded the base layers of her cake without a hitch.
Even without its topper, Parrott’s cake is so stunning that complete strangers walking through the Tulsa State Fair are stopping to stare.
A pair of ladies stops in their tracks, jaws dropping when they see the blue, white and gold cake with gravity defying works of icing.
It took Parrott nine attempts to win Grand Champion of the Oklahoma State Sugar Art show, nine patient years for the pastry chef to work her way up from honorable mention to first runner-up to grand champion. Her all-white cake in 2014 was a knockout among the “50 Shades of Pretty Cake”-themed competition.
What she doesn’t want this year is a participation ribbon, the “Thanks for coming!” prize as the fierce professional and master’s competitors vying for wedding cake glory call it.
Parrott started out self-taught with a Wilton cake decorating kit she bought at the store, on a whim.
She eventually worked her way through a bakery job and now has her own business, teaching classes for aspiring sugar artists and producing DVDs for those who want to learn how to do royal icing filigree work at home.
Her goal as a teacher and competitor is to inspire her students to “pick up their piping bags,” meaning decorating by hand, tediously. Not using the pre-fab cutters and shortcut tools that Parrott refers to as the “lick-and-stick” type decorating.
Royal icing, as any home cook who’s ever tried to decorate Christmas cookies knows, is a simple mix of icing sugar, egg whites and sometimes lemon juice or glycerin.
Glazing cookies is one thing, building sculptures with a piping bag is a whole other ordeal.
Briana Johnson is the kind of competitor beloved by Parrott and the show’s founder and organizer, Kerry Vincent.
Not only has she picked up her piping bag, the social worker from Dallas has returned for her second year of competition in the adult beginner categories.
Baking is her hobby, and she only became interesting in sugar art decorating after winning some ribbons last year in chocolate cake and decorated cookie categories.
She drove to Tulsa with her mom, her backseat and trunk lined with entries for this year’s competition. The bumpy roads gave her heartache.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, everything is going to be broken!’” Johnson said.
But it wasn’t. Even her sheet cake with a hand-dotted buttercream portrait of singing legend Diana Ross arrived unspoiled.
Some day, she hopes to have her own bakery.
Thanks for coming
“It’s just sugar!”
This is the mantra Parrott says she tells her students when something goes wrong with the piping bag or the piece you have toiled over for months.
She makes them hum or sing as they pipe icing, because if you hold your breath, your shoulders tense up and you can’t pipe properly.
Parrott said she was reluctant to return and compete again this year, because she didn’t know how she could possibly outdo last year’s cake, what she calls the pinnacle of her career.
She thought about retiring and coming back just to teach and judge a few categories, but Kerry Vincent, the sassy Australian Food Network star and show director, would not hear of it.
Parrott survives the weekend to snag Sixth Place. It’s not as much fun as winning grand champion, but she’s just happy to crack the top 10. You never know what the judges are looking for, she says.
“I just want to not have to get up and decorate a cake in the morning,” she confesses, as she heads home to Houston.
So what about next year? Will she be back?
“I say I’m done, but Kerry doesn’t say I’m done,” Parrott answers.