I Took a Cake Decorating Class at Disney World, Ask Me Anything (About Fondant)
Sugar has never been in short supply at Walt Disney World, let alone sugary things shaped like Mickey Mouse. A resort-wide rethink of the pastry situation has switched things up rather impressively—from croissants at hopping Les Halles inside the surprisingly lifelike France pavilion at Epcot's World Showcase, to the outrageously tasty chocolate situation at The Ganachery, over in Disney Springs, it's a whole new day in these parts. No recent opening quite proves just how new like Amorette's Patisserie, also located in Disney Springs, the reimagined (and ever-expanding) shopping, dining and entertainment complex originally known as Downtown Disney.
Amorette's is classic to the core, its glass cases filled with colorful, stunningly precise desserts—a glimpse of the goods at Amorette's is a fast trip to Paris, and you don't even have to buy a ticket to get into Epcot. Since opening in 2016, Amorette's has come to be well known for Mickey Character Cakes; they're basically like the little hats you can get as souvenirs, but in delicious cake form.
So popular were these cakes, which retail for $59 each, Amorette's eventually began offering a behind-the-scenes look at how they're made—a very interactive, behind-the-scenes look, actually. The shop now offers a Cake Decorating Experience most mornings, allowing up to 14 people inside, hours before the daily opening, at a time when the house pâtissiers are hard at work preparing the daily stock for display in the cases. As soon as I found out about the class, which runs for about 90 minutes, includes free drinks and a cake to take home, I wanted in.
From a pretty early age, baking was one of my favorite activities, but the most complex decorating challenge I can ever remember facing was icing a layer cake without churning up an avalanche of crumbs. These Mickey cakes were in a different league altogether, almost edible art. Would I pass, or fail?
Disney Springs is far more popular than Downtown Disney ever was, but at 8:30 in the morning on a weekday, it's not hard to find Amorette's—all I had to do was look for the small group of people waiting to be summoned to class. Right around 8:45, Melissa (from Chicago!) emerges, and we're ushered into the shop—specifically, to the coffee bar, where cappuccinos, lattes, bellinis and blood orange mimosas are being offered on the house. So far, so good.
The class, it turns out, is going to be a real class—at the front of the store, tables are set up in a horseshoe, facing a lectern; we're all invited to sit down at our stations, where aprons, brushes, cake spatulas and various receptacles are waiting; an entire box of disposable latex gloves per station seems slightly like overkill, but then again, who knows where this is going—I haven't decorated a cake since the 1980's. Maybe the rules have changed.
In short order, our instructors quickly introduce themselves. There's Misha, who has an anthropology degree and a degree in baking and pastry. ("Those two go really well together," she laughs.) Lauren is from Paris, she tells us, skipping a beat—Paris, Kentucky, to be exact. ("We have an Eiffel Tower, but it's shorter than me!") She's trained in baking and pastry as well. Pleasantries exchanged, it's time to meet the cake.
There's a reason why this is a cake decorating class, not a cake making class—Lauren and Misha walk us through the process for creating the dome-shaped cake. The thing takes a whopping three days to pull together; they do about twenty at a time. Forty or so cakes go to the classes; during busy times, they sell hundreds of them off the rack.
And what a cake it is—we're handed small portions to taste, just to get a sense of what we're working with. Thin layers of chocolate chiffon are interspersed with chiffon icing studded with crunchy pearls; soft, orange pâte de fruit gives the whole thing the effect of a chocolate orange, which isn't really an American thing; then again, I'll quickly learn, these guys are kind of into how American Amorette's is not. (Stefan Riemer, the Disney chef in charge of the Amorette's and Ganachery concepts, is classically trained, a certified master pâtissier, and it absolutely shows in the work they're doing here.)
Cake tasted, and test subject brought out of cold storage and onto the podium, the ladies bring out a mixer bowl brimming over with Italian buttercream, as they explain to us just how different (and how superior, and they're absolutely right) Italian buttercream is to the American version, which so often, at least in commercial baking, relies on shortening for shelf-stabilization. We're offered tastes, and of course it's perfect, just sweet enough, and smooth as silk. Misha buries the dome in layer after thin layer of buttercream, taking a piece of acetate to smooth it down entirely—it's great fun to watch, and I would have loved to do it myself, but based on my past track record, they were probably right not to trust me, at least.
Finally, it's our turn to get to work. Giant ears (made with a cutter created by one of Disney's famous Imagineers), a set of eyes and even a tail, all cut from white chocolate, must first be painted—here, they use colored cocoa butter, warmed to a liquid state; I find the whole effect of sitting here painting chocolate rather soothing; I also go through about six pairs of gloves to get the job done—this is messy work, and you've got to do two colors, black and yellow—it's fiddly work, and it takes time.
Once the cake has chilled down once again, it's glaçage time. Pitchers of bright red mirror glaze (essentially sugar syrup, stabilized with gelatin) and our very own cakes are brought to each station; we're then guided through the process of a step we'll end up taking three times. After showering them in red goop (the technical term, I believe), our cakes are chilled once again. One of the most impressive things about this class—the small army dedicated to logistics that keeps things moving super-efficiently, without ever making us feel rushed.
Now it's time for another round of painting—Misha and Lauren tell stories, they talk about process, they demonstrate how to break down gelatin; the amount of information they pack into the ninety minutes is truly impressive. We paint, we pour, we pour again, and finally everything looks as close to perfect as you could ask of an amateur. (Okay, I'll be honest, I was pretty proud—my mirror glaze looked terrific, and my painting skills manage to impress even me.)
A ten minute break for everything to cool and dry allows us some time to get up and wander the shop; Melissa passes around hibiscus sparkling lemonades, and I stop for a chat with Reuben, who is behind the counter decorating exotic fruit panna cottas with chocolate work and fresh mint leaves. I admire the chocolate-topped eclairs going into the cases, along with the seasonal Ornament Dome—robin's egg blue mirror glaze, fondant silver snowflakes and even a spot for a hook make it look tree-ready, though you probably wouldn't want to try. (On that one, layers of chocolate chiffon cake are twinned with two kinds of mousse—a dark chocolate bourbon, and a marshmallow hot chocolate. It sells for $8.)
Finally, fifteen minutes later, the really hard work, the trickiest work, anyway, begins—transferring the cake to its base and then installing Mickey's parts. It's delicate stuff, but apart from a slight incident between the tape on the base (to keep the cake in place) and my gloves, it all goes great and my cake looks almost perfect.
Besides popping on the body parts, we also wrap ribbons of marshmallow-y fondant around the base, after which we're invited up front to sew—sorry, write, in white chocolate—our names on the back of our hat cakes. I decide to let Lauren and Misha do it. They're trained. Some things are best left to the experts.
Our cakes are temporarily placed in the display cases, a cute touch, I thought, even if the shop wasn't yet open. Still, it was fun to see our handiwork next to that of the masters—we're told we can leave our cakes with the shop or have them wrapped up (in a super cool, circular cake box) to go, as long as we promise to rush them into refrigeration.
And just like that, it's 10:30, and it's time to go. These quick cooking classes are often a bit gimmicky and light on information—I learned a great deal, and could have happily stayed another hour or two before getting restless. I liked it here. I could see myself getting behind the counter and decorating panna cottas, side by side with Reuben and Misha and Lauren and Melissa and the team. I could train to be a glaçage boy. Or a ganache maker. Or a fondant roller. Are those jobs? Can they be jobs? Some other lifetime, perhaps.