School comes in layers, with frosting Baking students learn from best

March 30, 1993|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer

Judy Conigliaro teaches writing, roses and borders to teen-agers in West Baltimore.

She shows her students how to write with colored goo, turn sugar and water into rose petals, and frame their work with edible borders worthy of fine art.

As Baltimore's queen of cakes, Judy Conigliaro also offers students a promise few high school teachers would dare make: Show up for class and pay attention and you will find a job when you graduate.

"I don't care how bad the economy gets, people are not going to stop eating," said Mrs. Conigliaro in the bakery of Edmondson-Westside Senior High School. "A lot of the old bakers are dying, the ones who got up at 3 o'clock in the morning to open up the neighborhood bakeries. There's a crying need for trained bakers."

Since 1977 -- first at Mervo and for the past decade at Edmondson-Westside -- Mrs. Conigliaro has been sending flour-dusted Baltimoreans into the real world to fill the need for bakers, graduating about six to 10 students a year.

Some of them go on to full-time jobs in supermarkets and restaurants.

Others use the skill as a part-time job or to make extra money for college.

A few simply earn fame at home for magnificent cakes.

Their teacher, who grew up indulging a sweet tooth at the Woodlea Bakery on Belair Road, has earned a reputation as one of the premier cake decorators in Maryland.

Every year since 1972, Mrs. Conigliaro has made and decorated Gov. William Donald Schaefer's birthday cake and each year she tries to outdo herself.

Past cakes have sported portraits of the former Baltimore mayor emerging from his Edgewood Street rowhouse and night scenes of sailing ships docked in Annapolis.

To return the favor, Mr. Schaefer named Mrs. Conigliaro Baltimore's official cake decorator in 1974.

Four years later she and a partner represented Maryland in an international cake decorating competition in Hawaii and they came in second.

It started when she was a kid helping her mother.

"Mom did a lot of cakes for showers," she said. "She was famous for making cakes that looked like a baby's bonnet."

The craze for cakes continued through Girl Scout merit badges on through graduation from Eastern High School in 1960 before a lull during college art classes, marriage and young motherhood. But then she started baking cakes for her childrens' birthdays and it wasn't long before Virginia Baker barged into her life.

Nothing has been the same since.

In the early 1970s Mrs. Conigliaro baked a cake for the opening of a new city recreation center on Moyer Avenue and decorated it with the Department of Recreation and Parks logo.

Miss Baker, the noted department of recreation employee responsible for a half-century of fun in Baltimore, had to know who made the cake.

Mrs. Conigliaro came forward and soon she was giving free cake decorating demonstrations in War Memorial Plaza.

She said: "You never really know how your life is going to turn out."

Ask any of Mrs. Conigliaro's 10th- and 11th-graders how they learned to turn naked cakes into bouquets of flowers, altars for wedding couples, and portraits of loved ones and they say: "Miss Conigliaro taught us."

On the walls of Edmondson's kitchen classroom are conversion charts -- "one pint equals one pound; two pints equal one quart; eight pints equal one gallon" -- and a Cameroonian proverb advising that knowledge is more precious than riches.

The knowledge too often lacking in students that enter the baking program at Edmondson is basic math and reading skills.

If you have trouble reading and if you don't do addition very well, you are going to have trouble baking a cake.

"I think by now I've accepted it," said Mrs. Conigliaro. "After teaching for 16 years, you know what to expect. Some of the kids I can help and some need more help than I can offer."

The ones that make it through graduation learn bakery safety and sanitation; how to operate pan washers, rotating ovens, and 60-quart mixers; and how to measure bulk ingredients on a scale and liquid ingredients by measuring cup.

Along the way they do simple labor like chopping gallons of walnuts with paint scrapers and practice writing "Happy Birthday" in icing more times than they write their names in ink.

And no one graduates without learning how to make an eight-petal rose out of a hunk of icing.

The proof of their education goes on sale at the school every Friday, with a whole, decorated sheet cake selling for $21, about half the price charged at commercial bakeries.

"Baking cakes and cookies isn't boring like history," said Sherille Spencer, 16. "I want to be a professional baker, just like Mrs. Conigliaro. She's like a best friend."

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