Thinking outside the (cake) box

Photographs by Alan Richardson

The ubiquitous cupcake wasn’t always the little darling of desserts. Long before the cupcake craze took hold, Karen Tack and Alan Richardson co-wrote their first New York Times’ best-selling book, “Hello, Cupcake!”

Next came “What’s New, Cupcake?” and “Cupcakes, Cookies & Pies, Oh My!” A forthcoming book devoted to cakes is in the works. Tack creates the design and food styling while Richardson does the photography and writes the text. Together the inventive duo has captured the imagination of millions of readers of all ages.

Served up with humor and a hefty dollop of fun, these bright and colorful books are a feast for the eyes. But the true genius of Tack’s creativity is her ability to come up with awe-inspiring designs anyone can make using simple ingredients found in your local grocery store. So you won’t find any elaborate recipes with complicated pastry techniques, because these adorable little wonders are as easy as apple pie.

“We don’t use fondant. We use things like Laffy Taffy. There’s something very approachable, where people will say, ‘Oh my God, that’s an M&M or that’s a marshmallow,’” she says buoyantly.

One of her favorite recipes is her April Fool’s spaghetti and meatballs, which is cleverly made by using only four ingredients – canned frosting for the spaghetti, a Ferrero Rocher hazelnut chocolate for the meatball, low-sugar strawberry preserves (because apparently low-sugar has the best color) to create the look of tomato sauce and, of course, cake mix for the cupcake.

And just like a jeweler who finds a special stone and creates a piece of jewelry around it, Tack sometimes finds inspiration in the candy itself. That’s why she loves to shop at gas stations, because, she says, they have the best selection of candy anywhere.

The single mother of two – teenage sons Erik, a senior, and Liam, a freshman, both attend Greenwich High School – attributes part of the success of her books to the fact that you can’t find these unique treats at your local bakery, including trendy cupcake bakery chains such as Magnolia and Crumbs.

Mostly, these are how-to books, but some people buy them just for the pure enjoyment of looking at the hilarious and wacky cupcakes.

“It’s like watching the Food Network. You’re not going to make most of the food, but it’s more entertainment,” Tack explains.

It’s true: These books are hard to put down, because half the fun is trying to figure out how Tack is able to construct the irresistible, one-of-a-kind marvels.

Does she see her cupcakes as an art form?

“It’s more craft than art. It’s crafting with food,” Tack says.

It’s ironic, really, that Tack – a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef who cut her teeth in the restaurant business at Manhattan’s Union Square Café in 1985 – would make a name for herself making cupcakes from cake mix, canned frosting and store-bought candy.

But then again, she’s full of sweet surprises.

Like the little hen house she showed me in the backyard of her Riverside home (where her chickens lay eggs) and the organic vegetable garden she tends. Inside, her home is filled with lovely French antiques, including an armoire she packs with sprinkles and candies, all influences from her time spent living in France as a college student (minus the sprinkles and candy).

It was there the French major first unearthed a penchant for food and cooking.

“I could tell you which bakery was bringing their croissants out and at what time,” the Francophile recalls.

“I came back and I thought, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to cook, I want to eat and I’m really good at this.’”

Twenty-five pounds later (she’s since trimmed down to a size 2), the self-proclaimed food snob enrolled in culinary school.

After completing the 21-month program, the newly married chef began working in restaurants as a chef garde manger – preparing salads, appetizers and hors d’oeuvres – but quickly realized the insane hours were taking their toll.

“My husband at the time saw an ad in the paper for Cook’s magazine (now Cook’s Illustrated), located in Bridgeport. They were looking for someone to work in their test kitchen 9 to 5.”

It was while working at the magazine that the chef first learned about food styling.

“I had no idea people did this for a living,” Tack says.

Along the way, she learned the proverbial tricks of the trade to making food look good. Her talent led her to appear in countless publications, including Bon Appetit, Good Housekeeping, Real Simple and Martha Stewart Living, making her one of the top food stylists in the country – so much so that Gourmet magazine once called her “The Cake Whisperer.”

More and more Tack found herself being paired with Richardson on freelance jobs that involved silly cakes and more whimsical stories. But the pivotal moment happened when the two were asked to do a cupcake feature.

“We did a story for Good Housekeeping magazine in 2003 and they wanted 24 different cupcakes decorated, and that was really the jumping point for us?”

At the time she wasn’t very proficient at piping, so she thought instead of trying to pipe a buttercream rose, she would use candies. The project was so much fun that the pair decided to recreate that magic in their first book, “Hello, Cupcake!,” which she dedicated to her two sons, whom she describes as “the sprinkles on my cupcake.”

In between writing books, Tack continues to work freelance as a food stylist and as a cooking teacher. For more information, visit hellocupcakebook.com or download the free “Hello, Cupcake!” app.

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