A Private Lesson: an Afternoon with Ann Amernick

I told my matron of honor Dorothy a while ago that I didn't have any interest in a traditional bridal shower before my wedding. Tom and I are having a small wedding with very few guests and I really didn't see the point of having a shower. However, Dorothy took it upon herself to come up with idea for an alternate activity in lieu of a shower, and I was touched and thrilled when she proposed a private cake-decorating lesson with Ann Amernick. (Dorothy does have a solid track record of creative ideas like this. A few years ago when I was the maid of honor at her wedding, she gave me the unusual and very thoughtful bridesmaid's gift of a personalized, engraved extra mixing bowl for my Kitchenaid stand mixer. Who knew such a thing even existed?)

Acclaimed pastry chef Ann Amernick has worked at Jean-Louis at the Watergate and as assistant pastry chef at the White House. She also happens to be the co-owner of Palena, the wonderful Cleveland Park restaurant where Tom and I had our first date three years ago. Ann closed Amernick Bakery in Cleveland Park a few years ago and is essentially retired now, although she still does bake wedding cakes. More importantly, she gives baking and decorating lessons out of her home in Owings Mills, Maryland. Last weekend, Dorothy and I headed up to Ann's house along with my cousin Cindy, who has been helping me with my wedding planning and also happens to be a baking enthusiast.

Ann warmly greeted us when we arrived at her house and showed us downstairs, where she has an elaborately outfitted workspace of metal work tables, a large pan rack, refrigerators, a freezer, a large industrial sink with sprayer, lots of shelving and drawers, and a 20-quart Hobart mixer (plus two Kitchenaid stand mixers!). She had baked two chocolate cake layers in advance of our lesson and showed us to to fill, frost and decorate the finished layer cake with flourishes like chocolate fans. I picked up a valuable tip here. Ann uses Polaner seedless raspberry jam just like I do, but I couldn't figure out why her jam spread so effortlessly when she used it straight from the refrigerator as filling between the cake layers. Usually I have to heat it on the stove to get to it to a spreadable consistency. Ann told us that if you run the jam through the food processor, you break up all the lumps and the jam will keep the resulting smooth consistency even if you put it back in the fridge.

Then we moved on to pastillage. I've never worked with it before, but apparently once you've used it to make flowers or whatnot, it lasts forever. Ann showed us some flowers that she had recently used to decorate a cake and some pastillage picture frames on which she had painted watercolor scenes. I instantly recognized her work with the picture frames. Before I went to law school -- way before I knew who Ann Amernick was -- I bought a copy of Grand Finales: the Art of the Plated Dessert. This book is completely redonkulous in terms of difficulty and I have never attempted any of the recipes. There is a dessert in the book called "Monet Painting" that made a lasting impression on me. It's a dacquoise with hazelnut and mocha buttercream, topped with a framed Monet painting made of pastillage and royal icing. I expected the recipe to include information on where you might be able to buy a tiny Monet painting cake decoration. Instead, the recipe includes instructions on how to make a pastillage picture frame decorated with ornate royal icing flourishes and dusted with 23 carat gold powder, and simply tells you to "paint a Monet scene on the pastillage canvas" using assorted paste food coloring and a fine artists' brush. It turns out that the recipe came from Ann. You can see a small snapshot of the Grand Finales cookbook open to the picture of Ann's Monet painting on the lower right-hand corner of this page on Ann's website. If you could see it up close, you would see that it's an incredibly convincing depiction of a Monet in a gold Rococo frame.

Ann showed us how to make pastillage (from gelatin, water, cornstarch and powdered sugar) and she walked us through the process for making some leaves and different types of flowers. The pastillage is a white dough that dries out quickly, so Ann kept whatever portion we weren't using tightly wrapped in plastic wrap. She told us that you can keep pastillage indefinitely in the refrigerator if you don't have time to use it all right after you make it. We used a few tools from her extensive collection (some of which are pictured at the beginning of this post) to roll out the pastillage, cut it into leaf and flower shapes, and press in textures of veins and petals. The finished pieces dry hard, after which they can be painted using food coloring mixed with spirits. Some pictures of our handiwork are below.

For comparison, below is a picture of a finished painted lily that Ann previously made to decorate a cake:

Our lesson took about two and a half hours, and Ann was extremely patient and very personable throughout. She talked freely about her own professional baking experiences, her opinion on various Washington restaurants and chefs, and she gave us lots of tips on equipment and ingredient suppliers and sources. She kindly signed the copies of her latest cookbook, The Art of the Dessert, that Cindy and I had brought along. As a bonus, she sent each of us home with a big piece of the chocolate raspberry cake that she had assembled and frosted at the beginning of our lesson, as well as the recipes for the cake, frosting, and pastillage. Ann also thoughtfully packed up some gelatin sheets for me to use to make my own pastillage, and neatly wrapped up all of the flowers we had made so that we could keep them for reference.

It was an incredibly entertaining and enjoyable afternoon. For anyone in the area who's interested, Ann not only gives lessons on decorating, but she can also design lessons on whatever aspects of baking interest you, like tarts, puff pastry, or pies. You can contact her through her web site. I'm not sure if I'm really up to making pastillage flowers on my own, but regardless, it was an honor just to be able to have someone as skilled as Ann Amernick sharing some of her knowledge with me one-on-one. After we left Ann's house, Cindy, Dorothy and I finished up our day with a delicious dinner at Ray's The Classics in Silver Spring.

The whole day was a very special experience that I know I will never forget; many thanks to Dorothy for coming up with the idea and making all of the arrangements, and to Ann for taking the time to share her warmth and wisdom with us. I could never have imagined or asked for a better bridal shower!


Elizabeth said…
Dorothy rocks! I wish I had such good ideas.