George's Birthday Party Goes Gourmet

The students under Chef Julia Quay are busy with a dozen concurrent tasks, like a corps of 20-something Keebler Elves. But the overall vibe is one of choreographed surety rather than frenzied disarray.

Quay is clearly Head Elf. From beneath her tall, pleated chef's hat, her dark brown eyes dart continually across the kitchen, gently but attentively monitoring each student ("Turn that mixer down, or we'll have clouds of powdered sugar.").

The eight students in Quay's Plated Dessert class at the Culinary Arts Institute of Montgomery County Community College are busy with a high-profile assignment. These second-year pastry masters are creating the desserts to be served at the Presidents' Day celebration at Valley Forge National Historical Park. Expending a total of 40 person-hours over two days, the crew will assemble a large "presentation" cake for General Washington to cut with his sword, an updated cake from a Martha Washington recipe and 500 red-white-and-blue spangled cupcakes.

The Team

Left to Right: Jessica Apeldom, Aimee Breman, Jackie Williams, Jamie Weiss, Rina Genn, Laura Dougherty, Ariella Hankins, Terence Reed

Industrial mixers with basketball-sized beaters whirl tubs of rich pound cake batter. The silky goo is then spread onto large pans, creating the basis for the three-layer presentation cake. Meanwhile, the contents of another vat are being meticulously dropped into cupcake pans. "We use a scoop to make sure they're all the same size and serving," says Quay. "That way, they all cook at the same time." Meanwhile, student Terence Reed is peeling the green apples that will join the raisins, pears and spices that comprise Martha's cake.

The operation works on a distinct division of labor: Students measure and weigh ingredients, prepping things like butter that needs softening. Others handle mixing. A different team deftly orchestrates the in-and-out of the monstrous oven, releasing a grandma-kitchen scent every time they open the door. The process repeats itself, and the finished products - rows and rows of golden-brown cupcakes - begin to accumulate on cooling racks.

Making the ButtercreamAt last, it's time to decorate. Butter cream frosting is made from scratch, and the students peer into the mixer as an egg and sugar mixture begins to froth. Gobs of butter and shortening are lumped in, and the concoction takes on an odd look, like day-old oatmeal.

"Just wait," advises Quay. "As the fat beings to react to the sugar and eggs, it's all going to emulsify like that." The students watch intently as the beaters spin.

"There!" Quay calls, pointing at the reaction she's been waiting for. "There it is!" she smiles. The lumps have vanished, and the frosting is now glossy and smooth. With a quick dab of the finger, Quay tests the consistency. She jiggles the teardrop-shaped sample, and the frosting stays in place. Exactly what she's looking for.

She cleans her hand with a towel (What? No licking? No, no licking.) and oversees its loading into piping bags. The butter cream is then gooshed onto the waiting cupcakes in cheery swirls. A short snow-squall of patriotic sprinkles completes the batch.

And then it's onto the next dozen. And the next. The assembly lines roll on.

Meanwhile the decorations for General Washington's presentation cake are proceeding. Fondant, an edible sugar-glucose paste used for decoration, has been dyed red, white and blue. It will be used to form a flag draped on the dessert.

Washington's Cake

"I love projects like this," says student Jackie Williams. "It makes me feel like I'm doing something important."

Quay joined the faculty at the Culinary Arts Institute in 2012. Her interest in baking, however, goes back much further. "As a kid, I wanted an Easy Bake Oven," she remembers. "And my parents said no. They were afraid I'd burn the house down."

The desire to work magic with flour, sugar and eggs never left her. And now, she's passing that passion onto her students, using ovens ten times the size of those light-bulb-heated beauties from the early 1960s.

The fruits of their labor will be served at noon on Presidents' Day at George Washington's 282nd birthday celebration. The Visitor Center at Valley Forge will be the hub for a day of history, kid-centric crafts, songs and sweets. It's part of an entire weekend of programming.

Accommodations in the Valley Forge area have improved 1,000-fold over the drafty huts the Continental Army used in 1777-1778. After celebrating with George, encamp yourself in one of Montgomery County's plush rooms. See the recommendations on our website, and take advantage of the discounts that are part of our current Cabin Fever Reliever campaign.

Topping the Cupcakes