writing about food also means writing about people. food on its own is pretty fascinating, but many of the people behind it can be even more engaging. a friend of mine, di ryan, agreed to be the subject of my final food paper for my writing course last semester, and below is the finished work. i’ve eaten her cakes on several occasions, including the tiffany box bridal shower cake she made for me, and they’re as delicious as they are gorgeous. do yourself a favor and check out these incredible cakes, and the beautiful woman behind them.
The small girl loads up her fresh cookies from the oven, and brings them straight to her father. So proud of her first attempt to bake, she eagerly gives him a sweet treat, anticipating his pride and satisfaction in her success. Imagine her disappointment when the first bite is met with confusion…then growing horror, and ends up in the kitchen reviewing the difference between a tablespoon and a teaspoon of salt.
From these humble beginnings, business owner and cake creator Di Ryan has come a long way. With a lifelong passion for cooking and crafts, and a strong devotion to her family, Ryan creates elaborate, beautiful cakes in her own home kitchen, everything from Cookie Monster to Fenway Park, and has expanded to also create elegant designs for celebrations. “I’ve always enjoyed making things out of seemingly nothing,” she says. “I am a girl with big vision – for everything. The exciting part for me has always been watching my vision turn into reality.”
Running her own cake and cupcake business, Cakes to Di For, out of her Georgetown home, this wife and mother experiments with icing techniques, cake shapes and styles, and has recently started selling cupcakes and custom “toppers” (card stock decorations) for smaller events and more flexibility. What started as a fun treat for her family has turned into a thriving local business, relying almost exclusively on word-of-mouth advertising to gain customers and attention. The baker says, “I have found that when people are happy, they eagerly pass on your information.” Working with a busy Facebook page and a brand new website, Ryan has managed to keep customers extremely satisfied, and they gladly spread the word to their friends and relatives.
A crafty woman by nature, Ryan has taught herself all the elaborate cake-making techniques she knows. Beginning with simple molds and colored frosting, she’s gradually moved to fondant, cake carving, and advanced icing purely by experimentation. “Everything that I have learned in caking has been trial and error. I suppose that by now I should’ve taken a cake decorating class or two, but I just get these ideas in my head and run with them.” She does admit that one particular technique (a basket weave design used to create a three-dimensional Noah’s Ark) was learned on YouTube, but other than that she simply plays and practices until she’s gotten it right. The cookie incident from her childhood was just one of many errors that was mastered through the years, and Ryan is now much more confident and capable in the kitchen.
This business owner certainly gives the vibe of a creative, busy housewife. A pleasant woman with short, pale brown hair, a round face and warm eyes, Ryan has the look of a woman that you can’t wait to hug, drink tea with and tell your problems to. But don’t let the sweet demeanor fool you – this type A powerhouse has a serious eye for detail, and is a perfectionist to the point of obsession, with friends calling her a “triple A personality.” She says, “I am crazy about details in all things – it is a great thing and a curse all at the same time. My first original cake was made in February of 2006 for [my son’s] first birthday. It took me two months of drawings, plans and measuring, but in the end I created my own Moose-A-Moose cake.” The animated Nickelodeon character was her young son’s favorite at the time, and after several months of obsessive baking and planning, the moose was finally finished – and her son absolutely loved it. “Every moment of preparation, thing that didn’t go right, and cake that broke was all worth it for that ten seconds of complete and utter excitement and joy. Needless to say, I have been making specialty cakes ever since.” Her family is her inspiration, and making her children smile prompted the shift from traditional cakes to more inventive ones. Eldest daughter Charis says it best: “You can tell, Mama makes [cakes] with all her heart.”
For Ryan, food is about more than sustenance. Growing up in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, the baker’s childhood was influenced heavily by a father that loved to cook, a mother that loved to entertain, and a grandmother who cooked through the Depression and taught her that “everything can be used.” A creative girl from a very artistic family, this crafty lady grew up surrounded by fine art, woodworking, graphic design, baking, painting, music, and fashion and jewelry design. All of that creative energy clearly had a big influence, and with her close family and passion for learning, she enrolled in Gordon College in Wenham and graduated with a degree in special education in 1999. Along the way Ryan met her husband, Ben, a chiropractor who now owns his own practice in Georgetown, New Life Chiropractic & Wellness Center. The pair of business owners live with their family in Georgetown, and Ryan is responsible for all of the cooking in her home, describing her style like Barefoot Contessa: “elegant and easy using great ingredients and lots of love.” With her husband growing up on New England seafood and casseroles, she has learned to blend this casual style with her traditional Slavic cooking methods. Holidays often incorporate pieces of both cultures, such as a large Easter basket crafted in the Eastern European traditions that Ryan grew up with.
As well as running her business and household, the busy mom teaches all of her children at home, calling their classroom “The Little White School House.” Charis, Elijah and Grace are all full of energy and curiosity, and their teacher takes full advantage of that fact. Constantly busy with crafts, school projects, and artwork, Ryan encourages inventiveness in her kids, letting them explore and create whenever the desire strikes. Writing poetry, putting together books, graphing, exploring New England, and even decorating their own cakes, these kids get the full benefit of their mother’s crafty and artistic spirit. Her ideas are so good that she started blogging to share lesson plans, projects, and the occasional recipe with the online community (http://sowing3seeds.blogspot.com). “Oh, the blog! Mostly it is for home-schooling purposes, but I really enjoying showing the artsy things that I am up to as well,” Ryan says. Filled with pictures of her kids, projects, printable lesson plans and artwork, the baker also keeps her readers up to date with the recent changes in her business.
Photos of the cakes are easy to find, between her blog, business Facebook page, and website (http://cakestodifor.webs.com). Customers can choose from previous designs, or can commission Ryan to create a customized cake for a more unique event. As well as a Boston sports cake and a three tiered snowflake wedding cake, the business also has some particularly unusual cake designs, such as a big skillet filled with sizzling bacon – a cake requested by the owner’s three-year-old son for his bacon-themed birthday party. According to Barbara Baggs, a client and family friend, Ryan’s cakes “have the ultimate personal touch. Her cakes are designed with only the recipient in mind, down to the last detail.” Available in a variety of classic flavors like vanilla, yellow, lemon, chocolate, rainbow, and several different buttercream and chocolate frostings, each cake is obsessed over until it’s perfectly suited for its event, often getting remade several times before it’s acceptable. Besides incredible detail and custom designs, Ryan’s cakes also set themselves apart by being moist and delicious, unlike most specialty cakes – with such a long carving, icing and detailing process, creative cakes tend to be dry, chalky, and flavorless, but all of those hours of experimentation have paid off. Baggs explains, “Di puts a yummy and creamy layer of frosting under the fondant that seems to lock in the moisture somehow.” Client Erin Jones agrees: “The cake tasted as great as it looked. My favorite cake of Di’s is the triple chocolate cake – it’s infused with chocolate pudding, and is very moist and delicious.”
While Ryan prepares cakes for plenty of weddings, not everyone always has the means or the reason to spend several hundred dollars on party food, so Cakes To Di For provides another option. The housewife keeps up with many baking reality shows such as Cake Boss and Ace of Cakes, but is often baffled by the outrageous costs of these elaborate confections. She says, “In these economic times, the average person does not have an unlimited budget for a party…but they still want the look and feel of custom, personalized and special.” Offering a creative alternative to her more expensive custom cakes, Ryan created toppers, small decorative card-stock designs that she attaches to food safe wooden sticks and puts into cupcakes, traditional cakes, bowls of candy, and other treats. She started by including free designs for download on her blog, but when the idea took off she added them to her business. Designing is included in the price (12 single-sided toppers for $10, 12 double-sided toppers for $14), and the website also features dozens of previous designs that are still available. Baggs loves the idea, excited to save money on smaller events – “I’m planning to order cupcakes and toppers for a work baby shower next month.” Ryan is thrilled by the popularity of her cupcakes, and has found herself pushing this less labor-intensive option over her complex full-size cakes.
With such a busy home and business life, Ryan is fortunate to have plenty of support from her family. Her son, requester of the bacon birthday cake, says, “Whatever I can think up for my birthday, I can always count on Mama to make the best cake.” Her husband does everything he can to help out, from assisting with carving and icing to promoting her business at his own office. He says, “Cakes to Di For is a wonderful business that my wife has started that lets her use her creativity to bring smiles to other peoples’ faces – and taste buds!” And youngest daughter Grace is also getting in on the action, with her mother preparing an elaborate cake to match the “orange and pink, tutu, white twinkle light and Gerber daisy theme” of her birthday party this weekend.
For such a creative woman, Ryan admits that her personal dessert preferences are pretty basic. She says, “On my birthday, I only want one thing: an ice cream cake with chocolate crunchies in the middle.” But the baker’s dirty little secret?
“Quite honestly,” she says shyly, “I’m not really much of a cake person.”