Batter Chatter: Interview with Krystina Castella, Author of Many Awesome Cookbooks

Robot Cookies by Krystina CastellaIn case you hadn't gathered it by all of the recent features on this site centered around Krystina Castella and her books, I'll tell you straight up: Krystina Castella is kind of my cake hero. Well, not just cake: my cookie, cupcake, and popsicle hero too. The thing is, her books aren't merely recipe books--they're thoughtfully and cleverly orchestrated works of art, each one a veritable compendium of creative confectionery ideas in addition to being full of delicious recipes. She's very prolific, too: in the past year alone she's released Booze Cakes: Confections Spiked With Spirits, Wine, and BeerA World of Cake, and Crazy About Cookies: 300 Scrumptious Recipes for Every Occasion & Craving (the latter two within weeks of one another! But this busy lady wasn't too busy to catch up with a sweet spy, and I'm delighted to say that she's just as delightful to talk to as her work is to read:

CakeSpy: First off: what is the last baked good you ate?

Krystina Castella: I had a cinnamon roll this morning! I got it at a great Cuban bakery called Porto's Bakery. They're pretty big, there's a line around the corner all the time.

CS: I just want to tell you, I love the sidebars in your book A World of Cake .

KC: Thank you! Actually the book started with the sidebars--I started writing the recipes around them.

CS: In one beloved sidebar, you mention that there are two types of cake artists--the ones who are cake makers, and also the ones who are inspired by cake. But you seem to  be...well, both! So, which are you?

KC: I think that I am both, but if I had to pick one, I am the one that uses the cake as a medium. When I'm developing recipes I am thinking about designing the cake--the texture and flavor and shape and construction and colors. 

CS: As a designer, is it hard to spend so much time designing something that will be consumed fairly quickly?

KC: Actually, that's something that I love about cake and baking--the product is consumed. I am not much of a consumerist, I don't have a lot of stuff. I think it's a difference between a producer versus a consumer mentality. I get my gratification from creating--once I've made it, I'm already moving on to the next thing. With food, it's nice that you can consume it and then move on!

One of my favorite parts about designing a cake is having the end experience in mind. How do the form and flavor come together to make it what you want it to be? Take wedding cake, for instance. There is a big event about the first slice, but then you don't see the cake afterward--it's put together with dowels and things, and it disappears to the kitchen and comes back sliced. Cupcakes on the other hand stay up the whole time, and you actually see what you get! I think that this may be a contributor to the popularity of cupcakes at weddings.

CS: Speaking of which...what kind of wedding cake did you have?

KC: I had a different flavor for each layer--there was a hazelnut layer, a sponge layer, and there was a fruitcake layer--because traditionally this is the layer from which you take a slice to keep all year. Not many people do this anymore, though.

CS: Speaking of love, you tell a great story about how you froze the popsicle you were eating when your now-husband first called you for a date, and as a sort of good-luck charm kept it for several years in the freezer. What kind of popsicle was it?

KC: It was a pink lemonade popsicle.

CS: It strikes me that your recent release, A World of Cake is not merely a recipe book--it is proof that cake is not merely cake, it is society, culture, life and what does cake mean to you?

KC: To me, the most interesting thing is that it is so common across cultures. It's the one food that you can tie to just about every celebration, everywhere in the world. To me, cakes get me excited every time there's a party. The act of making and sharing a cake is very exciting--and knowing the stories and experiences from various cultural heritages makes it even more interesting.

CS: That is something I love about cake too: it always comes with a story.

KC: And really, that is what inspired the whole book--there was a bake sale where I work, and there were all these cakes: rice cakes, moon cakes, fried cakes, milk cakes...and I was just like "tell me more!" and they always had a story behind them, and they are really connected to these cakes, which is really fun.

CS: You say in A World of Cake that Devil's Food Cake is your favorite to eat...but in your research, what is a cake that really intrigued you?

KC: I think the cakes shaped like hamburger and fries in Japan are pretty funny, the fact that they disguise cakes so that they don't look too feminine so guys can eat them in public without being embarrassed is a riot to me. The other one is the cake made to resemble the spine of the deer / rack of venison cake, which was served when meat was scarce--they made cakes to look like meat to bring liveliness to the celebration, I found these offbeat stories really interesting. It was important to me to include the classic, expected cakes, but also to include these cakes that are kind of "underground" that people don't know about.

CS: Can you tell me a bit more about the process of finding recipes for your book?

KC: I spoke to food historians, food folklorists, and librarians to find cakes, but I also learned a lot from talking to readers from my cupcake book--readers from around the world would become involved in the process. In my process, I feel as if it weren't for these relationships via internet and being able to talk to people all around the world, this book wouldn't have been possible. I learned about the stories that might not have been deemed "important" enough in the past. I was also able to use my students--I teach students from around the world, and there was an outpouring of ideas from them.

CS: Do your students get to benefit from your recipe testing?

KC: Yes, they do! I bring a lot of them into school, or leave them by the coffee cart. 

CS: I'll bet that makes you popular.

KC: Exactly.

CS: You had two books come out in the same month--Crazy About Cookies and A World of Cake. But obviously, the process of creating them takes much longer. long did it take for these books to come about?

KC: A World of Cake took the longest--I got the idea about 7 or 8 years ago, and was thinking about it for a long time, working on the cupcake book, and once that book came out and became popular, I knew that A World of Cake would take a long time, so I did the Pops book, all the while still collecting cake recipes and testing them, and working on a deal with sterling to do a series -- Crazy About Cookies is the second in a series. There are more in the works, one coming out next year--I can't talk about it yet, but from the time I started really editing and researching and working on it, it was three years from beginning to end. I was very involved with very aspect--the design, all the photos, et cetera. I oversee everything.

CS: At the risk of asking an annoying do you it all? Are there more hours in your day than there are in mine?

KC: People are always asking if I have a super-human gene. I don't know--what I do I have always done, I have been developing products since I was ten, making t-shirts and selling them to stores, and then was also on the swim team...was always very active. My full time professorship is 12 hours a week, which allows me a lot of extra time outside of my job to have projects going. But also, I managed a home manufacturing company for 10 years, so I had to become very good at organizing and managing. I'm also pretty good at decision-making and knowing when to move on. I don't have super powers, but I do work a lot. I try to help others through my work with the Design Entrepreneur Network.

CS: In Crazy About Cookies, you mention Girl Scout cookies as one of your gateways into the world of cookies. Do you still eat them?

KC: I do! Although it's sad to me that every year they make fewer and fewer in the box. Now, you have to get like 3 boxes to have the same amount of cookies! One thing that disappoints me is that I'm often buying them from the parents versus from the girls's a whole different world. I do find it sad that you don't find kids out there finding the entrepreneurial spirit of selling them, but I still buy them. 

CS: What cookies are you baking for Christmas?

KC: I'm going to make a midcentury gingerbread house, and I just got the idea to make a gingerbread trailer park. Maybe some mobile trailers. For us, the cookies I'll be making are the seven-layer cookies featured in my book. Those are my favorite.

For more of Krystina's work, check out her site here; you can also learn more about her most recent books on their individual sites--here and here.