Linnell develops passion for baking, creates cake business

Caitlynn Hauw, Final Focus Editor

At 8 years old, Jennifer Linnell (12) began with the basics; chocolate chip cookies. As she tied the strings of her dad’s oversized, black apron tight, she assembled her ingredients: flour, sugar, brown sugar, salt, baking soda, eggs, butter, vanilla, and a mix of semi-sweet and milk chocolate chips. 

She then advanced to crinkle cookies, macarons, pies, and tarts. Once she felt comfortable around the kitchen, she started making cakes.

From the beginning, Linnell knew what kind of baker she wanted to be. Rather than throwing together a boxed cake topped with canned frosting and sprinkles, she found joy in crafting each element of her desserts by hand.

“There’s something different about making a cake completely from scratch,” Linnell said. “There are people who will use boxed cake [mixes], and then make their frosting and decorate it from scratch, but it’s more fulfilling for me to just make everything from scratch. It gives you more control over the flavor combination [and] instead of just [going] with completely chocolate, [for example], you can add little hints of raspberry to pair with your raspberry mousse.”

As she learned through trial and error what techniques worked for her, she also experimented with different flavor combinations. She found that her friends and family loved her cherry-limeade cupcake concoction as well as blueberry-lemon, chocolate-peanut butter, and her most recent success, chocolate-raspberry cupcakes.

“You can add all kinds of things and different textures between the layers unlike a chocolate chip cookie,” she said. “[And] you can combine a lot of different flavors. I just try not to have too many flavors or it’s just like, ‘What flavor am I supposed to be tasting?’ It’s fun to pair those different flavors and [to] be shopping and [think], ‘Oh, those would go really nicely together, and then be able to test that the next time.’”

Linnell began to realize the nuances of baking cakes with their many layers. She said each cake layer was a vehicle for her to add mousses, ganaches, jams, and other textures to not just enhance the flavor, but to also make the feel of each bite dynamic like the crunch of toasted graham crackers in a smores cake. 

These past years have been a celebratory few for Linnell. First, her oldest sister, Nicole, got married; then her brother, Josh; and finally her other sister, Natalie. She was drawn to the prospect of making Nicole’s cake when her sister promised to do her makeup for the wedding in exchange for a wedding cake and a reception cake. Then, before Josh got married, she agreed to make his cake as well. From then on, because it was assumed she would make her siblings’ wedding cakes, it was a given she would be making Natalie’s as well.

During the summer of 2020, Linnell began preparing for her oldest sister’s wedding by trying different recipes and designs. Once she mastered and grew tired of one recipe, she would quickly move on to developing another.

As a crumb coat ensures pieces of cake don’t ruin the smooth frosting with imperfections and lumps, Linnell applied a crumb coat of her own to baking. She seized any opportunity she could to practice making cakes leading up to the weddings. By being paid to bake more than 15 cakes for neighbors and mutual acquaintances, she created her own mini business. 

When she got home from work, was in between shifts, or on her days off from working at Chick-fil-A, Linnell baked. 

“Knowing that I taught myself all of this, when people [say], ‘Oh, this tastes really good,’ ‘That looks so gorgeous,’ or ‘I thought this was from a professional bakery,’ it means more to me because I‘m self-taught,” Linnell said. “It became this thing where I was really happy to do it because I love baking cakes in the first place, and seeing that I can make other people happy [is where the enjoyment comes from].”

At her oldest sister’s reception, she baked a three-tiered cake with two layers each that served about 150 people—the most people she’s ever baked for. At her other sister’s rustic-themed wedding she piped a soft pattern on the cake and draped a garland of flowers across it. Maybe it’s because of the many recent weddings, or simply the natural beauty of them, but Linnell’s favorite decorations have always been flowers.

“Flowers can just so drastically change a cake in so many different ways,” she said. “Sunflowers are my favorite flowers, carnations come in so many colors [and] are gorgeous, [and] peonies are super, super pretty. [The flowers are] the star of the show on the cake. I call it a flower waterfall because when the flowers just come down the side of the cake and kind of flow around it, it can give it a softer look.”

Linnell decorated her brother’s two-tiered chocolate wedding cake with sunflowers, which she said she considered to be lucky. With its bright yellow rays for petals and the happiness the flower evokes, sunflowers encapsulate how Linnell has progressed. As she’s bloomed from an amateur baker of chocolate chip cookies to a masterful wedding-cake decorator and creator, she’s spread joy, like seeds, along the way.