Meet Karen Tack: An Interview with the Cupcake Whisperer

The cupcaker, food stylist, and Parents contributing editor talks to us about baking, her boys, and eating healthy.
Karen Track with her two sons

Courtesy of Karen Track

Parents magazine: You were ahead of the cupcake craze when you wrote your first book, Hello, Cupcake!: Irresistibly Playful Creations Anyone Can Make. What about cupcakes appealed to you?

Karen Tack: As for our cupcake book, it is really a collaborative effort between me and Alan Richardson, my coauthor. We met about 20 years ago when we were just babies. We seemed to get paired up for all of these silly cakes and cookie ideas for the different magazines over the years, so we thought that it would be a fun idea to do a book on cupcakes. It took us about two years to compile a strong proposal. Alan, who has written several books over the years, said that if we sell 2,000 books it will be great. Well, over 1 million books later, I am still pinching myself! It has been a fabulous experience.

Parents: Tell me about your family and your household when you're in bake-mode.

KT: I have three boys -- that is including my husband Chris who is the biggest boy of all! Erik is 15 years old and Liam is 12. They have been a great inspiration for me and incredibly supportive, plus they're our biggest critics. They would come home from school and rate the cupcake that we shot for the books. Some would get A's while others would barely get a passing grade.

If you could see our house you would see how patient they are. Sometimes it is like Willy Wonka meets a tornado. On any given day there are trays of either cookies, cupcakes, cakes, or frosting all over the counters -- not to mention the tubs and tubs of candy that I have stored in bins in the basement!

Being a freelancer, there are always projects in the works. I might be developing something for Parents magazine while at the same time working on another project for another client. And of course, [I have to develop the recipes] at least four months in advance; Christmas cookies in July and Easter in December! It's very confusing when your house smells like gingerbread in July. I have nightmares that I haven't done any shopping yet for the holidays!

Parents: Do your kids like for you to bake for their birthdays and school functions or do they request something more generic (such as a Carvel ice cream cake)?

KT: I grew up with a Carvel cake for my birthdays! It brings back so many memories. But my guys get a dessert of their choice for their birthday. Erik likes molten lava chocolate cakes and Liam loves creme brulee. Notice no cupcakes.

I love to make food for their schools whenever possible, especially for the staff and teachers. Who doesn't love a little sweet late in the afternoon? I even taught a cooking class for the after-school program. We made things like salad dressings, homemade apple pies, crepes, sushi, stir-fry, gumbo, and, of course, cupcakes and cookies. We would also do taste tests. I would bring in all different types of chocolate for example, or new vegetables for them to try. One time I brought in some pickled okra and they all initially turned their noses up at it, but by the end of the class it was all gone! I love that they are so proud of what they made and so willing to try new things.

Parents: What do your boys like to eat?

KT: My guys are great eaters for the most part. We have some allergy issues with eggs, carrots, and some fruits, but we manage quite well. My husband and I are both cooks (we met at the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, New York) so we eat some very interesting meals around here. We had clam pie two nights ago from the clams that we dug up ourselves.

Breakfast before school is a big deal around here. We insist that they eat protein every morning -- no cereal here. Erik loves quesadillas while Liam prefers fried rice with egg and ham.

Even though I have all of this candy and homemade sweets around, my kids rarely ever go for it. In fact Liam would prefer a bowl of popcorn or pot stickers and Erik is happy with an Oreo. Go figure.

Parents: What is your biggest baking disaster?

KT: I think that one of my biggest baking disasters was for Erik's fifth birthday. I made him a fire truck cake with cream cheese frosting. I ended up decorating it at my parents' house in August, with no air-conditioning and not really enough room in the fridge. Big mistake! It was the saddest looking cake. I told my family if they took a picture of the cake I would never get work again as a stylist. Thank goodness it was for my family and not for work. It tasted great and Erik loved it, so that is really all that matters.

Parents: What is your biggest baking success?

KT: My biggest baking success (besides our two cupcake books) would have to be styling a cake for Gourmet magazine that ended up on the cover. As a child I would read the magazine in bed and just drool over the pictures. To be even asked to work for them from time-to-time was a dream come true. I am still crushed by the fact that they are no longer around.

Parents: What else should readers know about you?

KT: I am truly blessed with what I do. I had no idea that my life would have taken me down this route. Baking and decorating is such a wonderful job. Even if it is just a hobby, making something and sharing it with people spreads so much joy. You know what I am talking about if you have ever baked a batch of cookies and shared them with your neighbors, friends, or even the postman. What is that expression -- "Pay it forward?" How about "Bake it forward!"

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