The Joy of Baking Birthday Cakes with Dana Philips

Dana Phillips

“City girl who moved into the woods with a knack for making edible art.” As a young mom the one thing Dana thought would be the most memorable tradition she could create for her kids was customized homemade cakes for their birthdays. She’s 53 cakes in and her three kids who are almost all adults can’t imagine life without a cake from her. When she’s not baking she’s fighting for a better South for future generations, getting the dinner party and game nights planned now that everyone is vaxxed (nothing beats making good food for good people), disappearing into the woods to see the stars, and going on countless motorcycle adventures with her partner, Adam.

The Joy of Baking Birthday Cakes with Dana Phillips

Cake sculpting is an art form, and gifting a personalized cake to someone is as much a source of joy for the giver as the receiver. Dana Phillips shares how she got started baking and decorating elaborate cakes as a promise to her children, and how it grew into a way to spread joy to so many others in her life. As a Certified Wilton-method cake decorating instructor, Dana takes us on her sweet journey through the wonderland of cake and gives us tips to help us bake and decorate with joy and confidence.

Topics discussed in this episode:

  • How Dana’s children lead her to pursue cake baking and decorating
  • Her favorite cake flavor profiles and designs
  • Cake baking tips and ingredient substitutions to make delicious gluten-free and dairy-free cake
  • Product brands for gluten-free flour and flavor extracts

Links to resources:

TranscriptDuration: 20:03

Christa Avampato  00:00

Hi, everyone. Welcome back to the JoyProject podcast. My name is Christa Avampato, and I am your host, and today I am joined by Dana Phillips. Dana, hello and welcome to JoyProject.

Dana Phillips  00:11

So glad to be here.

Christa Avampato  00:12

I’m so excited you’re here. I’m so excited I’m here with you. Tell us where you are in the world.

Dana Phillips  00:18

Athens, Georgia in the spring of deception, because it’s now down to 50 again after being 80 yesterday.

Christa Avampato  00:26

This time of year is so strange. March is up and down and up and down. And you don’t really know what’s going to happen. So you just have to be prepared for anything in this wild, wild weather world. So I’m going to start our conversation the way that I started all these conversations, and ask you what it is, Dana, that brings you joy.

Dana Phillips  00:45

One thing that makes me super happy is to make other people happy through the art of cake baking, and cake decorating, and gifting cakes.

Christa Avampato  00:57

I love this one because I love you and I love cake. I also want to note on here, anybody who follows you on Instagram knows that you’re very dedicated to healthy eating. You do incredible workouts that I think are so inspiring. You are always out running and exercising. So then when I found out that one of your big joys is making cake, I was like, what? How does this happen? Have you always been a baker from the time you were little?

Dana Phillips  01:32

No. So I started cake baking when I had my first daughter. I was really young and I just made a promise to myself and to her that my kids would never have a store-bought birthday cake. And so I set off on this whole grand journey of making cakes. I made a castle cake for her first cake and it had so much sugar on it and she hated it. She didn’t like to be messy. And then as the years progressed and Wilton magazines came in the mail, my kids will be able to pick out cakes if they wanted pirate ships and ballerinas and cats on yarn balls and everything in between and doing it for my kids led me to make cakes for other people and to surprise them with cakes or just do cakes for teachers at the end of the year because no one ever gives the teacher a cake at the end of the year. So yeah, I just started basically taking my love of art and turning it into edible things.

Christa Avampato  02:33

And one thing that I love about this is that while I love a good layer cake and I would never disparage a layer cake, you aren’t just making the chocolate cake and putting some frosting on it. You are creating works of art. They get very elaborate, intricately designed, intricately decorated. I am a huge Duff Goldman fan from Ace of Cakes. And I really do think that cake is a canvas. How did you get into what I would call cake sculpting?

Dana Phillips  03:26

It was literally all child lead. I’d take them to Michael’s and they would pick out one of the Wilton pans, Tinkerbell or a pirate or whatever. We also have this whole concept that you have to have cake for breakfast the following day after your birthday. So there will always be two cakes. One that was elaborate and that goes with it. For a pirate cake, I might also make a treasure chest cake to go with it.

Christa Avampato  04:44

Oh I love it. So you have the occasion cake, and then you have breakfast cake which I think is probably a cake that needs like a little bit more love like I agree that there should also be breakfast cake.

Dana Phillips  04:55

You should whenever you have a birthday you have cake and then the following day you have Have breakfast cake. A birthday is not a birthday without morning after breakfast.

Christa Avampato  05:04

Yes, it’s sort of like after Thanksgiving people have pie for breakfast on exact Friday after, right?

Dana Phillips  05:10

It’s like the golden standard in our house. Cake is your breakfast meal.

I’ve also done business logo cakes, like three dimensional cakes from business logos. Right now I’m making a coconut cake with lemon curd filling and I think I’m going to try to do a famous art nouveau artist on rice paper and replicate some art. Put it on the top for the girl who just did my tattoo as a thank you.

Christa Avampato  05:16

Sculpting with cake is complicated because you don’t have a lot of time. The cake’s gonna go stale. So it’s not like you can make the cake a month in advance. You need to be doing it in real time with the occasion. So how did you get started learning how to make these elaborate cakes?

Dana Phillips  05:41

Honestly, I just started winging it. And then, as the kids’ wishes got more grand, like they do, I found out that the Michael’s where I was buying the cake pans had Wilton classes. So I signed up for decorating classes and then I ended up getting the certification and then teaching people how to decorate cakes. So I can also teach anyone how to decorate a cake.

Christa Avampato  06:17

So you’re also a cake teacher. Did you teach at at the Michael’s where you were taking classes?

Dana Phillips  06:25

Yeah, I taught three levels of Wilton cake decorating.

Christa Avampato  06:29

That is amazing. And Wilton makes all kinds of pans, accessories, magazines, books.

Dana Phillips  06:37

Yep, they make all the tools. I’m totally brand agnostic, but that was the only place that had a certification. I had to present a portfolio and get approved into the program. I taught butter cream to royal frosting, two-tiered cakes, all the classes.

Christa Avampato  06:56

Amazing. And I know that you have a very successful career in tech. Was there ever a thought that you wanted to try to make this your living?

Dana Phillips  07:14

So I did do it as my living, especially during 2008 when my husband was in construction and laid off. And he was our sole income then. So it was like, oh, what can I do to bring in money? So I had a little like black market bakery because craft kitchens weren’t certified at the time so you couldn’t be making things in your kitchen and selling them without getting in trouble. So did have a little cake side hustle. I did it for friends and family and anybody in my network. I’ll still do cakes for people today.

I had to switch it up though and make my cakes gluten free because my joints and my hands were getting really, really sore. And so now all my cakes are gluten-free and dairy-free. But still just as pretty. And I can accommodate my son’s lactose allergy and celiac disease, and because I can’t eat gluten. I’ll still make gluten cakes for people who are all into the gluten. I just won’t eat them. For the most part people are excited to have cakes that are gluten free and dairy free and taste and look great.

Christa Avampato  08:06

Did you find that as you were eating gluten and dairy, it was affecting your health?

Dana Phillips  08:13

Yeah, absolutely. I did all the hand piping which is like holding a paintbrush for a long time. Your hands can get really stiff. And you have to be really, really precise. I was struggling trying to a make cakes for a living. And it was a strain on my hands. I have great sympathy and compassion for anyone whose sole income relies on their hands. I understand why they get insurance on their hands.

Christa Avampato  08:46

Do you use a specific gluten-free flour?

Dana Phillips  08:49

Yep, it’s come a long way. I pretty much stick to King Arthur gluten free blends. I use Earth Balance vegan butter. Coconut milk for cow’s milk because coconut milk has similar fat ratio to cow’s milk. So you still get the chemistry happening the way that it should inside a cake.

Christa Avampato  09:06

Did that take some experimenting to figure out like what would work best?

Dana Phillips  09:11

Yeah, yeah, there were some cakes where I was like, “Wow, we threw a lot of icing on it.” And there were some that were just like, “Oh, that’s bad.” I usually try to test it out as cupcakes first because I don’t feel as bad with a cupcake being bad as you do a whole cake.

Christa Avampato  09:27

Do you have any favorite designs from over the years?

Dana Phillips  09:46

I had friends that had opened up a bakery in Athens. It’s since closed sadly. But they had the cutest logo. It was half a coffee cup and a muffin. So I made a three dimensional version of their logo. I delivered it to them on their one-year anniversary. It was fun to gift a cake to a bakery. They were super touched. That was really special. And then obviously, any of the cakes that I’ve made for my kids. I would usually make the cakes when the kids were asleep. So they would wake up in the morning and open the oven and they’d be like, “There’s a ballerina! There’s the pirate ship! I got my dream cake!”

Christa Avampato  10:35

Dana, you’re the best mom.

Dana Phillips  10:50

Whenever I talk to people or I’m working with people, I always like to ask them what their favorite cake is. I make a mental note. So the cake that I’m making now is a coconut cake with lemon curd. Because the girl who did my tattoo told me her favorite cake is coconut. And I was telling her about coconut cake with lemon curd. She’s like, “I bet that tastes just like spring.”

Christa Avampato  11:17

Now your tattoo artist is going to have this incredible surprise.

Dana Phillips  11:20

She doesn’t know so big surprise. Big surprise.

Christa Avampato  11:24

We won’t tell her. Are there certain parts of making the cake that are more joyful for you than others?

Dana Phillips  11:40

The baking part, and then letting them sit to cool is tough. Because you literally can’t do anything until they’re cool. If you put the icing on it will melt off, and then you’ll just have this mess. But once I get into the decorating, I’m in a groove. It’s a creative process. And then obviously, the gifting, the reveal, is always a joy.

Christa Avampato  12:08

Do you have a cake flavor that you really love to make?

Dana Phillips  12:27

I make one that’s It’s like a reverse York Peppermint Pattie. It’s dark chocolate cake with white peppermint frosting. And there’s something so magical about the cake. One of the kids wanted a chocolate peppermint cake. And I was like, “Huh, I wonder how I could do that.” I never dictate what cake a child gets. They decide what cake they get for their birthday. That one has been on heavy rotation for all three kids. They love that one.

And then I obviously follow bakers online and look at different flavor profiles. The other day I saw pistachio carrot cake. That sounds really good to me. So I might be testing that one out soon. That’s a good spring cake.

Christa Avampato  13:14

Peppermint is tough because you have this line where it you go over it then it tastes like toothpaste. Do you have a brand of flavorings and essences that you like to use?

Dana Phillips  13:33

I’ve been using Thrive Market extracts, and I always balance peppermint with vanilla. I use the Wilton gold standard recipe for frosting and put in 1/4 of a teaspoon of peppermint, a teaspoon of vanilla, mix it up, and then taste it. It’s a really forgiving frosting recipe.

Christa Avampato  14:18

And frosting you can taste as you go. Harder with cake because you shouldn’t taste batter and it’s not indicative of what the final product will taste like.

Dana Phillips  14:35

Yeah, the batter would always taste different than the cake.

Another tip I have is that if you’re ever making anything with chocolate whether it’s brownies, chocolate cake, chocolate muffins, whenever it calls for water, sub it out with coffee because coffee elevates the chocolate flavor. Makes it so much better.

Christa Avampato  14:50

If it calls me like a cup of water, use a cup of brewed coffee instead?

Dana Phillips  14:54

Yep. I’ll change your world.

Christa Avampato  14:55

Does it make the chocolate taste richer?

Dana Phillips  14:59

Coffee really brings out the notes of the chocolate.

Christa Avampato  15:03

I love that! On the concept of joy, one of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about is even in a very difficult world and very difficult circumstances, joy can really live alongside all of it. It doesn’t have to be that because I’m going through a difficult time, I can’t have any joy. They’re not totally exclusive. And I do feel like cake and baking for someone or cooking for someone doing something nice for someone, especially when it’s something that they don’t expect. It takes so much time and effort and thought and what a beautiful, joyful thing to gift to someone.

Dana Phillips  15:58

Most people when they request the cake, or they’re talking about cakes, they never think that someone’s gonna hone in on all their requests and try to make it happen. My youngest daughter loves to bake. And she went all in on making a chocolate salted caramel cake. And unfortunately, it collapsed. So it became just a cake bowl, and everyone grabbed spoons and ate it. And it was the most magical, yummy thing we’ve ever put together.

Christa Avampato  16:46

And we can also we can get some joy out of that, right? Joy is salvageable.

Dana Phillips  16:56

Yes, and you learn. Sometimes things go sideways, especially when you’re trying to make cakes to accommodate for people’s dietary restrictions. A lot of times you do end up with things going a little south. So we course correct and sometimes that results in really yummy disasters. And other times, it’s a stunning showpiece and it looks amazing and tastes amazing. It’s nice when it can be a win-win. Most people who have dietary restrictions don’t even get custom cakes, because it would be so expensive. So it’s just a nice thing to do to surprise someone with a pretty cake that they can eat and enjoy because everyone should eat cake. It’s like the Oprah Winfrey cake.

Christa Avampato  17:45

Everyone gets a cake! Oh, Dana. I love it. I’m hoping for listeners who want to see more of your cakes and learn about your clean eating and your fabulous family and your exercising. How can people get in touch with you? What’s the easiest way?

Dana Phillips  18:07

You can find me at @pixiestavern on Instagram. That’s the easiest way to find me and communicate with me.

Christa Avampato  18:14

I really can’t wait to see this coconut lemon curd cake. And I can’t wait to see how your tattoo artist reacts to getting the cake.

Dana Phillips  18:21

I will have to provide an update. I feel like there’ll be happy tears. And that makes cake tastes even better.

Christa Avampato  18:35

Yes, so true. Dana, thank you so much for joining us on the JoyProject. Thank you for putting these beautiful joyful cakes out into the world. I think we could all use some more joy and some more cake in these times. And I’m glad you’re providing it. Thank you so much for joining us. And I hope you will come back and talk to us about other joys in the future and then talk to us about cake again.

Dana Phillips  18:58

Oh, definitely without a doubt. Thank you so much, Christa. I hope everyone gets some yummy cake this weekend.

Christa Avampato  19:03

Awesome. Thank you Dana.

This episode brought me so much joy that I might actually attempt to make a cake from scratch and gift it to someone. A big thank you to Dana for sharing her joy of baking cakes and gift them to others and her tips for cake baking and decorating. Thanks to all of you for spending part of your day with me and JoyProject.

You can find Dana on Instagram at @pixiestavern.

You can find me on Twitter at @christanyc, on Instagram at @christarosenyc, and through the website for this podcast where you can also find links to everything we talk about on the podcast as well as show transcripts for each episode.

I hope you’re finding joy in some way every day. Take care of yourself and take care of those in your corner of the world. I hope you all get some cake today. You deserve it. Have a joy-filled week and I’ll chat with you again in two weeks on Tuesday, November 1st, when I’m back with another new episode of JoyProject.