Penny Steele thought she worked hard as a Hennepin County commissioner. Then she started making wedding cakes.
After representing the county's rural Seventh District for 14 years, Steele decided not to run for reelection last year and left the board in December.
Since then, she's pulled some all-nighters as the proprietor of Penny Steele Custom Cakes, which she runs out of a tiny building in Hamel that once housed a Chinese restaurant.
"I miss my colleagues," she said. "But I haven't watched a county board meeting since I left."
Steele, a staunch conservative who on the board was known for her commitment to libraries and children's and literacy issues, now pores over sugar-smudged frosting design books instead of budgets.
Her most passionate discussions are with future brides on the advantages of fondant over buttercream icing. And her biggest foe is chemistry and what happens when flour and eggs and butter are mixed and end up in a hot oven.
"Scratch cakes are very temperamental," Steele said. "None of them bake the same. I had a day where three failed in a row! I was going crazy."
Steele has always loved baking. About four years ago, she began wondering if she could turn it into a business. She took a cake-baking class and liked it. After taking master classes in cake decorating in Chicago, she knew it was something she would love to pursue.
As she worked toward her commercial license, she talked to her friend Peg Rasmussen, who runs the Countryside Cafe in Hamel. They have been friends since Steele's first campaign -- when the more liberal Rasmussen was working for Steele's opponent.
"It's hard not to like Penny," Rasmussen said. "She's good-hearted. ... We talk issues, but candidates we don't always agree on. So we stay away from that."
Rasmussen had catering space that Steele wanted to lease. Rasmussen said she was struck by her friend's enthusiasm, but wanted to make sure she had thought things through. She told Steele she needed a business plan.
"I'm a Republican," Steele answered crisply. "I have a business plan."
Though Steele has been baking full-time only since January, Custom Cakes has taken off and now shares a building with Rasmussen's catering business. Steele works with her 23-year-old son, Mark, who is a wizard at making figural cakes.
He studied aerospace engineering for two years at the University of Minnesota before the lure of sculpting alligators and dogs and even bears from edible materials like cake and icing (sometimes supported by a moldable Rice Krispie base) pulled him into the business. He's worked on projects from zombie arms with a raspberry filling center ("What do you expect? He's a 23-year-old guy," his mom said) to a cake that sported monkeys on an island, dolphins poking out of a blue sea and a boat. Except for the mast that supported a potato paper sail, everything on the cake was edible.
When Steele was still on the county board, she honed her craft by making cakes for colleagues and acquaintances -- a towering jail for the retiring head of the county workhouse, baseball and horse cakes for the kids of other board members. She even made a birthday cake for Margaret Anderson Kelliher, the DFL speaker of the Minnesota House.
"We're bridging partisanship through cake," Steele said.
Steele has booked 50 wedding cakes so far this year. One day recently she was working on a three-tier cake that was white chocolate raspberry and Bailey's chocolate fudge inside and a pastel green fondant on the outside. Fondant, a smooth sugar icing that Steele dyes, kneads and rolls out, is draped and wrapped over cakes on top of a layer of buttercream frosting that helps the fondant adhere.
Baking day for wedding cakes is usually Thursday. Decorations are done on Friday, and cakes are delivered on Saturday. Steele can only handle three wedding cakes a week and more than once has worked through the night decorating a cake. Her son and even her husband, Paul, sometimes come in in the middle of the night to help.
Steele is a perfectionist, consumed by the details of her new profession. She's proud of her ability to wrap a cake in fondant so the surface is immaculately smooth, with no visible seam. It's the decoration that she enjoys the most. She liked the practice and repetition it took to learn how to make gum paste roses and lilies (add too much water and the thin layers tear and split). She saw others in her classes get frustrated and quit or decide to specialize in just one thing. She tried to get better at everything.
"I'm slow. Mark is fast," Steele said. "You go until you're done. I'm pacing myself better now. But I want it to be great on the inside and great on the outside."
Most of her wedding cakes cost $700 to $1,000. The gum paste flowers are big right now, as are groom's cakes. Steele and her son have done cakes for the guys in the shape of cars and trucks, dogs and hamburgers. But tradition hangs on. Steele is touched by the brides who are embarrassed when they say they want a little bride and groom couple at the top of the cake because they think it doesn't seem sophisticated.
"You get what you want," she tells them.
"It's fabulous when the brides send you notes and pictures and say, 'You made my dream cake,' " Steele said. "There are clients you just bond with."
Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380