This Nonprofit Takes the Cake
Community Cakes bakes happiness into people’s lives
Michelle Kwak spent hours crafting a round vanilla birthday cake stacked with gingerbread peppermint crinkle and a layer of nutmeg marshmallow topped with a shiny chocolate ganache.
Standing in her North End kitchen, Kwak, the pastry chef at State & Lemp, used a propane torch to toast the marshmallow and melt the ganache, then carefully laid thin pieces of broken chocolate on top in a mosaic pattern. She filled a pastry bag with white frosting and took a deep breath before piping: “Happy Birthday Fred!” across the top.
Kwak has never met Fred—and she probably never will. Nonetheless, she made sure the man living at Horizon Home Health & Hospice received a cake on his 79th birthday.
“We moved to Boise four years ago and it was kind of a rough transition for me at first because I’ve always lived in bigger cities,” Kwak said. “I needed fulfillment—good things I could do in the community.”
To fill that need, Kwak volunteers as a baker for Community Cakes, a nonprofit with about 60 active bakers who provide about 600 cakes per year to organizations all over the Treasure Valley. Of course, not all cakes need to be as elaborate as Kwak’s, and each goes to people at the Women’s and Children’s Alliance, the Boise Veterans Home, Giraffe Laugh daycare, the Ronald McDonald House and several nursing homes around the city.
For Kwak, cooking has always been part of her life. She remembers most of her school projects were edible—such as her eighth grade model of the Earth, made from a pizza.
“I did the whole pizza from scratch, the dough and the sauce,” she said. “This was before I knew about food safety. I made the pizza the day before and carried it around school all the next day. Science was the last class of the day and I still ate it.”
Several years later, Kwak became a science teacher and incorporated food into as many lessons as she could. But it wasn’t until she attended culinary school in Manhattan that she discovered a love for baking. Kwak spent two years as a pastry chef at Eleven Madison Park, a renowned restaurant with three Michelin stars, before moving to Boise.
Kwak makes decadent creations for Community Cakes using leftover ingredients from State & Lemp. She dropped off the cake at Fred’s nursing home the day before his birthday.
“I don’t like the attention put on me,” Kwak said. “I just like to drop it off and run.”
But another Community Cakes volunteer, Kathy Plaisance, says some of her fondest memories come from meeting the recipients of her cakes. Plaisance is the founder and executive director of the organization, which began in 2013.
“One gal I baked a cake for at the Canyon County Development Center in Caldwell, she was so excited that she hugged the cake,” Plaisance said. “That’s one of my favorite memories.”
Plaisance wants to do more for the community. Though the nonprofit already bakes hundreds of cakes every year, she said the waiting list for organizations that want to be involved is long.
She explained that all cake orders come through the organization—whether it’s a hospice care center or the Women’s and Children’s Alliance—which nominates people in need of a birthday cake. Those requests are then put on a website for all the bakers to see and commit to what they can.
“We have more people wanting cakes than we have bakers,” she said.
Becoming a baker for Community Cakes is easy; the process includes filling out an application online at CommunityCakes.com, undergoing an orientation and then a home visit from Plaisance to assure the kitchen is clean. After that, folks can get baking right away.
“Baking is an easy way to put a smile on people’s faces,” Plaisance said. “We cater to people who don’t usually get birthday cakes—something most of us take for granted.”
Plaisance has a soft spot for people living in homes of the elderly. She said a lot of them are forgotten about and often don’t have much to look forward to.
“Hospice is near and dear to my heart,” she said. “There was one time when [none of the other bakers] picked up a cake for someone in hospice. I begrudgingly did the cake, even though I was busy with my kids and busy with my work. I was grumpy about it.”
But her attitude changed when she dropped off the cake and the recipient’s wife started to cry.
“She was so overwhelmed,” Plaisance said. “It’s just a cake, but it’s also very important to people. We’re celebrating life.”