Sandi Nelson's cookies and cakes always amaze lucky recipients
Whenever Sandi Nelson disappears into her kitchen, her family and friends never know what she's going to bring out, but they know it will be an original cake or elaborately decorated cookies.
Sandi has created some amazing cakes, including Sponge Bob Squarepants, a bear, a giraffe, a hamburger, a cat on a ball of yarn, Mickey Mouse and a baseball diamond plus panoramas of camping, Hawaii and Duck Dynasty, to name a few.
And she has designed bikini cookies and "hospital" cookies that look like Band-Aids, doctors' coats, nurses' hats, pills and prescription pads, plus picture cookies topped with edible photos of people.
Sandi and her husband Gary, who live in Summerfield, have two children and three grandchildren who have been the lucky recipients of grandma's unique treats for their birthdays and other special occasions.
Sandi discovered her hidden talent when her daughter and husband started a family. "My daughter loved birthday parties with themes," Sandi said. "One was a tea party with Groovy Girls. Sandi's daughter said to her mom, 'Let's work on a cake that matches.'
"We were just winging it - and created an awful mess in the kitchen. We just laugh about it now. And not all was perfect."
But the experience led Sandi to take some classes in cake decorating, "although it was mostly piping flowers," she said. "What I did were cakes that were police cars and little teapots. I did learn in the classes how to make a cake level, and I took cookie decorating classes too. The teachers did a good job of teaching the basics, but I still can't do a rose very well."
That hardly matters because Sandi can now do anything else she dreams up, and she really started blazing new trails with her decorator cakes and cookies.
She and Gary have a grandson who is 17 and two granddaughters ages 14 and 11, and she also has added some children of close friends into her "grandchild tally." Cakes have turned from theme-based to more interest-based for her now-teenage grandchildren.
"There is lots of information online, I read books, and I just started learning," she said. "I am still learning. I don't use forms anymore for cakes. I use flat pans - I have tons and tons of pans. I love it when I have something to follow, but most of the time, I wing it."
Sandi also has learned some tricks of the trade.
"You make cakes in tiers with a nice filling between each tier - you don't carve one big piece," she said. "You get the cake as high as you want and then start carving.
"My cakes are pretty involved - I might do steps over several days. And sometimes I stay up all night long, as do other bakers, I have learned. It's a labor of love, and I love doing it for my grandkids."
Sandi and Gary attend Lake Bible Church, where she has been known to make cakes and cookies for bridal and baby showers and anniversaries.
But neophyte bakers, be warned: It takes a lot more than flour, sugar and eggs to create a culinary masterpiece. White fondant and gum paste are staples for Sandi as is Amerigel, which comes in "tons of different colors," she said.
The fondant has to be kneaded together with a color of one's choosing and rolled out thin to form the very outer layer of the cake on which the decorations go, according to Sandi.
She creates small pieces such as ears or horns out of gum paste on lollipop sticks, shaping them a few days ahead of time to allow for drying.
Sandi also keeps a huge container filled with various sizes of wood and plastic dowels to insert into her cakes to provide more stability for the tiers.
"You also can cut cardboard to fit and support the cake from the inside," Sandi said, adding, "You have to do things in advance and plan ahead. And I always make extra pieces because sometimes they break."
Finally, "I put a nice Swiss meringue butter-cream frosting all over the cake and make it as smooth as possible," said Sandi, who likes to use Satin Ice rolled fondant icing for the final frosting layer.
"But you don't put fondant on cookies - you use Royal icing," she added.
And it's probably a safe bet that no matter what the event, Sandi has a cookie cutter for the occasion.
"I have tons of cookie cutters," said Sandi, who pulled out one of four big bins, each containing multiple Ziplock bags of cookie cutters packaged together with the same theme, such as teapots or hearts. "I'm always buying more cookie cutters," she said.
However, there are some she can't find: "I can't get Avengers cookie cutters," she said. "When I need one I can't find, I get one that's sort of the right shape and bend it to make it the way I want it. I turned a pumpkin into the Hulk."
In another example, for a baby shower she wanted to make mom and baby elephant cookie cutters in the same design as the nursery wallpaper but had to modify existing ones.
"Most of the time, you can order any shape online and get them within a week," Sandi said. "There are options, options and more options. Someday when I don't do this, I will have to put all this stuff on eBay."
Sandi and Gary, who have lived in Summerfield for about 13 years, met at the University of Montana - she was from Montana and he was an Idaho native. After college, they moved to Ashland, where Gary was hired to teach physical education classes and coach the ski team at Southern Oregon University, although he later coached the baseball team and became the athletic director there.
They moved back to Montana, where Gary was the athletic director at Eastern Montana State College, eventually returning to Oregon where Gary became the athletic director at the Multnomah Athletic Club in Portland. He later worked for Nike, running one of its sports centers.
Meanwhile, Sandi worked for the Jackson County Education Service District and in the library of the Medford Mail Tribune newspaper. "I worked for the editor of the editorial page at first, also doing a column before moving into the library position," Sandi said.
When the Nelsons moved back to Montana, she worked for a law practice.
Upon their return to Oregon, she got a job with Pacific Care, which is now United Health. Sandi has now worked in the health insurance field for 18 years, specifically in behavioral health on such issues as mental health and substance abuse.
And tying her job and hobby together, she has been known to bring cakes and cookies into the office for special and "just because" occasions.