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Wild About Baking

Have you ever looked at a cake and thought, “This is too pretty to eat?” Meet two bakers bringing nature-inspired artistry to every bite.

Starting a Tradition

It’s tough for avian ecologist Araks Ohanyan to detach from her day job. When it comes to studying birds, she doesn’t easily separate her fieldwork from her passion for baking.

Ohanyan’s interests in birding and baking began at a young age, both developing separately until one day she found the species she was studying were inspiring her cakes. And once she started recreating her beloved birds on cakes she couldn’t stop. “(They) became more and more ambitious,” Ohanyan said.

Professionally, Ohanyan has studied a variety of endangered and imperiled species, from black guillemot in Maine and quail in Texas to scarlet macaws in Mexico and scrub jays in Florida. With each new job, Ohanyan inadvertently started a tradition of making a cake with her current study species on it. “One of the reasons I love to bake is because I like to share food with people,” Ohanyan said. “It’s how I show people that I care.”

Ohanyan worked with South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources to monitor the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker that uses the fire-dependent longleaf pine forests for habitat. Because fire regimes don’t occur the way they used to before human colonization, the longleaf pine now relies on prescribed burns. Using a variety of survey methods, Ohanyan helped collect data to figure out how those prescribed burns impacted the woodpeckers.

Near the end of her contract with the department, the project’s stakeholders came together to translocate a group of woodpecker fledglings across state lines. As the team wrapped up their roost check and prepared for travel to Virginia, they held an interagency Low Country boil to celebrate. Ohanyan’s contribution? A cake designed to look like a tree stump with a red-cockaded woodpecker digging a hole, of course.

When she’s not working or baking, Ohanyan is often birding in her free time. Since she moves every few months for work, she likes to explore her new location and report bird sightings to eBird, a citizen science database that allows users to upload bird checklists, photos, and audio files from specific locations. Users from all over the world contribute millions of sightings that support researchers studying changes in bird distributions over time, especially as those changes relate to habitat loss and climate change. “Basically, I’m neck-deep in birds all the time,” Ohanyan said.

A Yule log cake with a woodpecker and sculpted natural elements. Photo by Araks Ohanyan.

Must Love Herbs

For Lauren May, a baker, gardener, and teacher from eastern Kentucky, food is so much more than sustenance. “Food is like an unspoken language that conveys culture and heritage better than any other medium,” she said. “It is also a way for me to express myself.”

Whether it’s a sheet cake decorated with edible flowers, focaccia with foraged delicacies, or cupcakes with marzipan mushrooms, May’s delicious creations use artistry— a variety of textures, an abundance of bright colors, and a range of flavors—to mimic natural elements. Using family recipes adapted to modern tastes, May hopes to upend the notion that Appalachian food is bland, unhealthy, and uninspired. “Come to any grandmother’s table, and you will see that is the furthest thing from the truth,” she said.

May spends days on each bake, tediously hand-sculpting every detail. “I like to put all my attention and love into each one,” she said. “I feel if I do so without being rushed, then that translates into the finished piece.”

Whatever herbs she find lying around tend to make their way into her creations, a tribute to the Appalachian resourcefulness that runs deep in the region. Her inspiration comes from the fresh ingredients she grows and forages for in her backyard. She began gardening at three years old, helping her grandfather tend to each plant with patience and care. All of May’s gardening knowledge has been passed down, connecting her to the land around her and the generations that came before her. “Having generations of gardeners that have worked this very land gives you a bit of a leg up,” she said. “You know what does well here, what doesn’t, and what you need to combat pests and diseases.”

May’s advice for budding bakers? Take your time, and don’t be afraid to get things wrong. It’s a sentiment Ohanyan echoes when reflecting on her baking journey. Once she broke baking down into steps, the practice of decorating and recreating natural elements became a lot less daunting. “You’ll probably surprise yourself and make something really fun,” Ohanyan said. “People appreciate the effort you put into it. So I would say go out and bake a cake.”

Cover image: Mushroom & Chocolate Cupcakes with Edible Moss & Marzipan Mushrooms. Photo by Lauren May

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