Sweet mix of family, business on ‘cake night’

Rocky Hill Cakes owners Mike and Cara Carel asked to give demonstration at state meeting

Cara Carel smooths the foundation layers of a two-tier cake by keeping her scraper hot with boiling water. The 89th birthday cake for their grandmother, left, featured lots of handmade icing decorations. One of her first designs was a baby bottom, below, created without the use of molds.

Cara Carel smooths the foundation layers of a two-tier cake by keeping her scraper hot with boiling water. The 89th birthday cake for their grandmother, left, featured lots of handmade icing decorations. One of her first designs was a baby bottom, below, created without the use of molds. Photo by Michelle Brooks.

RUSSELLVILLE, Mo. — Thursdays and Fridays are “cake nights” at the Carel home. While Cara runs the mixers and the oven, Mike builds and designs.

The kiddos often get pizza and freedom to watch movies and play games in the living room. Before bed, they might get some cake scraps.

After they’re tucked in, the operators of Rocky Hill Cakes turn on their music — from a car stereo installed in the ceilings — and might be up into the early morning.

The quality time the couple of 11 years shares has been as surprising as the success of their unexpected business venture.

“I feel this has helped us grow together, because we spend more one-on-one time together,” Cara said. “It’s like marriage counseling, only sweeter.”

The private home bakery took shape after they were invited to bring their tasty cakes to the Russellville Farmers Market, then the Cole County Farmers Market. Cara signed up for a county business license and a tax identification number, and had enough business she couldn’t make the farmers markets anymore.

“People were seeking us out,” she said.

A shy person by nature, content to rear their four children — Ethan, 17, Mikayla, 9, Amanda, 7, and Rebecca, 5 — and babysit for others, Cara never sought out this profession.

But it has helped her grow in confidence, especially with the support of the local International Cake Exploration Society (ICES).

At the Missouri Chapter of ICES Day of Sharing on Sept. 22 at the Courtyard by Marriott in Columbia, the couple will demonstrate how to make an ice cream cone cake for up to 100 cake professionals and enthusiasts.

They’ve only made the design once, at the birthday request from one of their children.

“Our children challenge us now that we can do this,” Cara said.

Other requests have included a shamrock on a can of Dr. Pepper and a snow globe with a purple squirrel inside.

Three years ago, the online tutorials Mike could find for an ice cream cake structure all said to use floral foam.

“That’s not going to fly; if it’s there, it’s going to be edible,” Mike and Cara agreed.

So, they assembled a 2-foot tower of cake on their own and the photo is one of several featured on their website. Other ICES members requested the demonstration.

Cara has learned a lot from online courses and DVD gifts. But she has relied the most on the mentors and friends she’s made through ICES.

It was tragedy that started the Carels in this direction. Cara’s mother always made birthday cakes for the family. When her mom died unexpectedly, Cara’s children missed the homemade touch versus a store-bought cake.

So Carel was inspired to take up the cake-making tradition for her kids and in her mother’s honor.

Right now, Rocky Hill Cakes is somewhere between a hobby and career.

They’re following all the rules, like not making cream cheese frosting to go with their red velvet cakes because they don’t have industrial-standard storage.

“We don’t have the money for a commercial kitchen,” she said.

Throughout this adventure, the Carels have held to a core value — living debt-free.

“It’s important to us to instill that in our children; we have to live that way,” Mike said.

Cara’s recipes are fantastic, and Mike has an eye for details.

“Our cakes look like they’re fondant, but they’re not,” she said.

Mike continued: “We wanted the look of a smooth cake, but most people peel off the fondant; that’s a big waste.”

She measures her ingredients by weight, not by cups, for consistency.

Her ingredients are not what would be found in public stores and they’re certainly not “healthy” for those watching their carbs.

Her tools come from as far away as South Africa, but the weight and handling make a tremendous difference.

“We searched them out by trial and error,” Cara said. “I love hardware stores.”

In addition to typical spatulas and icing bags, they pull out hammers, saws, pliers and levels.

“The right tools can make your job so much easier,” she said.

Big Gal and Little Girl are her blenders.

“They’ve been my right arm for a long time,” Cara said.

Mike agreed, “She’s put many miles on them.”

Most of the cake designs came out of customer ideas, she said.

But Internet sites like Pinterest can set up customers for a price-tag shock, Cara said. “Shows like ‘Cake Boss’ don’t tell you that bling cake is $10,000,” she said.

Listening to customer interests and body language, Cara has a knack for coming up with a happy medium. “If I don’t ‘feel’ you’re happy, it’s my job to keep looking,” she said.

Once the cake is baked, iced, formed, stacked and decorated, it has to be transported. “Moving is my least favorite part,” Mike said.

They’ve made a birthday cake for an adult’s first birthday party and their pastor’s anniversary.

They mostly do birthday and celebration cakes. But the wedding cakes they really take seriously.

“You’re a part of a very big day,” Cara said. “That’s going to be in their photo album.”

Their e-mail and Facebook page are full of thank-yous and photos of customers enjoying their hardwork. “It makes you feel good when people respond to what you gave them,” Mike said.

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