The sweet life

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Baker's flour covers every inch of the center island in Sydney Mandrgoc's kitchen. Taped to the microwave is a freehand drawing of an ornate, two-tiered cake. Along the side counters, candy decorations sit drying. And in the center of it all sits the almost finished product: a pink and lavender masterpiece covered in fondant smooth as a frozen lake. Mandrgoc grimaces as she notices a wrinkle on the side of the cake.

"I'll have to fix that later," she says.

Mandrgoc, 14, a freshman at Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax, is in many ways a typical teenager with an overbooked schedule. Along with her nightly load of homework, she has swim team every day after school. Several evenings a week, she assists her dad coaching an eighth-grade boys basketball team from St. Mark School in Vienna. The orthopaedic boot she wears on her right foot is evidence of her competitiveness during a recent practice - the result of her "giving it her all," according to her dad.

But above her other commitments, Mandrgoc's true passion is baking. "This is my outlet," she said, pointing to the cake she's decorating. "Weekends for me are pretty much baking, homework, church and sleep."

Mandrgoc's grandmother used to bake wedding and other ornate cakes, which fascinated Mandrgoc from an early age. When she was 10, Mandrgoc enlisted her family's help in baking an "Under the Sea" cake for her cousin's baby shower.

"It started as a family affair," she said. "My dad made the crab and seahorse; my brother made a mommy turtle and little blue turtle; my mom made a fish; and I made an octopus and a little green turtle."

From that point, Mandrgoc was hooked on her new hobby. She attended cooking classes and camps to learn techniques and pored over websites for design ideas. Her grandmother gave her all her baking pans, as well as a handmade rolling pin that had belonged to her great-grandmother. Mandrgoc couldn't get enough.

"I was happy when Santa brought me baking supplies for Christmas," she said.

She started baking for relatives, friends and neighbors. From there, she decided to market her creations, launching "Sydney's Sweet Shoppe" from her home. Although her home kitchen is not yet licensed, business is growing.

"I've filled 42 orders since 2010, and so far just this year, I've filled six," she said.

Mandrgoc squeezes in time for baking at night and on weekends. It can take anywhere from two hours to five days to fill an order, depending on its size and difficulty. She partners with her mother, Mary, to fill the more detailed orders. Mandrgoc recalled a recent request for an "Elsa 'Frozen'" cake.

"My mom and I baked from 4 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. because we had another order at the same time," she said. "By the time I got my second wind, I just felt, 'Let's get this night over with.' But my mom was there the whole time."

Mary Mandrgoc sees baking as a special bond they share. "We do bicker, but this is our time together," she said. "Sometimes we just have to step back, say a prayer and hug it out."

Watch a video about the Mandrgoc's bake shop

Recently, Mandrgoc became a volunteer baker with Icing Smiles, a nonprofit based in Ellicott City, Md., that provides custom cakes to families affected by the critical illness of a child. She received her first "call to action" in February to bake a "Doc McStuffins" cake for 5-year-old Esther who had received a lung transplant.

"The cake had to be nut-free, so we sanitized everything," said Mandrgoc. "We couldn't use the regular food coloring because it had nuts, and we needed brown to make decorative Band-Aids. So we melted caramel."

Mandrgoc will follow specific requests from customers but also enjoys the freedom to be creative. When asked to create a first Communion cake for a young football fan, she used a cross for the cake's base and decorated the cross as a football field. The "Touchdown Jesus" cake featured a figure of Jesus in the end zone with football players running toward Him.

"We wrote, 'Score with the Lord' on the cake," she said. "It was a huge hit."

A future in culinary arts is Mandrgoc's hope, but for now she is concentrating on just getting everything done. "I used to have awful time management skills and no patience," she said. "Not anymore."

Mandrgoc credits her family and her faith with helping her achieve success to this point. "When I bake, I always say a prayer before I start and when I am stressed, because it always calms me down," she said. "Baking also allows me to use some of the talents that God gave me to make people happy. The most rewarding part of baking is seeing the smiles on the faces of my customers when I show them the finished product."

Witko can be reached at mwitko@catholicherald.com.

Find out more

Go to Sydney's website.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015