Even with 33 years of teaching under her belt, Nanci Olmos still gets excited before each class at her store, Clarice’s Cake & Candy Supplies in Newhall.
“I love sharing my craft, especially around the holidays,” she said.
Tonight, it’s Halloween Crazy Cookies and the 11 students are gathered around tables in groups, watching Olmos as she demonstrates how to decorate shortbread cookies with fondant and various types of icing, candies, and dusts.
Among the crowd are newcomers like Chelsey Umana of Sylmar. “I just had a baby and want to learn how to bake for class projects,” she said.
It’s also the first class for Carolyn Hoffman of Castaic. “I’m super excited. I love trying things like this at home, but I’m not great at it,” Hoffman said.
Standing behind a high counter outfitted with an overhead mirror that allows for the class to watch her every move, Olmos begins rolling out fondant for a witch’s hat. She takes a cookie cutter in the same shape as the cookies and brushes on a layer of piping jelly, which she dubs “baker’s glue.”
Olmos drapes the stiff, sugary substance over the waiting shortbread base and presses it into place perfectly.
“Fondant is the fastest, easiest way to decorate a cookie,” Olmos said.
She then takes an herb mincer to make tiny strips of orange fondant that she fashions into a bow with the aid of a tiny dowel.
Hoffman follows along, gleeful at the results. “Oh my God, this is amazing. I’m super excited about my witch hat. I’m posting it on Facebook tonight,” she said.
That kind of excitement is what prompted Olmos to take over Clarice’s in 1985. She was a teacher’s aid who took classes from the original Clarice, never anticipating she would one day own the store, which sells supplies ranging from tins, boxes, wraps, candies, sugars, flours, and just about anything a baker could need.
“Clarice asked me if I wanted to buy the store and at first, I said no, but eventually I changed my mind,” Olmos said.
Since then, Olmos has probably taught close to 10,000 classes, including cake and cupcake decorating, showcasing such as skills as working with chocolate, or creating fun petit fours and trendy cake pops.
Barbie Campeau has been by Olmos’ side for the last 15 years, baking all the items necessary for class and helping students all the new techniques they’ll learn over the two-hour class, which usually run $25 to $25.
It’s a tough business, but one that Olmos believes is important.
“I’ve seen Kmart close and Sears is closing now, and I wonder how I can keep going. But this is homemade. It’s what this country was founded on, making things for home and family,” she said. “You can be on your computer all day long, but nothing compares to the love and hugs a homemade cookie brings.”
Next up in class, Olmos takes a white bag of icing and showcases several different kinds of aluminum tips, making everything from bones to hair to grass. With just a few strokes of white royal icing, a chocolate shortbread cookie becomes a skeleton.
To demonstrate painting with icing, the students are encouraged to create a candy-corn cookie in shades of yellow, orange, and white, finishing it with a tiny black spider.
Olmos waves her cookie to air dry and Hoffman is following along like a pro. As principal of Sierra Vista Junior High, she plans to not only share her cookies with staff, she wants to create an after-school baking class for students.
“The lovely thing about a craft is that is really shows everyone’s individual styles and skills. Being creative builds self esteem and it’s collaborative, so students can talk to each other while they’re doing it,” Hoffman said.
Beth Hansen of Castaic has been coming to Clarice’s for 18 years, bringing along Girl Scouts when she was a troop leader and her own children. Her daughter Laura Hansen is sitting across the table tonight, trying out new techniques. Together, they’ve taken about a dozen classes.
“I love it here,” Beth Hansen said. “It’s the best kept secret in town.”