Campus & Community

History in the baking

7 min read

Alum creates massive cake in honor of Harvard’s 375th birthday

Baking a cake for thousands might daunt some. But for Joanne Chang ’91, it’s all in a day’s work. The chef-owner of Boston’s Flour Bakery + Cafe says she perfected her problem-solving skills and grace under pressure as an applied math and economics concentrator while living in Leverett House.

Her talents will be on full display as Harvard commemorates its 375th birthday next week with a celebration that includes a giant cake baked by Chang and her team. She recently sat down with the Gazette to talk about cooking for masses, frosting, and how college has changed since her undergraduate days.

How did this come about?

I know Martin Breslin, the director of Harvard’s culinary operations. He was actually the judge in the “Throwdown with Bobby Flay” that I was in, so I met him back in 2007. We’ve kind of kept in touch since then, and then sometime last summer he emailed me about the 375th and said he’d like to talk to me about baking the cake.

We don’t usually do crazy cakes, so I told him that. I said we can make cake forever, but we don’t do really architectural cakes; we’re not going to make a cake model of Harvard. He said that wasn’t what he was thinking about, so I said I’d be happy to consider.

The initial idea was to do sheet cakes piled on top of each other in a big H. We were going to tier them one on top of the other and then frost the whole thing, so the cake would be like 6 feet high. Martin had a meeting with the Harvard planning people and came back and said that’s not what they want. So we brainstormed a little bit, and he came up with the idea that Harvard would build, basically, a platform in the shape of an H and we would top that platform with cake. So that’s what we eventually decided upon.

They’re building an 18-foot by 15-foot platform, and we are making sheet cakes that are 26 by 18 inches, and probably 6 or 7 inches tall, and we’re laying them end to end to create an H.

At that point, when we agreed on a design, and the number of cakes — it’s going to be 60 sheet cakes — we agreed that we’d do red velvet because Harvard is crimson, and at that point we said, “Yeah, we can do this.” I knew we could do it, and Martin was happy with the design.

You run a busy business, and space is at a premium in your bakeries. Did you ever consider saying, “No, this is too much”?

Well, I said to Martin that we can do it, but we can’t store the cakes; we physically don’t have the space. And you have to have a deep freeze because you can freeze cakes, but they won’t stay great unless you have a deep freeze — a freezer that quickly freezes and keeps them at a very low temperature so the quality of the cake isn’t affected. Martin said we don’t have a problem with picking up the cakes from you and storing them in our kitchen freezer.

If he hadn’t been able to do that, we would have had to say, “I’m sorry, but we can’t do it.” We can make two sheet cakes at a time, and we pretty much have to get them out of there because we have deliveries and cake orders coming in every day.

So, 60 sheet cakes. How many does that feed?

It’s supposed to feed 4,000. It could feed as many as 5,000.

Aside from the space and storage part, what are some of the challenges for baking a cake for this many people?

Honestly, because of the way we’re doing it, baking two sheet cakes a day, there is no challenge. It’s what we do. We bake cakes. We decorate them. The challenge was where to store them, and that’s been solved by Harvard. Given that the cakes are being stored off-site, there was the question of who’s bringing them there, and again Harvard helped with that. The final challenge hasn’t happened yet — which is how do we actually get the cakes to the platform? How do we drive 60 cakes from the kitchen at Harvard to the Yard and unload all these cakes? And how are we going to finish them all off with frosting? I think we’re bringing five or six of my bakers that day at like 1 in the afternoon. We’re going to use a frosting that can sit out for an amount of time, and we’re trying to get there so that we have at least 4 hours to decorate the cake. Each of us can do a cake in 5 or 10 minutes, so we should have plenty of time.

What kind of frosting?

It’ll be a Swiss meringue butter cream. Vanilla. We’ll make it that day, and we’ll truck it over. I don’t even know in what containers.

Did you already have a recipe, or was there some development involved?

We already had a recipe, but we had to increase the batch size to make enough for two full sheet cakes. That took one test.

Did you ever imagine during your undergraduate days at Harvard that one day you’d be baking a cake for a celebration like this?

Oh, not at all. Never.

You graduated in 1991. How has the University changed since you graduated?

Everything has changed. We didn’t have cellphones. There was no such thing as Facebook. There was no such thing as texting. There was no such thing as computers. That’s the big thing. I brought a typewriter with me to college. I did all of my papers on a typewriter. Nowadays, if you want to know something, you just type it into Google. At the time you had to just not know; you didn’t know a lot of things.

Are there any ways that your undergraduate experience helped prepare you for your career now?

I mean, Harvard’s a high-pressure environment. Also, problem-solving skills, just in my major, applied math and economics. But there’s a lot of prestige that goes along with the Harvard name. I don’t know that I would have gotten my first cooking job without being differentiated as a Harvard grad. It definitely carries a lot of weight. In the cooking world, it’s not something that’s common. You stand out a bit.

What is it like as an alum to be a part of the 375th celebration?

It’s exciting. I think it’s definitely an honor that they contacted me and asked me to make this cake. There’s definitely a lot of pressure. You know, 4,000 people are going to be having a piece of this cake and judging it. That’s always a little bit daunting. But above all, it’s an honor. I don’t know that there’s another way I could have been a part of it. If I’d pursued another line of work, I probably wouldn’t be.

Visit the website to learn more about Harvard’s 375th celebration.