A Legend Close to Home

Betty Van Norstrand: Master Sugar Artist

By Cindy Yuong, AOS Baking & Pastry

May 5, 2017

Little do people know there is a legend in the industry residing extremely close to campus. Having grown up in the area, Betty Van Norstrand is within access to the students of the CIA. Many of the chefs at the CIA know Betty, but most baking & pastry students do not hear of her until they return from externship and take Confectionery Arts & Special Occasion Cakes class with Chef Cavotti, where many learn about gumpaste as a medium for the first time. Betty is a specialist in the sugar arts and cake decorating, especially with gumpaste, as she created extraordinary couture wedding cakes for much of her life.

Betty did not pursue a culinary education, but rather was involved with the arts and learned from the occasional class or demonstration throughout the years. However, her list of achievements is nothing short of amazing. As one of the first women in the World Culinary Olympics in Frankfurt, Germany, Betty received two gold and two silver medals throughout her competing years using techniques unseen before and creating astounding displays. She was the first to show some of the best sugar crafters in other nations new techniques, and along with another woman, created the most crowd-pleasing presentations of the show. Betty was inducted into the International Cake Exploration Societé (ICES) International Sugar Craft Hall of Fame in 1987 in for her outstanding achievements. One of Betty’s grandest creations has been a gigantic replica of Cinderella’s Castle for Walt Disney World’s 15th Anniversary celebration, which she crafted alongside Chef Albert Kumin. In 2013, Betty was chosen as one of Dessert Professional’s “Top Ten Cake Artists of North America,” where a couple of the other recipients cited Betty as their instructor or inspiration. More recently, Betty has received two lifetime achievement awards. Although she is now retired from producing wedding cakes, Betty continues to teach private lessons in cake decorating.

Now 50 years into the business, Betty, though mainly self-taught, is a trailblazer in the usage of various techniques with sugar mediums including pastillage, royal icing, fondant, and creator of various tools to make the crafting of gumpaste flowers easier and the flowers ever the more realistic. The cutter used to make sweet pea flowers is entirely of Betty’s design and craftsmanship. She continues to develop more equipment for difficult to make flowers in her Poughkeepsie home but will not unveil them until they are perfected. Nevertheless, private classes with Betty take place in her basement where you can see her workspace and plethora of amazing creations. With someone so knowledgeable nearby, how could one not go learn from the master sugar artist?

Students of Betty include the likes of Ron Ben-Israel and Buddy Valastro, along with numerous other cake decorators in America. She even used to teach specialty classes at the CIA in Advanced Cake Decorating. Many of the people who take private lessons run their own business creating cakes topped with beautiful gumpaste flowers improved with direction from Betty. She is still in humble contact with many of her students who look up to her as an inspiration and mentor. I recently got the opportunity to take class from Betty along with two fellow CIA students. It is an incredible honor and wondrous experience being able to learn from the legend herself. She is an elderly woman, but – dare I say – sweet as sugar.

The basement is Betty’s own portfolio and workspace where she keeps and provides all the materials and tools needed for the lesson. Walking into the basement is like going to a museum. Lined along the walls and shelves are Betty’s past creations, including tall wedding cakes speckled with little flowers and ribbons, pastillage castles, and of course, plenty of gumpaste flowers standing alone and in showpieces. It’s only a little shocking when Betty casually points out which ones came back from the Culinary Olympics in Germany that won her medals, or shows her binder full of past projects and comments that she doesn’t have pictures of many of her creations.

At the end of a long work table is Betty’s station, set up with her tools and a rack filled with sugar flowers beside her. Her flower cutters, veiners, floral tape, wire, color dust, and more are all lovingly organized amongst her shelves. Next to her is a huge binder filled with real flowers to reference when replicating it with sugar mediums. The flowers that the lessons are on are completely up to our choosing. Betty prepares any buds in advance and shows how to make each flower with extreme grace and precision from her wise hands and we follow along, each student making their own with her guidance every step of the way. The two day private lesson includes the creation of however many flowers time allows, leaves, wiring, taping, and of course, coloring the flowers to make them look as realistic as possible.

Betty prefers to take individuals or small groups in for lessons so there can be more time for detailed teaching and helping. In our two days with Betty, we were able to make a large rose, peony, a phalaenopsis and a cymbidium orchid, a poppy, pansy, carnation, and fuschia, color them, and pack them for safe travelling. All along, we heard about her huge family around her, the upcoming great grandchild, her wonderful past stories, and learned little tips and tricks that opened up the world of sugar crafting to us. There is an ICES convention taking place in Spokane, Washington – luckily close to home for me – later this year to be filled with show cakes from some of the best in America, demos, vendors and more. Learning from Betty has been an incredibly humbling and eye-opening experience. I am so honored to have reached out to her and have her as a mentor and inspiration for the rest of my career.

CIA Students are extremely lucky to go to school only a mile away from a legend. Take advantage of being nearby and one could walk away with so much knowledge and direction on sugar flowers, inspiration, and even a practical list of references on where to buy tools. If sugar art is in the future for you, take a couple days to learn from one of the best. For inquiries on private lessons, contact Betty Van Norstrand at (845) 471-3386.

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