By Judy Carmack Bross
A very popular candy explosion cake.
A very popular candy explosion cake.
At birthday parties or wedding celebrations, candles blazing or bride and groom embracing, the cake is the quintessence of the celebration. Even when the last beautifully frosted piece is history, an Isabel Carpenter specialty cake lives on because she pays it forward to the community.
Isabel Carpenter’s By the Park bakery at Clark and Belden was once filled with the sound of children’s birthday parties and the fragrance of freshly baked cookies made by the former investment banker turned pastry chef.
Although Carpenter closed the shop a few years ago to raise three young sons, currently 5, 2 and 1, and concentrate on her community outreach efforts, her baking talents abound in the cakes she makes to benefit the ReVive Center and other non-profits. “I built a lot of relationships through the shop, and many past customers reached out to me. It has continued to be all word of mouth,” she said. “When the pandemic hit, I stopped for a little bit, but came back soon and set a monthly goal for myself to be able to donate to ReVive to help cover basic needs for their clients, made even more necessary in the pandemic. Their story is very compelling and they make donations received go a long way. I share links to the non-profits with my customers who then make their donation.”
Her many customers know that they are not only taking home one-of-a-kind cakes which they help design with Carpenter but are also helping those in need of Carpenter’s very special kind of sweetness. “I love that I am often introducing people to smaller charities where you know where each $100 goes. I say ‘whatever you decide to donate is generous’.”
Recently Carpenter, who sits on the Good Samaritan Committee of St. Chrysostom’s Church, heard about Recognition Thursday at St. Leonard’s Ministries, the residential facility and non-profit which empowers formerly incarcerated men and women to lead whole and productive lives. When it was mentioned that a store-bought sheet cake was served at the event which celebrates residents’ accomplishments, she volunteered right away to bake a cake for the 60 attendees at the near-west side ministry. Since its founding in 2018, the Recognition Thursday program has been sponsored by a group from St. Chrysostom’s Church. On the last Thursday of the month, some 20 volunteers host a program at St. Leonard’s to recognize residents selected by their caseworkers for special achievements. Originally founded by the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago it now has a broad base of support for its programs.
John Craib-Cox, who founded Recognition Thursday reported the enthusiastic responses from residents, including: “Someone made this by themselves, for us?” and “When do we get a piece of this cake,” upon seeing the cake brought in and placed on the table, to
“She really made this all by herself?”
“Baking cakes became my hobby during the pandemic and people started reaching out to me to bake birthday and other cakes. I didn’t want to charge them more than my costs and really wanted to have someone else benefit,” Carpenter said. “Since 1915, ReVive has been providing emergency food to hungry people who are experiencing street or shelter homelessness. I see what I do as food feeding food.”
And what happy choices her customers have, including candy exploding cakes: a quiet take on the piñata concept where when cut, candy flows out. “One of my most popular orders is white cake with lots of sprinkles in the batter. There are many requests for themed cakes,” she said. “I can do things that bakeries can’t do because of their volume. I just did a mushroom-shaped cake for a little boy who just loves mushrooms. Another child favors owls, and that’s what he wanted on his cake. The parents of a three-year old recipient said the birthday boy wanted a Beatles cake. Last year, it was Elvis. Children are just so pure and know what they want most of all on their cakes.”
A native Utah, Carpenter moved to Chicago and decided to leave investment banking. “I was looking to get involved in the food industry and since there were so many cupcake shops, I decided I would sell cookies. I was right next to Francis Parker, a cute little bakery there seemed like just the right thing.”
“I find I do a lot of volunteer work and baking is my creative outlet. It is something I can control and I have my vision and I can set my parameters.”
We asked Carpenter how we can all bake better cakes?: “Just keep trying,” she said.
Despite the fact that she had just chaired St. Chrysostom’s Day School Auction which raised over $500,000 and she currently heads other projects for board of the Women of St. Chrysostom’s which directs generous outreach funds, Carpenter loves being in her kitchen baking for others as well as teaching her sons about paying it forward.