Cookies as Canvas & Cakes as Sculpture, With Molly Brodak [Explicit]
Molly Brodak takes her artistic talent into the kitchen with intricately designed baked goods that appear almost too beautiful to eat…but don’t dare tell her that. Listen to this episode of The Cultured Podcast to learn how this bank robber’s daughter endured a childhood unlike any other and forged herself a creative path filled with poetry, visual art, cookies and cakes.
Michelle Khouri 0:00
What do you think it takes to turn a cake into a whimsical sculpture that looks like a terrarium? And what happens when you throw all the rules out the window with cookie making and instead turn them into canvases that are flavored with rose and peaches? On this episode of The Cultured Podcast, we answer all those questions with the extraordinary artist, baker and poet that is Molly Brodak.
Welcome to the Cultured Podcast. I’m your host, Michelle Khouri. And together, we’ll journey into the unknown reaches of the art world.
Hello, is it me you’re looking for? You guys, it’s Michelle. I don’t know if you remember me. It’s been months since we last spoke. But I’ve been thinking about you nonstop and I just wanted to call and let you know that I missed you. And I really, really hope you’ll take me back and I hope we can get back together. Because the love that we shared was life changing. I guess that’s my way of saying that The Cultured Podcast is back. Okay, y’all, it has been months of interlude. But now we are back with The Cultured Podcast and so much has changed since we last spoke, which was with Allie Bashuk, who continues to be an inspiring, wonderful woman that I look up to here in Atlanta. So now we’re back and quite a bit has happened, including the growth of my company that I already told you about in previous episodes. I get to come back and tell you that FRQNCY Media, which is my podcast production company is doing incredibly well. We have worked with Coca-Cola, and the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, which allowed us to work with Diane Von Furstenberg. We’ve worked with incredible Atlanta businesses and organizations, including SalesLoft and the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, and independent podcasters like Erin Gendron. We’ve had a blast with all of our partners and friends and customers.
And so what’s inspiring me this week is pretty poignant. It’s also the thing that’s allowing me to come back as the host of The Cultured Podcast, while I build a company and head up that business. And it’s teamwork. Teamwork! What would I do without it? I certainly couldn’t be working with the clients that we’re working with in FRQNCY. And I certainly couldn’t be making this show right now. You know, y’all I have done it, I have been the independent podcaster, who taught herself how to do everything when it came to her show. I mean, just listen (or don’t) to the first 10 episodes of this show, you can tell quite a difference. An evolution, which has only happened because of my producer, you know, Enna Garkusha, because of Jessica Olivier, who is my right-hand woman who helps with content strategy. And of course, Becca Godwin, who is an associate producer on this show now. And in order to make it the best show for you, I am so grateful to have the kind of team that I have. And we are tight, y’all. We have so much fun together. We enjoy what we do. We are not only living from a place of passion, but also from a place of purpose. And to be able to stick together with people like that and work with them day in and day out, sharing the bond that is purpose and passion is an incredible gift that I’m very, very grateful for. So I hope that you have the opportunity to find that tribe or that you’ve already found it. And that you get to experience the beauty that is working within a little family or squad or team or tribe, whatever you want to call it.
Alright, y’all. Well, I’m gonna stop being gushy because seriously it tickles my heart. I’m so happy. Today we have an incredible interview. We’re talking to Molly Brodak. And you know what, I’m not going to tell you an ounce more of information because let’s just say she’s gonna sprinkle some knowledge. That’s not even the icing on the cake. Okay? Let’s just say she’s no cookie cutter personality.
Molly Brodak 4:32
Hello, Molly. Hi, how are you? Great. This is pretty exciting. Because this is like the first time I’m back in the studio in a really long time. And I was like, well, that’s gonna be exciting on its own. But then I read about you, Molly Brodak.
Michelle Khouri 4:53
And you might be one of the most fascinating and talented people I’ve had on the show. So, tell us a little bit about who you are. Who is Molly Brodak?
Molly Brodak 5:07
Well, I’m a poet. I like putting that one first. And that informs everything else I do. So I’m also a prose writer. I’ve written a memoir that is poetic. And I make baked goods. I’m a baker and I make stuff that is poetic that you can eat.
Michelle Khouri 5:23
We’re going to explore some of your fascinating history in just a bit. But first, let’s talk about this poetic baking that you make because it is quite poetic. And it’s quite different than what people may be thinking when we say cookies and cakes. When you say poetic baking, how does that come to life?
Molly Brodak 5:43
I like making cakes that are visually creative, and interesting and unexpected. And that also tastes really good. And with cookies, I make cookies that are the sort of iced, decorated cookies. There’s a hand done look to it. All kinds of interesting artistic techniques that I use, from my visual arts background, in the cookies, by just sort of issuing all of the normal standards that people use for what iced decorated cookie should look like. So there’s a lot of layering of color and hand painting and textural work and just really creative, interesting stuff.
Michelle Khouri 6:22
So going back to when you described yourself first and foremost as a poet, and also as a prose writer of a memoir called Bandit. Now that title is already teasing what this upbringing of yours was like, because you were in fact raised, as all of us can appreciate, by a bank robber.
Molly Brodak 6:46
Michelle Khouri 6:46
Which I feel like we all can relate to.
Molly Brodak 6:48
Yeah, of course, universal story, universal story. (laughter)
Michelle Khouri 6:53
And so it goes. So, that’s not a joke though. We were just talking before we actually started rolling about how that can be such a Hollywood romanticized sort of like story made to feel sexy and dangerous. But there’s another side to that. So tell us a little bit about what your upbringing was like.
Molly Brodak 7:15
It was pretty chaotic. My mom had a lot of mental health issues. And then my father was a compulsive gambler and he got into a lot of trouble constantly. The reality of it, as you’re saying here is much less glamorous, you know. The news stories about my dad when he was caught…I was 13 when he was caught, and this was in Michigan, I was in Michigan. Yeah. where I grew up, we found out about him being arrested on the news. That’s how we found out, so it was like just this instant flood and instant life change. It was like a house had fallen on us. It was just overnight, like in a in a split second, everything was going completely different. He had people who wanted to kill him. So that’s what he was using the money for. And the money was all gone when he was caught. So suddenly, we were given all this new information about all of the secrets that he had going on. And it was so world crushing. I mean, there’s sort of no way to explain it was so painful. I was so ashamed of him and really hurt that he would, you know, choose to rob banks. I mean, who would…how do you come to that choice? Like he had family, he had some friends, he could have reached out for help. And he chose not to, which I think says a lot about his and maybe some other men’s who are find themselves in that situation, inability to ask for how open inability to humble themselves and say, I’ve made a mistake, I’m in a lot of money trouble, I need help. Instead, to do this really, obviously ridiculous and terrible idea of robbing banks. It’s almost like you cannot look at that and not think that maybe he just wanted to go to jail. Maybe he just wanted a way out of his life. And that prison was, you know, the way out. He got out of prison when I was 21. And I saw him again. And he went about his life. And he sort of went back to work and kind of returned to normal. And then he got into gambling trouble again. And would you believe it that he robbed banks again?
Michelle Khouri 9:33
I..uh..it’s hard to believe. It’s hard to fathom.
Molly Brodak 9:35
Would you believe it? So yeah, so same thing.
Michelle Khouri 9:38
First of all, thank you for sharing that. And in fact, you wrote an entire book about this experience with a memoir called Bandit. This time of single motherhood was actually sort of the beginnings of your very later-on-down-the-line passion for baking, was it not?
Molly Brodak 9:56
Well, it started with being left alone a lot. I mean, my mom worked. I was left alone a lot in the kitchen, especially and I was just figuring stuff out. I mean, I feel like there’s a lot of bakers who have these like really adorable stories of like, my grandma taught me to bake this pound cake from 1805. I don’t have that story. I am just the opposite. I am the person who just went into the kitchen and played and tried to figure things out. And in fact, I think I was more inspired by sort of negative experiences with treats. Because, look, like you don’t become a baker unless you love sweets. Like, you will not spend time on it unless you just really want to eat cookies and shit. You know? Like, obviously, I love treats and I just wanted to make them. You have a craving and you know, you’re like 11 what are you going to do? You try to figure it out. Right? Like my mom was not a very good baker and I remember being really disgusted by some cakes. Sorry, Mom, if you’re listening to this. You know what I’m about to say. You know, she’s, yeah, single mom. No time. She would buy, like, you know, the Betty Crocker mix or whatever for cake. And she also bought what she thought, I think, were M&Ms to put on the cake to like spell out “birthday” or I don’t know what but they were not M&Ms. They were Sour Skittles. And so we’ve got this cake with those nasty little cans of frosting, you know, that come in the grocery store. And then when you bite, it tastes like poison. Like it’s the grossest cake you’ve ever had in your life. And my mom is like “Happy birthday, here’s your cake.” So yeah, I started playing in the kitchen. And like, I just love candy. And I love cookies. I never had structure about baking. And that made me into just an explorer. And that’s how I still am I still have this position of like, well, what if we did this? I don’t know and a lot of times it fails. But it’s a very, like pioneering spirit that I have about it.
Michelle Khouri 12:06
That’s, to me, a fascinating story of somebody getting into baking. Because, you know, American culture usually we like the buttoned-up stories. We like, you know, my grandmother was Julia Child and we would frolic and make flower snowmen and it was amazing.
Molly Brodak 12:24
Michelle Khouri 12:24
But this is reality. This is real life. And you haven’t been a baker for all of these years of your life. What happened from the point of being in the kitchen and fending for yourself to the point of actually starting to bake?
Molly Brodak 12:39
It started with, you know, when I was in college I decided I wanted to become a writer. Before that, I went to art school, and I became an art school dropout. So I went to SCAD in Savannah for a couple years,
Michelle Khouri 12:51
For what? What motivated you?
Molly Brodak 12:53
Well, I was really good at drawing. And I wanted to do illustration. And when I got there, I just didn’t really want to do the like business side of art, I realized. It was just kind of a hobby for me. But I learned a lot there. And I’m really glad I went. So I went back to school and kind of started over as a writer and ended up getting an MFA in poetry. And then I got a fellowship. And I just fell in love with Atlanta. When I moved here, I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t have any friends. I didn’t have any family. I mean, all my family lives across the country. So I had all this time on my hands. And that’s when I really started seriously baking was when I had a lot of free time. And I was like going to poetry readings and trying to meet poets. And I realized that the whole sort of meeting people interaction works so much better if you showed up with some cookies in your hand. So I was like, I can like bake and experiment and then bring this stuff that I’m making to people, and just like be that person. And that’s sort of what I started doing with it. And now I own my own business. I mean, I own Kookie House, it’s a fully licensed business. My kitchen is licensed and I work out of my home. And it’s unbelievable that it just sort of snowballed this way I really did not expect it to. I thought it was just sort of something to balance out all of the intellectual work of writing, but it’s become a big part of my life.
Michelle Khouri 14:17
And how interesting that when you went into art school, you were like, I don’t want to do the business side.
Molly Brodak 14:21
Michelle Khouri 14:21
And you’re kind of doing it, right? It’s so different when you are pursuing your passion and something that fuels your purpose. So, you are the first food art guest on this show. And there’s a very specific reason for that. Your baked goods, your cakes, and your cookies are way more than cakes and cookies. And I think on Instagram, we see a lot of really cool baked goods out there. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen something quite like yours. That reminds me so much of the process of ceramics, the process of sculpture and the process of drawing and painting. You actually have a lot of really intricate painting and drawing techniques on your cookies. Tell us a little bit about how you came to this point of creating these sculptural and painted works of art on baked goods.
Molly Brodak 15:18
That’s the world I came from. You know, I came from art school and like I love art, I spent a lot of time looking at art and talking to artists and thinking about art. Some of the reason why my cookies and stuff look the way they do is that when I started baking, I think I like couldn’t really do the conventional thing. A lot of cookies are piped royal icing and a lot of them have this sort of what I call the playschool look. And I didn’t like that aesthetic and I also couldn’t fucking do it. Like, I’m not a good piper and I could not pipe very well when I started out. So I thought, well, I can paint really good. And I’m good at drawing. So I developed that style, just I like partly out of necessity. And I am a much better piper now. I can do it. But it became a sort of idiosyncratic style, almost just because that’s all I could grasp when I really started doing it. And I didn’t get a lot of positive feedback for it in the beginning. You know, I think a lot of other cookie people were looking at what I was doing and we’re just like confused. And so I sort of just embraced it harder as you do when you’re kind of an outsider. You just say “well, I’m going to double down on who I am then. And I’m just going to keep going.” And now I feel like you have to dig in. And you have to say like, I believe in what I’m doing. And I have to simultaneously defend my vision at the same time I’m trying to expand it and you know, keep growing, you never want to be satisfied, but I never tried to imitate other people.
Michelle Khouri 16:48
How would you describe your style?
Molly Brodak 16:51
It’s really painterly. So if you look at my cookies, a lot of times they’re hand painted with gel food coloring. And I just use my watercolor skills and my drawing skills for that. And I’m layering royal icing color and then I’m coming over the top of it with like usually a black, very fine, tiny little paintbrush and doing lots of details. And my cakes are a range of things, I do really kind of imaginative, inventive cakes that tell a story and usually don’t look like other people’s cakes. It’s a wide range of things. I remember meeting with a wedding planner a couple years ago. And we were talking about, you know, our styles and and she looked at my feed, you know, my Instagram feed and she was like, “Your stuff is really all over the place. You really need to curate and you need to have one look,” you know, this is the thing on Instagram is like all the photos are the same color tone, or they’re all the same project over and over again. She’s like, that’s what you got to do. That’s what everybody does.
Michelle Khouri 17:47
…yeah, because that’s the strongest part of art? Homogeneity. (laughs)
Molly Brodak 17:50
(laughs) Right? Like, no baby, like I know what I’m doing. I’m exploring, and there’s no way I’m going to make all of my photos the same color, tone, or just keep doing the same thing over and over again.
Michelle Khouri 18:02
That’s what is so compelling to me about you is we’ve just talked about your painting techniques and watercolor techniques. But underneath those paintings are incredibly creative flavor combinations and well baked goods. So let’s talk a little bit about the baked goods that are under the paintings or within the sculptures. How do you experiment with flavors? Tell us a little bit about like the most recent wild flavors that you’ve come up with and how you reach the point of creating those.
Molly Brodak 18:37
I care a lot about what these things taste like. I mean, I am a sweets eater myself. Like I would not ever frost something that I didn’t think was delicious. So yeah, and you know, that’s not a high priority for some people. You can tell, I mean, you can fucking tell from the photos. It’s wild. No, I care a lot. So for example, my most popular cookie flavor lately has been rose peach, which is a flavor that you know, I don’t rely on the lot of extracts, I use some extracts but the peach flavor, I use real Georgia peaches when they’re at their peak and I bought a dehydrator, a food dehyrdator. So I dehydrate the peaches, I cut them up, dehydrate them, they sort of become this powder. Right? And so it’s this like really intense special magic Georgia powder that you just get this incredible peach flavor from. So that goes into the cookies and then like a touch of rosewater. And they’re so special and I love that they say something about the South and they say something about local flavors as much as I possibly can get that into a cookie. I’m trying. But yeah, it’s it takes a lot of extra work to get those peaches and dehydrate them. I mean, I could just use a lot of artificial flavors, but I put a lot of thought into what it tastes like. Again going back to “Do I love this? Is this fucking delicious?” If it’s not, then I’m not going to make it.
Michelle Khouri 20:05
The process of buying your cookies or creations in general…cake, cookie… is so intentional. Tell me about your favorite cakes and cookies to date.
Molly Brodak 20:17
So I had this idea that I was going to make a little terrarium with like succulents in it. Because you know, like succulents are so hot right now. They’re so cool. And like I love that people are into them. So I was like, okay, I made these little cute, succulent plants out of fondant. So they were completely edible. And they looked really realistic. And then I thought, well, why don’t I put them, like, instead of just on a cake, I’ll just sort of make some dark chocolate crumbs. And so that’ll be like their soil. And then from there, I was like, what do I need to do to make glass that you can eat? So it’s like, I am just trying things. I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m just trying it. So I thought, okay, I know about isomalt. I can pour sugar. And how can I figure out how to make this into a terrarium, like an actual globe or something that this cake can go inside of.
Michelle Khouri 21:15
Sure, no big deal, right…
Molly Brodak 21:16
So I just got out some rulers, I got some plastic rulers, and I cut them into size. And I sort of glued them together into these pentagon shapes. And then I pour the sugar into these ruler shapes that I’m built out of just like duct tape and stuff around the house. And then I have all of these little glass panels. And so I get out my blowtorch. And I fuse them together. And I’m essentially building this little geodome out of isomalt sugar. And I’m like stepping back and I look at it…and I’m like that looks like a terrarium. Like, I just fucking figured that out.
Michelle Khouri 21:56
It does! So many of your creations, especially the cakes, I’m like, I don’t understand. Like you have a potted flower, and I think it’s like, you know, it looks like an orchid. But it looks so real. It’s so fun to hear you describe the process because the process sounds even more fun. You did The Great American Baking Show–you got on that show because of your incredible versatility when it comes to baking. Because of sexual harassment claims against one of the judges, they decided not to air that entire season, which I can only imagine was heartbreaking, but also a sign of the times and a move that needed to be made.
Molly Brodak 22:40
They ended up pulling that show from the air. It was such a good experience for me. And, I’m really sad, especially for the winner, for Valerie, who won the show that she didn’t get her day because she deserved to have the fame that would have come with the airing of her winning that show. And that’s a shame that that man, who the production did not properly vet this guy, I mean, they should have just taken five seconds to look into his background and know that he had a really problematic background with, you know, harassing women at his restaurants. They didn’t do that work. And we all had to suffer for that. And all of the finalists, myself included, were all women and all of our..all of our work was thrown away because of that. Because they just didn’t take the time to vet this guy.
Michelle Khouri 23:29
I’m so sorry that happened.
Molly Brodak 23:30
Yeah, it was such a tragedy. But like I said, it was a good experience. I learned a lot. I grew a lot. And I’m you know, I’m glad I did it, even though it turned out really bizarre. But that’s my life…
Michelle Khouri 23:41
How did it change you as a baker? So, before and after the show…
Molly Brodak 23:44
It was a really interesting experience to realize that that sort of aesthetic weight of baked goods, and that appeal of like TV, you know…looks and aesthetics…can be so counter to the flavor and that things that will really beautiful would taste horrible, and vice versa. And so it was like, that really made me think a lot about what do I need to do to make sure that like flavor and taste and texture are foregrounded in this world of visual emphasis.
Michelle Khouri 24:15
Why is that? Why is there trade off there?
Molly Brodak 24:18
Well, I think people get attention for making things that are clever and beautiful. And that’s awesome. That’s fine, but clever and beautiful does not necessarily translate to tasty. There’s a really famous baker who makes these cookies that are really beautiful. They’re really intricate and interesting. They’re made with fondant. So she like makes the cookie and then she covers the cookie with like layers and layers of fondant and like does things because fondant is almost like Play Doh, you can do anything with it, right? It’s really flexible and you can cut shapes and do all this stuff. And so as you look at it on Instagram at the photo, it’s insane. It’s beautiful. it’s mind-blowing. But, if you were to imagine biting into a cookie that is covered in two inches of fondant.
Michelle Khouri 25:08
Molly Brodak 25:10
It’s like, that’s infuriating to me. It’s infuriating that nobody’s like, wait a minute. It’s not a cookie meant to be eaten, that’s for sure. And like, that’s where I really have a hard time with that. Because like all my stuff is meant to be eaten. Absolutely. That’s the whole point of it. And I love making things that are ephemeral. I don’t like it when people are like, I didn’t eat your cookie because it was too beautiful. Like, fuck you eat the fucking cookie. Like, that makes me so mad. They’re ephemeral. They’re like those Buddhist sand mandalas. Yeah, like you look at it, it’s great. But like, it’s gone. You consume it. It’s supposed to be here and gone. And that’s what makes it special. It’s not special if it sits in a box and molds. That’s not what makes it amazing to me.
Michelle Khouri 26:00
I love that. Okay, so you have a lot of exciting things going on. And there are a lot of exciting developments when it comes to Bandit the memoir, people will need to follow you and stay in touch. How can people stay in touch with your work with Kookie House and get any updates about Bandit and other projects you may have coming? Where can people find you? I’m on Twitter, and I’m on Instagram and I have a blog which is just KookieHouse.com where I will post stuff (Kookie house with a K) and yeah, there’s there’s some good possibilities for Bandit to be coming to this big or small screen very soon, which I’m excited about. So, we’ll see.
Molly Brodak 26:43
Lots going on.
Michelle Khouri 26:44
But in the meantime, we’ll be getting your cookies and eating them immediately. Thank you for your time, Molly, and thanks for inspiring us today.
Molly Brodak 26:52
Michelle Khouri 26:58
Y’all, what an amazing woman is Molly? Holy crap, the thing she’s been through. But then also her chutzpah, her will to experiment and explore it’s …it’s amazing. Make sure you check her out on all the socials and then also, you know, she’s going to have that special announcement coming soon about her book. But in the meantime, you can actually get Bandit and read more into her story and upbringing with this bank robber dad. And of course you can eat her cookies and her cakes. All right, y’all. Well, this was another fabulous episode. Thank you so much. I always have so much fun with you. In the meantime, you know what to do? Keep it classy. Keep it curious. Keep it cultured.
Visit CulturedPodcast.com for show notes and subscription links. The Cultured Podcast is a production of my podcast production company FRQNCY media. I’m the host Michelle Khouri. Enna Garkusha is our fabulous producer. Becca Godwin is our wonderful associate producer. Our sound engineers are Cooper Skinner and DonTae Hodge. And we’re recording at ListenUp Audio in Atlanta, Georgia.