Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the spring 2019 edition of Flathead Living.
Turning the corner into Patricia Albert’s kitchen, the first thing that catches my eye is a big Ryobi miter saw sitting on a table by the entrance. Patricia, better known by her alter ego, Miss PattiCakes, keeps it handy to trim down cake supports, the hollow plastic rods that go through a multi-tiered cake and prevent it from becoming a multi-tiered disaster.
At the other end of the kitchen, past two freezers and metal shelves stacked with every conceivable baking and decorating gadget, Patricia pulls the cake she’s currently decorating out of one of her three refrigerators and slides it onto a butcher block counter. Supplies already cover most of the space, including a huge tub of fondant (the play dough-like frosting used for fancy decorations), waxed paper, specialized rotary cutters, paint brushes, and a high-density foam paint roller, the best tool for giving frosting a baby-smooth finish. The cake fits into a spot right next to a big bottle of low-end vodka. She paints the alcohol onto gold and gray fondant polka dots, explaining as she places them on the cake that vodka evaporates quickly and leaves no taste behind. It stays wet just long enough to adhere the fondant, but won’t make the cake sticky the way water would, making it the perfect glue.
Yes, the secrets to Miss PattiCakes’ success include construction-grade tools and a handle of cheap booze, unconventional tools befitting the unusual story that led her here. Many of us end up in a completely different career than the one we first planned — after all, the planet can only sustain so many ballet dancers and firemen — and our stories are Rubik’s Cubes of change, shifting pieces that seem like they could never possibly line up, until one day they all come together and make sense. But that can take a long time.
“I don’t like cake,” Patricia says matter-of-factly. She’s direct and honest about everything, whether telling a bride she can’t have her favorite kind of frosting because it will melt under the summer sun or admitting, without a hint of sheepishness, that she’d much rather bake a cake than eat one. “If that’s what’s being served, I’ll eat it because I like food, but I like pie. And undercooked brownies.”
Patricia’s interest in baking clearly didn’t begin with cake, but rather with chocolate chip cookies in her mom’s kitchen. Cookies led to breads, cakes, and pies under the direction of her grandmother and great-grandmother. Baking remained a hobby through college, a way to de-stress while working on her microbiology major at Rutgers University. Back then, she had her eye on a career in pharmaceutical research: first undergrad, then a master’s, then likely a PhD.
But the sides of the cube shifted again when she and Adam Albert, her boyfriend since their junior year at Flathead High School, decided to get married. They were on the East Coast — he was finishing up at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy on Long Island — but realized that they both wanted to return to the Flathead eventually, a dream that didn’t mesh with a biotech career. So Patricia let go of that future and got an associate’s degree in dental assisting instead, a hard switch for someone who had always been academically oriented. But she was — and is — deeply practical above all else, and dental assisting was a solid career. Until it wasn’t.
In 2007, Patricia had been working as a dental assistant in Dr. Connie Small’s office for more than two years. Hunched over the mouths of the Flathead Valley, Small and Patricia had become friends as well as co-workers. Patricia made birthday cakes for the staff, continually outdoing herself with each successive celebration, but baking was just her hobby, her creative way to blow off steam. As her decorating skills had progressed, she occasionally wondered if she could bake professionally, but with twin 2-year-olds at home, she didn’t have time for anything more than daydreams. So Small fired her.
“Until you only have your cake business, you’re never going to make it real,” Small remembers telling Patricia. “And you are so gifted and talented that even though you’re a wonderful assistant and a real asset to our practice, you need to do this.”
Okay, she didn’t get fired-fired. But Small did cut her schedule back to give her the push she needed to make the leap from “maybe someday” to reality. And Patricia already had one piece figured out. During some office chitchat, she’d been voicing her doubts about whether she could really run a business.
“I don’t even have a name,” she said.
The sterilization tech, who also happened to be Small’s son Stewart, looked up and said, “Miss PattiCakes, of course.”
With a name and a nudge, the rest of the cube started clicking into place. Adam, now a mechanical engineer, built Patricia’s kitchen precisely to code in the bonus room he’d once eyed as a man cave. Patricia used the work ethic that saw her through college, added the attention to detail of dentistry, and funneled every bit of that dedication and perfectionism into her business. The recipes handed down from her great-grandmother became the backbone of her cakes, described by fan after fan as the best cake they’d ever had. Adam credits his wife’s science background with helping her intuitively understand the chemistry of baking. Others have a different take.
“I always tell people she cooks with the tears of angels, because they’re the most amazing cakes ever,” says Kelly Kirksey, a local wedding photographer. She frequently recommends Miss PattiCakes to brides, knowing Patricia will always deliver exactly what she promises: a gorgeous, delicious cake.
“It may not be very hard to make a good-tasting cake, or it may not be hard to make a pretty cake, but I think it’s very hard to do both,” Kirksey explains. “And she nails it every time.”
Repeat business testifies to the quality and beauty coming out of Patricia’s kitchen. She meets many of her customers as brides-to-be — in her nearly 10 years in business, she’s made over 600 wedding cakes — but she often continues through life’s milestones, moving from weddings to baby showers and children’s birthdays, her favorite part of the job. She loves the uncontrolled delight on a child’s face when she drops off a fantastical birthday cake.
“Seeing their faces light up and asking, ‘Can I eat that?’ is what makes my job worthwhile,” she says.
Although her recipes honor her baking heritage, her grandmother and great-grandmother weren’t around to see her become Miss PattiCakes. Her mom, though, is incredibly proud.
“She cut my first health department rating out of the newspaper and framed it for me,” Patricia says, indicating a fading piece of newspaper on top of the nearest refrigerator. It’s an A+ rating, something both the health inspector and thousands of happy celebrants can agree on.