“I ’m just trying to live my best Sugar Plum Fairy life.”
Aurora Darling might be engaging in a little bit of hyperbole. But as I look around Ephemera Confection, the petite new downtown Kalispell bakery located inside Sassafras on Main Street, I can’t help but think this is exactly the shop you’d expect if the queen of Tchaikovsky’s Land of Sweets went into retail. Two huge glass chandeliers twinkle over the small but meticulously organized space, formerly filled with vintage clothes and shoes. It’s now a harmonious blend of green and gold accents, from the mint-colored Kitchen Aid mixer to the shimmering service counter that Darling custom built with some help from her woodworking great uncle. The counter window is trimmed out in a thick hedge of faux greenery that frames tall, airy glass jars of meringues and gluten-free chocolate chip cookies alongside a case of macarons that come in a wild array of colors and flavors from cereal milk to passion fruit.
From her dusky pink hair to her fabulously creative offerings, which also include custom cakes and candy floss in surprising flavors like violet cucumber, Darling is simply doing her best to inject an extra measure of whimsy into the world.
“Especially this year, I feel like people need fantasy,” she says. “I think desserts can be escapist — for the 10 minutes you’re eating a piece of cake, you can pretend that everything in the world is fine.”
Darling, 34, spent a good part of her life searching for that bit of wonder and soft-edged fantasy she now creates with sugar and flour. A native of Hungry Horse, she often tells people she “grew up in the Canyon,” letting them infer their own conclusions, which are often accurate. Without dwelling on this part of her life, she remembers the difficulty of growing up as a smart, artistic kid who just didn’t fit in.
“I remember reading a Rolling Stone article about Burning Man when I was 12 and thinking, ‘Those are my people; I just have to find them,’” she says, describing her yearning for a world very different from the one just outside her front door.
She left the Flathead Valley in her rearview mirror after high school, certain she’d never call it home again. For a while, she traveled up and down the West Coast in a VW van, making ends meet as a living statue in an outrageous ’80s wedding dress and head-to-toe white body paint. She then channeled her artistic passion into a degree in costume design from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, going on to produce costumes for theater and film.
While back in the valley after a particularly grueling production, she went for a checkup with her longtime doctor, Gina Nelson. Before she was a patient, the two had bonded over a love of all things French when Darling worked at Mountain Valley Foods. Nelson happened to be in the market for a baker for her new venture, Bonjour Bakery, and knew that Darling had once worked at Gresko’s Fine Foods, a now defunct higher-end Kalispell deli and bakery. She convinced Darling to sign on as a baker, which quickly also expanded into a managerial role.
“She did beautiful work, I think genius-level work, especially when it came to cake decorating,” Nelson says, citing an amethyst geode cake Darling once made for her birthday. “Her artistic presentation and flair was beyond compare. All of her cakes and confections and macarons were always done with a huge amount of panache.”
Darling gives much of the credit for her baking skills to the team at Bonjour, largely consisting of recent graduates from Flathead Valley Community College’s culinary program.
“If it hadn’t been for those students, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I am now,” she says, explaining that she could have spent nearly all her time on the restaurant management part of her job. “They were really patient with me and taught me so much about why certain things work the way they do.”
She also admits that she never even liked frosting before working at Bonjour.
“One of the culinary students was making an almond raspberry cake that had almond icing, and she said, ‘You should try some!’” she recalls. “And I said, ‘I hate icing, no!’ But I did, and it was a transformative moment.”
Although Darling was growing her pastry skills and confidence, the rigors of managing and baking wore her down, triggering an underlying autoimmune condition. She left Bonjour after a year, but the phone kept ringing with former customers looking for her cakes.
“I was a persistent customer,” says Ron Copher, a local banker and big fan of Darling’s. “If you want a custom cake, she’s the one who can do it. She is more than a cake baker — I call her an artist.”
After saying no a few times, Darling started saying yes, which led to thinking about her own baking venture. She leased her space in March of 2020, just before the world turned upside down. Given the option to back out of the lease, she decided to stick with it, though the most challenging COVID-related problem turned out to be the result of the valley’s incredible housing boom: she couldn’t find an electrician or plumber to rework her space. Ephemera Confection finally opened in September.
“I know for a fact there’s none better,” Nelson says of Darling’s macarons and meringues. “And that includes Paris. They’re world-class. They’re done properly. She could go to Ladurée [arguably Paris’s premier patisserie] and interview with her work.”
But Darling is happy in Kalispell, much to the surprise of her younger self. She loves her customers, saying that her regulars tend to be little old ladies treasure-hunting in Sassafras or teenagers coming in after school to try the latest macaron flavors. They often ask if she’s ever made some crazy flavor they’ve found on the Internet; more than one new cookie has come from their suggestions.
In return, she hopes they look at her and see that, “You can be anything you want to be and there is still a future for you. Because I definitely thought at times that there wasn’t for me. I felt like I would never escape, like people would never accept me,” she says, before going on to say that the valley has evolved, and continues to feel ever more welcoming.
Ultimately, Darling loves making a really good dessert that bakes a little more joy into someone’s day. As she’s fond of saying, “Nobody is ever sad about cake.”
Katie Cantrell contributes regularly to Flathead Living. Find her at www.katiecantrellwrites.com, or on Instagram and Facebook @KatieCantrellWrites.