Standing before the students who had assembled at his bakery to learn a bit of his craft, Duff Goldman issued a warning about cake decorating.
"It's a very difficult art," he said. "It's very tough. A lot of people cry. Most of you will not succeed."
Then he laughed.
"The thing to remember is: It's a cake," he said. "Don't get too freaked out."
But those words had faded more than two hours later as my hand, holding an X-Acto knife, trembled. Goldman, the owner of Charm City Cakes and star of television's "Ace of Cakes," was telling me to cut two circles out of fondant, which would become eyes for the sugary crab that would sit atop my masterpiece.
Don't worry if the eyes are different sizes, Goldman told me, seeing my hesitation. Your crab will look comical. Still, my hand hovered. I was afraid to make the first cut.
At that point, Geof Manthorne, who is also well known to many fans of "Ace of Cakes," the popular Food Network show that ran from 2006 to 2011, reached without comment into a drawer and pulled out several round cookie cutters. Much better. I pushed them into the fondant. I added a couple of food-color dots, and my crab had eyes.
The Remington Avenue bakery began offering cake-decorating classes this spring. For $150 and a few hours of their time, participants can create their own masterpieces, work in a space they've seen on television and learn from network stars.
Mary Smith, another well-known Charm City Cakes artist, had originally been scheduled to teach the class, but Goldman and Manthorne took over instead. The switch was an added treat for the eight students spending the better part of a Saturday hunched over a long wooden table, learning to turn sugar into art.
"I'm a huge 'Ace of Cakes' fan," said Jeanette Monetti, who had traveled from Alexandria, Va. "I'm a little star-struck this morning."
As we worked through every step of the decorating (well, not every step; we were provided cakes already covered in red fondant), it was clear that Goldman, while never freaked out, is very, very serious about what he does. He explained why corn starch is better than flour for dusting, gave a dissertation on when to use fondant and when to use the crumblier gum paste, demonstrated rolling techniques, showed how to make a paper cone to pipe out royal icing, and carefully affixed a ribbon along the bottom of a finished cake, so it was complete all the way down to the table, which is important to him.
He explained why he chose each tool and showed how to use them. "Most of our tools are from Home Depot," he said. He showed how to fix the inevitable cracks, smudges and crooked decorations that were a natural byproduct of letting amateurs do a job that's usually left to the pros. "Cake decorating is smoke and mirrors," he assured us.
He also joked a lot, chatted and told stories. "I don't mean to name drop," he said, before describing his visit to "The View" and Barbara Walters' difficulty with a cake-decorating task.
Goldman, a graduate of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, opened Charm City Cakes in 2002, and put the shop on the foodie map with the launch of "Ace of Cakes," which charmed viewers with its Baltimore setting and cast of quirky cake artists.
These days, Goldman spends most of his time in Los Angeles and is in Baltimore about one week a month. Manthorne handles day-to-day operations at the Baltimore shop.
Goldman opened Charm City Cakes West in 2011, followed about a year ago by Duff's Cakemix next door. There, customers buy cakes, decorate them in the shop, then take them home. Goldman plans to expand the concept, although there are no plans to open one in Baltimore any time soon.
All this success is a bit of a surprise to Goldman, who said he had no clear plan when he started Charm City Cakes a little over a decade ago. "Whatever we're doing, it's working," he said.
Back in Baltimore, the cake-decorating class, which started at 10:30 a.m., wrapped up after 3 p.m. Goldman and Manthorne patiently posed for photos and signed our Charm City diplomas, which said we "successfully completed cake decoration training." "Pomp and Circumstance" played.
"We learned a lot," said Bev Dilloff of Lutherville, who attended with her friend, Sharon Cole of Pikesville. "I thought it was really informative and very interesting, and the cakes turned out beautifully."
Our creations were far from professional looking, but they were fun, brightly colored replicas of crab barrels, with a single white-eyed fondant crab on the top of each one. And inside all that red fondant was a yellow layer cake that was tender, sweet and delicious.
Giving a 4 1/2-hour lesson to eight people paying $150 each is clearly not the best use of time for Goldman, who is already juggling the roles of artist, businessman and television personality. He said he does it because he enjoys sharing his knowledge. "You guys have learned a lot of techniques," he told his graduates. "Next time you pick up an X-Acto knife, you'll feel a little more comfortable."
At Charm City Cakes' next class, June 22, participants will make an 8-inch Boba Fett cake. Students will learn about manipulating layered fondant and accentuating form with painted texture. For those not really into "Star Wars" characters, a June 30 class will feature an American-flag cake.