Ruler of the classroom by day and the kitchen by night, Kristen Femminella leads a double life.
Story by GABRIELLE BILL
Photo by SARA RUBIN
If Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent, had a twin sister, 24-year-old Kristen Femminella could play the part. During the day, she’s a master’s degree candidate in the University of Florida's agricultural engineering program.
She works in a field, studying the micro-irrigation of bell peppers, and teaches engineering to undergraduate students.
At night when she leaves the classroom, she, like the Man of Steel, sheds her engineer persona, hops on her scooter and rides to the apartment of ex-boyfriend Sam Tipson. The two have been broken up for more than two years but as any good friend should, Sam is kind enough to offer the one thing Kristen needs: command of his kitchen.
Kristen has lived in the Delta Zeta sorority house for the past two years, and although she loves it, her room is dorm-style and sans kitchen. At Sam’s, she can visit her shrine – her pink Kitchen Aide mixer, bundt pans, muffin tins, corn starch, powdered sugar, vanilla extract, chocolate chips, cake flour and more, all stuffed into the nooks and crannies of shelves. Here, Kristen’s true love – baking – emerges.
A budding culinary artist since the age of 5, Kristen vividly remembers her first experience in the kitchen. As a wee kindergarten student, her mother taught her how to make cream puffs from scratch – the only way the Femminella family cooks.
Nineteen years later, Kristen has developed a following. Sorority sisters and friends in Gainesville beg for one of her famous birthday cake creations, and neighbors and family members in her hometown of Vero Beach have started to put in requests.
“When I’m home, I feel like I don’t leave the kitchen,” she says. “It’s the perfect place for my mom and I to spend time together and catch up on each other’s lives.”
Not to mention that list of orders she must tend to. Right now, Kristen says, the list is eight items long. And although she can bake a wide variety of cakes, people tend to stick to their favorites.
“My mom is always asking for my caramel cake,” she says.
In the sorority house, things get really zany as Kristen tries her best to bake birthday cakes as individual as the sisters themselves.
“Everybody suddenly becomes your friend on your birthday,” says Meredith Klinger, 22, a sister in Delta Zeta. “They hope they can get a piece of a Kristen cake.”
Meredith’s cake included her favorite ingredients — chocolate icing, Funfetti sprinkles, and, ice cream. It also had a full-sized Barbie doll, a favorite childhood toy of hers, smack in the middle.
For Laura Bruder, 20, Kristen made what she calls her most creative cake: the “Harry Potter.” Layers of chocolate cake fuse with rich chocolate pudding and chopped bananas, topped off by chocolate frogs, a signature candy from the Harry Potter book series.
“The funny thing was, a couple weeks before my birthday we were talking about sweets, and I said, ‘Oh! We should get candy and ice cream and chocolate frogs,’” Laura says. “I had read Harry Potter recently. It was a Freudian slip. It just came out of my mouth. Kristen left and thought it was so cute that she went online and managed to order chocolate frogs.”
During the school year, Kristen bakes an average of two to three times a month, doing her best to find the balance between her rigorous engineering schedule and the call of the kitchen.
“I love baking for people,” she says. “It’s what makes me most happy. Engineering doesn’t excite me. It’s just something I do. I can talk about cooking and baking and get really excited. I think there’s something to that.”
In fact, if she could choose any career, she’d nix engineering altogether, despite six intensive years of study, and open a bakery in her hometown with her mother, Diane.
“My bakery isn’t going to have the little frou-frou, picture-perfect desserts,” she says. “There’s going to be stuff that your grandmother would make, stuff that your mother would make, stuff that’s comfortable. But it’s going to be the most amazing that you’ve ever had.”
Her vision is so clear, she not only has the color scheme decided (pink and white), but she also knows how it should smell (vanilla) and what it’ll be called (Crumb Buns, a childhood nickname).
And such is Kristen’s dilemma. Should she stick with engineering, a field she’s devoted both time and money to perfecting but that doesn’t offer her the satisfaction she craves? Or should she follow her dream and open the bakery she’s envisioned for years?
Until she comes to her own conclusion, she’ll continue reading cookbooks like they’re novels, adoring Martha Stewart, watching the Food Network religiously and, most importantly, always sticking by her first rule of cooking: Never, ever, lick the spoon.
“I’m really struggling right now, trying to figure out what I’m going to do,” she says. “Are you supposed to be really excited about your job, or not so excited about your job and then really excited about your hobbies? I don’t know.”