Friday, August 24, 2012

August Peculiar Person of the Month: Lab Technician and Baker Christine Alaimo

Christine Alaimo works on one of her cakes.

Christine Alaimo is one multi-faceted New Yorker. Having graduated with a Masters of Special Education in England this self-professed “lover of all things creative” is working on bridging the gap between special needs children and art. Christine started as a cake decorator to help pay for school, but soon found a new passion in it. Decorating up to 50 cakes a day gave her a lot of time to practice her love of baking and decorating. After graduating she was offered a position at the Cognitive Neurophysiology Lab (CNL) at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. It is a lab that focuses on research around multi sensory processing and integration in children with autism, which is a medical issue that is of special interest to Christine. It still wasn’t enough with a full time job, Christine started her own creative cakes and cupcakes business called Confectionery Therapy.

Although challenging at times, Christine admits that her commitment is untiring. After completing her masters, she has set a new goal to open a storefront bakery with a bit of a twist that combines her two passions- creative confections and working with children with autism. Christine bakes up a fresh batch of ideas as she was kind enough to take time out of her schedule to talk about her experience as a young business owner and spearhead in areas of autism research. She shows no signs of slowing down as she is getting ready to start baking classes for children with autism where life skills, social skills, and sensory stimulation are incorporated into a fun and creative environment.

This Peculiar Life NYC: Tell me a bit about you and what you are known for.
Christine Alaimo: Growing up, I always had a flair for all things creative or artistic. From a very young age I knew that I absolutely loved creating things- especially when I got to make them pretty! While most kids in high school were wracking their brains to figure out what school to go to and what to major in, my choice was clear; I was going to be an artist. I took every art class I could find, both in and out of school. Among my favorites was cake decorating. I received my B.F.A. from Purchase College, with a specialization in every medium I could get my hands on.  I loved manipulating materials in new ways, and experimenting with design, color, composition, and texture.  However, while I loved every minute of being immersed in a creative environment, I knew that something was missing from my time covered in dye, paint, clay, and glue.

While I was in high school, I had begun volunteering in a school for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. As someone that had always loved art, I migrated to the art room within minutes of my first day. By the end of that day, I was already in love. I continued to work at that school during any free time I had. While I was in college, I even scheduled my classes around days I worked there. Planning lessons for kids and seeing their progress was incredibly rewarding for me (especially when it involved being creative!). Occasionally our classes had access to a full kitchen, where our students would light up with the chance to crack an egg, measure sugar, or stir batter.  As staff, we wished that our students were able to spend more time in the kitchen, because they absolutely loved the experience.


After I graduated from Purchase with my B.F.A., I took a chance on applying to a Masters of Special Education program in England to help fill the ‘gap’ that I felt was missing from my life as an artist. To my astonishment, I was accepted and enrolled within a month of applying. In order to support myself while in school, I took on a full-time job of working as the cake decorator in a bakery/ ice cream shop. I quickly found that my place in the kitchen was one that I looked forward to every day.  I loved the challenge of being presented with new flavors to create, and novel designs to conquer.  Being self-taught, my skills were tested every day with the high volume of production required by me as the only baker.  The demand of the shop required me to decorate up to 50 cakes a day, which was quite a challenge for the perfectionist that I am! However, I quickly became very comfortable and confident in my skills, both as a baker and a decorator.

When I graduated with my MA in Special Education, I was offered a position at the Cognitive Neurophysiology Lab (CNL) at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. As the lab focused on research around multi sensory processing and integration in children with autism, I jumped at the chance to work in such an extraordinary environment. While I currently work full time in the CNL, I also now run my own creative cakes and cupcakes business called Confectionery Therapy.  It is an incredible challenge to run a business while working another full time job, but my commitment to it is untiring. Through completing orders after hours, I have gotten used to the fresh morning glow and bird’s chirp of pulling an all-nighter covered in frosting! My commitment is unwavering because of a goal that I set for myself while completing my master’s degree; to open a storefront bakery with a bit of a twist combining my two passions- creative confections and working with children with autism. Confectionery Therapy will hold baking classes for children with autism where life skills, social skills, and sensory stimulation are incorporated into a fun and creative environment.  Currently Confectionery Therapy donates 10% of profits from all orders to autism research, with the hope of opening a storefront within a few years.



T.P.L. NYC: Between working in a lab and running your own business, how do you find the time to do it all?

C.A.: It is very very hard. There are weeks that go by where I wake up, go to the lab, go home, bake until 3 or 4a.m., sleep, and do it all over again every day of the week. Friday is my busiest day. It is spent pulling all-nighters until at least 8 a.m. I usually get about two or three hours of sleep, and then I have to get up to deliver the cakes I just finished making!

T.P.L. NYC:  What do you think are the best components to making a cake? A special ingredient or perhaps do you listen to music while baking?

C.A.: I do have one special ingredient that I believe my cakes would not taste half as good without: salt. Personally I never liked the kind of cakes and frosting that make your teeth physically hurt because they are so sweet. It is truly amazing what a little pinch of salt added to batter and frosting can do! As for noise while I'm baking, I always have something playing in the background.

T.P.L. NYC: You have some amazing designs, how do you go about creating a ninja turtle or pool ball? Is there a special frosting you use to form the image or do you make your own molds?

C.A.: Having a background in art and design, sculpting edible art is something I love to do. There is no trick to it like making a mold. I bake cakes in regular old shapes like circles or rectangles, layer them and start carving. The frosting acts as a glue that holds everything together, and once I have the shape I desire, I 'dirty ice' it in frosting and let it set in the refrigerator. After that, I roll out fondant, cover the cake, and get down to the details. In my opinion, the execution of a cake is all really in the fine details...which also happens to be the most time consuming piece.

T.P.L. NYC: What is the strangest cake you have had to bake? Tell us how you went about making the concept and what you used to make it so far as ingredients, colors, and textures the actual process.

C.A.: The strangest (edible) thing that I have ever made was actually a design that I came up with for a cupcake competition. The competition required bakers to use a 12x12" space to execute a design with at least a dozen cupcakes. With zombies infiltrating every aspect of the world in games, TV shows, movies, mud-runs, and whatever else, I decided to make some amazingly horrific zombie cupcakes.


The Zombie Cake

For this piece, the process I used was very different than anything I had done in the realm of 'edible art' before. I used a low-temperature melting wax to make molds of my hands and fingers, filled the molds with melted chocolate, and let the chocolate harden in the freezer. After chiseling the fingers and hands free from the molds, I was left with casts so realistic, they had my finger prints on them. I chipped away at some of the chocolate and hand painted them with gel food colors to make them look like they were bloody, decaying, and severed. Then, I used crushed cookies and coco powder to cover all of the cupcakes, as well as cupcake stand to simulate dirt. Lastly, I made a deep-red sugar syrup to drizzle over the cupcakes, as well as around the fingers and hands. The result was an amazingly realistic, gruesome, gore, cringe-worthy, and very (delicious) unappetizing cupcake display....and in case you were wondering, I won the contest.

T.P.L. NYC: If customers have strange requests for cakes, what are you thinking when they order?

C.A.: I actually get excited when people have strange requests! I love challenging my creative abilities, and making things that I have never made before. The stranger, weirder and more peculiar, the more I love to make it!

T.P.L. NYC: Is there a cake that you enjoyed making the most? Any particular design you can say is your favorite?

C.A.: I'm not sure that there is one particular cake or display that I have enjoyed the most, but my favorites are the things I make that are supposed to look like other things. My personal favorites out of that category are the high heeled shoe cake, zombie cupcake display, and the very realistic cake of a particular male body part.

Yes, it is THAT body part.

T.P.L. NYC: Is there anything that you find hard to make into a cake? What has been the most challenging design you have tried to make?

C.A.: The most difficult things to make are the ones that are supposed to look exactly like something else. If it doesn't look like what it is supposed to, it doesn't look good. For example, the high heeled shoe cake that I made was supposed to be a particular high heeled shoe. It took me over 12 hours to make JUST the shoe, because I had to get it right.
T.P.L. NYC: Are there any obstacles in making your cakes?

C.A.: Other than figuring out which edible materials would be best in different situations, time is my only obstacle. Unlike other forms of art, you do not have weeks or days to get something right. You have hours, and those hours go by VERY fast when you have a deadline. I take a huge amount of pride in the taste of my cakes, and refuse to send customers anything other than a fresh cake. In order to do that, I have to bake it the day (or at most two days) before delivery. Because of that, I have actually worked on cakes for 25+ hours straight to get them done in time.


T.P.L. NYC: You are quite young; did you ever think that you would be a business owner?

C.A.: To be honest, no I didn't. It is a huge challenge and at times overwhelming, but the rewards that you see from it are direct. When I get praises from my customers, I know it was whole-hearted and meant for me because I did all of the work. I have been extremely proud of my accomplishments thus far, and I hope that my business just continues to grow.

T.P.L. NYC: You are auditioning to be on Cupcake Wars. What was that experience like? Were there any peculiar stories in making your audition video? How was it received?

C.A.: I first applied in January 2012, at which point I made it to the last stage of casting (there are 4 stages) which was very exciting. Then I never heard anything from them. I reapplied in April 2012, and once again made it to the last stage of casting. This time, however, I received an email saying I was in the final pool of potential participants for Season 7. However, yet again, I didn't hear anything after that stage. I love Cupcake Wars, and would love to be on the show so I'll probably apply again and see what happens. One of the best things that actually came out of applying was the publicity that my business got from casting. Everyone around me finally took my small at-home bakery seriously, and I had tons of customers pouring in!

T.P.L. NYC: How long does it take you to make your cakes?

C.A.: A very basic standard cake can take me as little as two hours to make. I can also make a standard dozen of cupcakes in about 45 minutes.  The most time consuming part of making a cake is the decoration. Some of my really detailed or larger cakes have taken over 25 hours to make.


T.P.L. NYC: Do you bake anything else besides cupcakes and cakes? Is there anything else you would like to learn how to make?

C.A.: I make cookies and cake pops as well, but cakes and cupcakes are my specialty. One thing that I want to get into is molecular gastronomy. I really want to make fruity caviar!

T.P.L. NYC: What are some ways you helped to grow your business and build a clientele? Do you have any good advice to people who want to build their own business?

C.A.: I use Google AdWords to advertise online, which is where most of my clientele have come from. I also use Facebook as a means of targeting people I know, and I leave business cards everywhere I go. One of the funniest ways that I have gained customers is through delivering cakes. On multiple occasions while I was making deliveries people have stopped me to ask where I got that 'beautiful cake' or 'adorable cupcakes'. One of my customers was sitting next to me on the bench at a subway station while I was in transit to my brother's house, cupcakes in hand. She asked me where I got the cupcakes, and after telling her about my business and a few minutes of talking, she got up to go home. She apparently had been on her way to a cake tasting at another bakery, and my cupcakes won her over!

T.P.L. NYC: What is your favorite kind of cake or cupcake? Any favorite flavors?

C.A.: Typically, I have always been a Vanilla fan. However, after creating over 30 flavors of cupcakes, I have definitely branched out! My two personal favorites are Very Berry (strawberry-raspberry cake, filled with a triple berry compote, covered in blueberry butter cream, and topped with fresh berries) and The Wake-Up Call (buttermilk cake, filled with maple syrup, brushed in maple syrup and rolled in crumbled bacon, covered in cinnamon cream cheese frosting, and finished off with sprinkles of bacon).

Capturing the mad science in the lab
T.P.L. NYC: You also work in a lab. Tell me what is the lab like that you work in? Does it have a “mad science” feeling to it or is it kind of like an office space?

C.A.: I do indeed work in a lab, and I would say it is somewhere between 'mad science lab' and office. Actually, it's maybe more like office in the front, mad science lab in the back. Literally.

T.P.L. NYC: How big is your lab? What does a modern day lab look like?

C.A.: I work in a neuroscience lab with about 35 people and a ton of computers for data analysis.

T.P.L. NYC: What are some of the things you work on in your lab?

C.A.: My lab studies multi sensory processing in children and adults with a range of intellectual and developmental disabilities. For example, we look at how the brain processes things like sound and visual stimuli simultaneously, in comparison to how they process them individually. Personally, I am responsible for a range of things including maintaining a database with over 1000 research participants, collecting genetic samples (including blood draws), performing manual DNA extraction, and the organization of study materials.

 T.P.L. NYC: Is there a piece of equipment or technology that most people might not know about that is really cool that you get to use in your lab?

C.A.: Yes! We just finished building a virtual reality room that tracks body movements. We have an experiment where subjects walk on a treadmill while watching photos projected onto the wall. They are prompted to click a button when particular pictures pop up, all while their brain waves are being recorded through Electroencephalography (EEG), and their body movements are being tracked with V.R. sensors.

T.P.L. NYC: You have researched autism and have even made charitable contributions to it. Why do you like to study autism opposed to other human conditions?

C.A.: I have worked with children with Autism Spectrum Disorders for over 11 years, and have a Master's degree in Special Needs and Inclusive Education. After working in schools for many years, I saw how children had huge inconsistencies in intervention methods, based on individuals biases. I strongly believe that research is key to understanding the basic brain processing of individuals with Autism, upon which evidence-based practice intervention methods should be built.


T.P.L. NYC: Is there anything other areas of the human condition that you would like to research?

C.A.: Autism Spectrum Disorder is my main area of interest, but I am very interested in research involving a range of intellectual and developmental disabilities.

T.P.L. NYC: Have you ever made any amazing discoveries in your lab?

C.A.: We have had many amazing research papers come out of my lab, and I personally have learned some amazing things while working there.

T.P.L. NYC: Any other interests or hobbies that you enjoy that are peculiar or that you would like to share?

C.A.: In general, I am a person that enjoys all things creative. In my spare time if I'm not making cakes or other edible artistic things, I'm making something else. Currently, I am in the process of writing a children's book.

T.P.L. NYC: What is the most peculiar thing you have seen under the microscope?

C.A.: Once while manually extracting DNA, I thought I came across an incredible double helix strand that was very visible to the naked eye. However, it turned out to just be fiber from clothing. It was very exciting and peculiar...for a few seconds at least.

T.P.L. NYC: What is the most peculiar thing that you have baked?

C.A.: For people that haven't tried it, my most peculiar flavor is definitely The Wake-Up Call. I have had many sceptics about trying a cupcake with bacon, but so far all that have tried it, love it.

Hard at work

T.P.L. NYC: What is the most peculiar thing you have seen while living in NYC?

C.A.: Everything in NYC is peculiar! I absolutely love NYC, and am a proud resident. Peculiar becomes a way of life here. So much so, that I can't even think of anything peculiar that I've seen recently!

 T.P.L. NYC: What is coming up for you that is new? How can people get in touch with you?

C.A.: Right now, I am preparing for another busy season as soon as the fall starts. I am looking to grow my business, and have high hopes of opening a store front before the beginning of 2014.

Watch my website and like my facebook page for news about Confectionery Therapy. We hold contests periodically to win free stuff...and who doesn't like free sweets??

Currently, Confectionery Therapy donates 10% of profits from all orders to autism research. They are hoping to opening a storefront within a few years.



Thursday, August 9, 2012

Phrases to Pages

Phrases to Pages was Pronto Comics first foray into fundraising took place on Saturday July 28th at Pearl Studios on 8th Avenue here in Manhattan. The event brought together writers and artists from all over the city to compete for a chance to win prizes. The premise of the event was to get participants to draw and write one comic book page based on a pre-selected phrase. Participants had free range to draw whatever they liked. The quotes selected were from a wide range of people such as Winston Churchill, Dennis Miller, and Mae West.
“It’s really interesting to have writers and artists together for different rounds. It is a really interesting idea. I like seeing the different artwork on display,” said Jack Samson a participant in the contest.

Early Participants enter into Pearl Studios

Phrases to Pages also offered patrons a chance to party with food and an open bar sponsored by Brooklyn Brewery and Casa Herradura Tequila. It was a night of margaritas and magic as industry professionals provided additional entertainment. Sean Von Gorman an escape artist and comic book creator performed an escape routine where he freed himself from a straightjacket and handcuffs. Also, aspiring artists had a chance to showcase their work for portfolio reviews and network the room to find creative collaboration.  

Sean Von Gorman escapes from Simon Fraser at the after party at No Idea Bar


Teams form to collaborate on their page for the phrase given

Julianne Serrano who was attending the event had this to say: “I liked to see everyone mingle and merge their ideas together. I think it’s a good opportunity for artists and writers to…create something within their aspects of how they want to do things.”

The guest judges were comic book professionals working in different parts of the industry. Colorist and penciler Felix Serrano of Top Cow was the events surprise guest judge. Ken Knudtsen the creator of the independent title My Monkey’s Name is Jennifer and second judge was happy with the turnout.

“I thought it was great. I was amazed at some of the artwork that got turned around in a very quick amount of time. Just seeing the frantic artists, that were not me, turning out a page of comic art in a half an hour. It was amazing. I hope we see [Phrases to Pages] again soon,” said Knudtsen.

 Ken Knudtsen talks with Pronto Comics art director Ellen Stedfeld

Simon Fraser was the events third guest judge. Fraser is a veteran artist and writer for the British based anthology comic magazine 2000 A.D. His new title is The Adventures of Lilly MacKenzie for ActivateComix also thought the night brought together many creative people.

“I thought it was great and there was amazing energy. [One piece of artwork that stuck out to me was for the phrase] “Alcohol is happiness in a bottle”, but I can’t describe [the artwork] because it’s too filthy. We got to talk about comics and how to make them work better right now. So many people there were really passionate about it,” said Fraser.

Guest judges from left to right: Simon Fraser, Felix Serrano, and Ken Knudsten

Pronto Comics is a New York City based comic book publishing collective whose aim is to produce comic books as well as help foster talent and offer advice through social media, podcasts, workshops, and networking events to help aspiring creators break into the industry. To pitch or be a part of Pronto Comics you can visit their website Monthly meetings are the first Thursday of every month at Pearl Studios at 500 8th Avenue. Interested parties can check their Facebook page ( for more information.

A full crowd at the event.