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(Enlarge) Maia Krapcho, from Columbia, first learned baking at vocational-technical school. Though she has moved on to a different career, she finds cake-baking to be a creative outlet. (Staff photo by Matt Roth)

When the kids whine about courses they have to take in school, sage parents should opine, "You never know when some kernel of learning will inspire a lifetime of doing."

A case in point is Maia Alloy Krapcho. Born in Florida and raised in Howard County from the age of 3, the 1995 Oakland Mills High School graduate will tell you that she was not the most enthusiastic student in her teen years. Actually, she uses the word "horrible" to describe her attitude toward studentdom.

To her parents' dismay, she recalls, she announced in her freshman year that she wanted to go to what was then known as the Howard County Vo-Tech (short for vocational-technical) school. What drew her to that destination was the simple fact that half of every school day would be spent at the Vo-Tech rather than in a "regular" high school classroom.

That was enough incentive for her to take a tour of the facility and find out what was offered. She recalls that the (three-year) "culinary arts program interested me a little bit."

And so, over her parents vehement objections -- because they absolutely insisted that she was going to go to college -- Maia signed on with chef Elaine Heilman, who still heads the program (under a more upscale name and a broader course syllabus), and former program instructor chef John Johnson.

After the first couple of semesters, Maia was hooked. "It was a fully rounded program with lots of hands -on experience. We learned things like the five basic sauces and how to vary them."

Indeed, Maia learned a lot at the Vo-Tech, including back- and front-of-the-house techniques, for cooking and for serving, in essence what most restaurant chefs and/or owners need to know about the business, food-service sanitation techniques among them.

Not only did Maia and her fellow students master all kinds of delicious techniques in the classroom, once a month during the school year, the culinary teams would design and cook a multi-course dinner that they would serve to area residents in a "restaurant" setting created for this purpose at the Vo-Tech. The cost was $25 (no wine, of course). The many meals friends and I enjoyed there were incredibly professional and delicious.

And in the small-world department, one of the friends with whom I most often enjoyed these gourmet dinners, is now Maia's mother-in-law.

On beyond high school

While she came to enjoy all aspects of chef Heilman's program, Maia's absolute favorite was desserts. She remembers that halfway through the first year at Vo-Tech, when cake decorating was part of the lesson plan, it was a "turning point."

So well did she take to the culinary arts program that she was given the school's President's Award upon her graduation.

But Maia did go on to college, much to her parents' relief. Howard Community College first, then one semester at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the rest at Towson Unversity, where she majored in mass communications and advertising.

Still not quite sure what she wanted to do with her life, she admits to changing majors with regularity, so that it took seven years to earn that degree (2002), while toiling away at three jobs to help pay for her education.

"After high school," she says, "I completely got out of (making and decorating) cakes. No time. No facilities."

These days, Maia earns her daily bread in her degree field, more or less, at Howard County General Hospital, where she worked part-time as an undergraduate. She heads the hospital's Community Education Department, setting up health-care seminars and booking speakers to go with them. She registers students for the seminars, teaches CPR.

As it turns out, a key ingredient in her employment at the hospital is that she gets every other Friday off. And that affords her an opportunity to let loose her artistic talents: making eye-catching, show-stopping cakes and other special desserts for family and friends.

In other words, building on those inspirational classes that she fired her imagination "way back" in the '90s.

Since 2007, she's been married to Marty Krapcho, who also grew up in the county (she did a lot of the decorating and sweets for her wedding). The pair reside in Columbia with their two cats.

With the singles scene behind her, and her job relatively secure, Maia was looking for a little extra stimulation. And back to her school-day roots she went, taking a cake-decorating class with an emphasis on fondant, that smooth and creamy and flexible candy-like substance that allows the decorator to work with all kinds of interesting shapes and forms and to really get creative with her (or his) cakes. For an advanced class, students had to create 50 edible, decorative roses. Maia toiled hard at that, and managed to wow her fellow students and the instructor, too.

She mastered this medium so well that chef Heilman (with whom Maia has lunch often) invited her to teach techniques working with fondant and gum paste (edible) to the culinary team at the now re-named Applications and Research Lab (the erstwhile Vo-Tech).

Sweet outlets

Maia and Marty have a lot of friends of child-bearing age and she is often called upon to do a special cake for a child's first birthday party. Word of mouth among family and friends keeps her busy, but she doesn't mind because it's doing something she loves. With the encouragement (and help) of her husband, she adds.

For her father-in-law's surprise 70th birthday party, she practiced her fondant art with a cake that featured a Scrabble board, one of Frank Krapcho's special interests.

The coconut cake (made on one of those Fridays off), was yummy to be sure. But the "frosting" was the show stopper. A fondant board with 100 precisely cut squares in "authentic" Scrabble hues painted with letters and their numerical values done in edible ink markers. They spelled out "Happy 70th Birthday, Frank," in such a way that, had Frank been playing that particular game, he would have won it.

Her greatest challenge, she'll tell you, was for a wedding cake for a bride with serious food allergies. Actually, the bride didn't want a cake, but rather 120 individual cupcakes. The bride provided a vegan recipe for the cake. So far, so good. But Maia had to create frosting for each cupcake that was free of dairy products, corn syrup and dextrose.

Of course, Maia could've just done a pretty white icing with some of those roses she'd mastered in class, but instead created star gazer lilies out of fondant and gum paste. No mean feat, this. She began with what's called a flower nail. She pressed a piece of foil into the top of the nail (so she could move the foil and the flower off the nail). She piped five white petals made from royal icing. She added a dollop of green to the center of the petals. She added (edible) stamens, then came the delicate task of removing the flower with its foil from the nail and setting it on a flat surface, where it was set aside to dry, for 24 hours with a fan blowing on it.

Ah, but we're not done. She then had to peel the foil from the lily, the most delicate task, and the point where the most breakage can occur.

After the foil was removed, she took something called "luster dust," mixed up some yellow and painted that onto the flower. Then added that distinctive bright pink. These two tones had to dry before the next two steps: adding a line in the center of each petal with red luster dust and using red food coloring gel for the dots.

She needed 120 perfect star gazer lilies. She made 150 of them to allow for breakage. Each lily took between 45 minutes to an hour to complete, she estimates. Fortunately, these didn't have to be made at the last minute.

On the Thursday before the wedding, she baked the cupcakes. On Friday, she iced them and added the lilies.

On Saturday, she and her husband packed those babies into huge cardboard boxes and carefully, very carefully, transported them to the wedding, where she arranged 100 of them on an environmentally friendly square cupcake stand, with the 20 extras artfully placed nearby.

That was one happy bride! And one happy Maia, as well.

Coming up are another wedding cake, this one with buttercream icing, and an anniversary cake, plus those kids' birthday cakes. Maia Krapcho is having a grand old time these days.

And all because she wanted to get out of her high school classroom and into the hands-on kind of learning she came to love.

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