When Christine McConnell starts a baking project, she goes all out. Not just I’m-making-buttercream-from-scratch, or homemade rainbow-layer-cake all out. We’re talking spending a week creating detailed replicas of Gizmo and Spike fromGremlins, then staging a photo shoot where they take over her kitchen, tying her up and running amok.
It’s a level of commitment that’s earned her a following of 151,000-plus on Instagram, a two-cookbook deal (the first, Deceptive Desserts, is out this March) and, most recently, a call from Twentieth Century Fox.
“They wanted to meet with me to discuss a potential project to promote Tim Burton’s new movie,” McConnell, 33, explains. “I’m a massive fan of his, so I thought, ‘I’ve got to bring something to the meeting that will knock their socks off.’ I baked for two days nonstop, and even made my own boxes to hold the treats. I kind of overdid it.”
She made about 200 bite-sized desserts for the team, though these weren’t your standard sweets: The brownies were studded with a chocolate eye that stared at you, the cookies were ringed with icing cobwebs, and she invented “Beezlebub Buckeyes,” a fanged take on the classic peanut-butter-and-chocolate ball.
She Made Up Her Dream Job
McConnell specializes in unexpected desserts, but what’s most surprising about her is that she’s completely self-taught. In fact, it wasn’t until she had the book deal that she even started considering herself a baker.
“I’d be intimidated in the kitchen with a professionally trained baker,” she says. “My grandmother taught me how to make brownies or fudge once, and that’s about it. I just started baking things as a joke for friends, and people liked them so much that I started posting them on Instagram.”
When her following hit 2,000, McConnell started to realize she was carving out a niche for herself online and began sharing her work on reddit. She was a photographer whose baked goods were props in her themed photo shoots, but as time went on, the macabre desserts—like waffle cones loaded with “screamberries,” fanged strawberries so fierce they looked ready to chomp off your fingers if you got within a foot of them—started attracting their own following.
The screamberries took on a life of their own, reaching far beyond the confines of “the internet’s front page,” and soon, websites began reaching out to her for interviews. It was all a little surreal for McConnell, who’d bounced around from secretarial job to office-management job, never really satisfied with the 9-to-5 grind.
It Took Getting Fired to Move Forward
“I kept getting fired,” she says. “Then, when I got fired from a job I tried really hard to keep, I had to admit this wasn’t working, and I needed to find something else to do.”
She had enrolled in cosmetology school and moved back home with her parents, where she initially focused on photography in general.
“I was like any dumb 20-year-old, taking pictures of myself and having people judge me for it,” she says. “The more I took pictures, though, the more I started realizing things, like the importance of having different backdrops and needing better camera equipment.”
While McConnell admits she doesn’t really use her cosmetology skills today, the creative outlet it provided has inspired her work ever since—that, and her love of 1950s TV shows and horror movies.
Her dark takes on classic desserts eventually got publisher Judith Regan’s attention, who offered her a book deal. McConnell used the advance to move out to the mountains and spent the past year baking and dreaming up fresh ideas.
“As soon as I got the deal, I grabbed a notebook and created a list of about 200-300 things I wanted to bake, then researched flavors and narrowed it down to about 100,” she explains. “Nothing in the book has been posted online, so it’s all new content.”
Her Baking Tools Are Unlike Anything You’ve Seen
Maybe it’s the result of being completely self-taught, but when it comes to baking cakes, McConnell relies on a few unexpected tools. Instead of a fondant smoother, she prefers a grout float she picked up at an estate sale.
“The handle is sturdier, and it’s easier for me to work with,” she explains.
When it comes to creating a smooth, flawless fondant layer on curvy cakes—like the bubbly beehive she made earlier this year—McConnell buys thin sheet metal from Michael’s that she cuts with kitchen shears, then bends to whatever shape she needs. She glides the small pieces of metal over the frosting (be it fondant or chilled buttercream), creating the smooth, precise lines in her cakes that make them look hauntingly realistic.
Her biggest secret though? Using untreated wooden boards and dowels to give her character cakes structure—something she learned the hard way the first time she made a cake based on Stripe, Gizmo’s nemesis in Gremlins.
“He kept collapsing,” she says. “Temperature is tricky—as the cake warms up, it starts to crumble. … Patience is probably the most critical skill for making these cakes.”
She Always Keeps Her Cool
On her second try, she made each part of his body separately, rather than building from bottom-to-top, and refrigerated each part until she was ready to add it to the cake.
That, and using untreated wooden boards and dowels between cake layers to keep the treats from crumbling, have been crucial for creating cakes that last long enough to survive her detailed photo shoots.
“After the photo’s taken, I don’t care if a truck backs over them,” she says.
When you’re baking snarling, fanged desserts that look just as ready to attack you as you are to devour them, it makes sense that nothing’s too precious.
Check out even more of her desserts—and get her tips for creating your own monstrous masterpieces.
Follow Delish on Instagram.