(New York Jewish Week via JTA) — For most of her life, professional pianist Navah Perlman Frost spent at least part of each day practicing her music in preparation for upcoming performances. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, the music stopped. Concert halls closed. Recitals were cancelled.
At first, Frost, 51, took the drying up of her concert schedule as “a good moment to recharge my batteries,” she told The New York Jewish Week. She never could have imagined that, as the months progressed, her career would pivot as markedly as it did.
Frost, a child of New York’s Upper West Side, grew up in a musical family. Her parents are musicians; notably, her father is violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman. Frost began taking piano lessons when she was 6 years old and performed professionally for the first time when she was 15. This meant that, by the time the COVID lockdown began, she had been a working musician for 35 years.
But Frost is also an accomplished cook and baker, and she did both enthusiastically for her husband, four children, extended family and friends. As the reality of the pandemic set in and the months passed by, Frost found herself obsessing — not so much about music but about buttercream frosting.
Frost said she couldn’t stop thinking about creative ways to use buttercream to decorate her baked goods. Day after day, she was pulled back into the kitchen and what emerged became more elaborate, more beautiful and more awe-inspiring with each iteration.
“The artistry she showed as a musician translated into the beauty of the baked goods she was making,” said her sister-in-law Stephanie Perlman. “Not just in how they tasted — they were delicious — but in how they looked.”
Perlman — along with other friends and family members — urged Frost to try to sell her creations. But she demurred. With its wide variety of top-notch bakeries, New York City didn’t need yet another cake baker, she said.
Except nobody else in this great city was beautifying cakes quite like she was. “Extraordinary” is how celebrated baker and James Beard Award-winning cookbook author Dorie Greenspan describes Frost’s work. “What she does is a magical blend of passion for her art, technical skill and boundless curiosity,” Greenspan said.
Frost’s cakes are adorned with botanically themed decorations that are so realistic that one could swear they are looking at fresh flowers. She is best known for her cupcake “bouquets” — bunches of cupcakes covered with richly colored buttercream flowers, presented like sumptuous floral arrangements.
But that’s not all: In a nod, perhaps, to her art history degree from Brown University, Frost also delights in recreating works of art in buttercream. Recently, she made a Casa Azul cake, inspired by artist Frieda Kahlo’s cobalt blue home in Mexico City. Her cake that replicates Van Gogh’s iris paintings look almost too precious to eat.
Perhaps her love of cake decorating was destiny — after all, her married name is Frost. Her daughter, Frost said, coined the name of her newly minted baking business: Frosted by Navah. At first, she just sold her cakes to a devoted group of friends and family. But word spread beyond that small nucleus, and Instagram further escalated things. Frost then set up a web site, and Frosted by Navah was up and running by December 2020, less than eight months after she began baking and frosting regularly.
Client Ulrika Citron told The New York Jewish Week that, to celebrate her son’s and his girlfriend’s graduation from business school, she ordered two cakes: one banana, the other a dairy-free chocolate-raspberry creation. “The cake you get is as beautiful as pictured,” she said. “You get what you see on Instagram.”
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While her “pivot” — which is how Frost describes her career change — may seem anomalous, Frost sees commonalities between playing the piano and cake decorating. Both art forms require intricate handiwork; playing the piano for so many years sharpened her hands’ dexterity and control, allowing her to craft her precise floral applications.
And then there is the interpretation that she brings to both fields. “I may play the same Beethoven sonata 10 times, but each time I play it it is slightly different than the time before because I am not a machine,” she said. “Something may occur to me that didn’t occur the other times that I performed that piece. The same goes with my cakes. I don’t make carbon copies. My work is more of an art than a science. Neither product can be cloned.”
And just as Frost delights in playing to a receptive audience as a musician, she loves getting positive feedback on a cake she made. “It’s a similar feeling of putting something out in the world that makes somebody happy,” she said.
How have her parents reacted to her career change? “My parents think it’s great,” she said. “They are very supportive. What surprised them about my baking career was the highly decorative stuff that was not a regular thing for me until this moment in time.”
Recently, for her father’s birthday, she made him a special birthday cake — and no, it wasn’t shaped like a violin. Her dad’s favorite candies are Kit Kats, so she prepared a beautiful floral cake with a surprise inside: Between the cake and the frosting, it was layered with Kit Kat bars.
When will her baking end and her musical career begin again? “I am not performing any more,” said Frost. “I am trying to figure it all out, trying to not get ahead of myself. I am having such a good time that it is hard to think of abandoning this. But you never know.”
Until then, you can find her performing in the key of F, for frosting.