Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez has a lot on her plate. And right now, that means a multi-tiered wedding cake. “I do it all by myself,” she says with a shrewd smile. She bakes, she decorates, she transports. “I’m the one who’s going to pick it up…because if someone drops it, I don’t want to be mad at anyone but me. There’s no backup cake.” And, of course, she’s prepared for any eventuality. “I have an emergency bag and I always bring a lot more frosting in case something happens.”
With an appraising look one might see more often in an interrogation room than in a kitchen, Sheriff Hernandez walks slowly around her newly baked and decorated Italian cream cake. She talks about the early days when she was just learning the ins-and-outs of wedding cakes. “I’ve been out on a riverbank repairing a four-tiered wedding cake that had just become three-tiered. It’s stressful!” She fills a pastry bag with homemade frosting and deftly pipes florets to even out the design. There’s one more appraising look and then she adds the final touch: fresh flowers on the top tier. With a satisfied smile, she takes a step back. Her creation is complete.
It would be easy to toss out bon mots like: “No one would guess this tough-as-nails sheriff is also a quiet baker and cake decorator by night!” But as we’ve seen in the current political climate, and as we see in the kitchen today, Sheriff Hernandez is more complicated than simple sound bites would suggest. She’s a problem-solver who delves deep; someone too thoughtful and intense to be described by a quick quip.
Thirty years ago, early in her law enforcement career, she started baking and decorating wedding cakes to help others. “At the time, I was going to a church where there were a lot of people getting married but who didn’t have money to buy a cake, so I thought…how hard is it to make a wedding cake? And I just started playing with it. Some [cakes] were leaning, some were…not the best, but I just started doing it to help.” As the years passed and her skills improved, word got out. She began baking not just wedding cakes, but retirement cakes and birthday cakes, too. “It used to be I made a lot of cakes. I will tell you, though, once you start running for office, you can’t do it as often. You make a wedding cake, and it can take up to 15 hours!”
Those 15 hours are good for reflection, though, and good for stepping out of the stresses of day-to-day law enforcement. “Creating wedding cakes makes you think creatively, even though it’s stressful, you know?” she says as she finds a knife to cut into the cake she made for this interview. “The pressure is different. It separates you from a lot of the stuff that you feel and see in law enforcement.”
Learning to cook at a young age, Sheriff Hernandez discovered she loved it. Following directions, but knowing when to add her own creative spin, are the two most important tools in her arsenal of baking and in her police work. Baking even helped her apply for a job as Chief Investigator at the District Attorney’s Office. “We had to write an essay and I wanted mine to be different, so I wrote about wedding cakes,” she says. Just like law enforcement, “a wedding cake has to have a strong foundation, one that you build on, adding layers upon layers.” A departure from all the other essays, her creative thinking won her the job—and more requests for cakes.
Asked where she gets her recipes from, she talks about her favorite adaptations. “The Italian cream cake I like to bake came from a cookbook I’ve had for 20 years and it was a Texas Electric Cooperatives community cookbook. I have a German chocolate cake recipe that came from a really old cookbook—from the late 1800s. That one is from Fredericksburg.”
It’s clear from her easy confidence that Sheriff Hernandez knows exactly what she’s doing in the kitchen—and out of it. And while everyone who knows her personally knows not to mess with her while she’s baking, it might be prudent for others to learn a similar lesson, as well. Sally Hernandez does not want or need too many cooks in her kitchen. “I don’t want to be in the spotlight,” she says with a small smile and a hint of exasperation. “I just want to be sheriff!”
By Kari Anne Holt • Photography by Melanie Grizzel