Rosanna Pansino broke into the world of nerdy baking videos in 2011 with a cheap $80 camera and a boxed cake mix. Actually, it's entirely possible that Pansino created the world of nerdy baking videos, with decorations for cakes, cookies and pizzas inspired by pop culture sensations like Super Mario, Minecraft, Harry Potter and Game of Thrones.
Now, Pansino is a celebrity chef and one of the highest-paid people on YouTube, with an annual income of around $6 million. Her YouTube channel boasts 8.5 million subscribers and 2 billion views. And among her fans are thousands of kids eager to learn how to bake.
Since 2011, Pansino, 32, has morphed from a sweetly scruffy, pigtailed look to something resembling a carefully coiffed Food Network star. I ask her what else has changed.
"They've become actual recipes," she says, dryly. Then she bursts into laughter.
Pansino has always been about the fun of decorating, the do-it-yourself ethos that's always driven maker videos on YouTube. Now she has a team of 10 employees helping her dream up real recipes for frozen princess cakes, rainbow cakes, unicorn cakes and even unicorn rainbow poop cookies.
"My favorite episode is where she made a unicorn cake," says Sofia Roberts, 12, of Pasadena, Calif. Her best friend, Sofia Mathews, also 12, chimed in. "That one's cool."
The Sofias epitomize a certain kind of contemporary underage baker who loves Nerdy Nummies, Masterchef Junior and Tasty on BuzzFeed. They had just finished making four kinds of French macarons.
Back when I was 12, in the 1980s, just making chocolate chip cookies counted as a major culinary win. But these days, a foodie grandparent and grandchild might go to the craft store and pick up fondant for an afternoon of baking and decorating, inspired by Pansino and other YouTube channels such as The Scran Line or the extreme and engrossing How to Cake It. (Watch the turkey episode.)
It's impossible to know the exact ages of people watching these channels. YouTube says it does not track viewers under age 13. In fact, a company spokeswoman told me YouTube does not even see itself as serving kids.
That comes as news to Sofia Mathews. She says YouTube's do-it-yourself videos are perfect for kids figuring out how to make stuff. "You can tell if you're doing it right because a person is actually doing it," she says.
And that's especially helpful for visual learners — including Nerdy Nummies host Pansino. "I have a learning disability," she says. She says she is dyslexic. "And the best way that I learned was through visual content and clear communications that are very clear and direct."
In fact, that's what this digital cooking star learned from her analog ancestor, a public television star who used to trill a famous sign off: "Bon Appetit!" "The only person I watched was Julia Child," Pansino says, almost dreamily. "She's fun. And she's fearless. She's not afraid to make mistakes. And if you watch her videos cooking in the kitchen, she makes mistakes all the time."
"Who cares?" says Pansino. "Try it out. Try everything."
What a great lesson, for kids both in and out of the kitchen. That said, the mother of one of my acquaintances wryly joked that she wished online cooking videos paid just a little more attention to cleanup.