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The Artists Turning Cakes into Dazzling, Decadent Sculptures

In 2013, artist-turned-baker Natalie Sideserf concocted a hyperrealistic cake in the likeness of the country music legend Willie Nelson for an Austin, Texas, cake contest. Using modeling chocolate—a mixture of melted chocolate and corn syrup—she sculpted a bust that included Nelson’s signature bandana and braids. Sideserf won first prize, and her brother posted a photo of her cake on Reddit, where the image of went viral, rocketing to the site’s number-one slot and reportedly reaching 1.2 million people.



“Most people hadn’t seen a bust cake,” Sideserf told me over the phone. “I realized: Not only am I interested in this, other people are, too.” She quit the bakery where she was working at the time, her husband Dave quit his tech job, and together, they started her own business making artistic cakes.



Fast-forward to the present: The couple now runs a booming Austin-based cake outfit, Sideserf Cake Studio, where they churn out confections shaped like livestock, fantastical creatures, and absurdist concepts. (One internet-famous wedding cake consisted of replicas of their heads, decapitated and served on a silver platter.) They also have their own Food Network series, Texas Cake House.



The Sideserfs’s hyperrealistic style is only one of a seemingly limitless range of creative approaches to contemporary cakemaking. Take, for example, the elegant wedding cakes that resemble birch trees or watercolor paintings by New York-based Madison Lee; the whimsical, ceramic-like figurative cakes of Atlanta cake artist Karen Portaleo; or the minimalist, geometric mousse offerings of Ukrainian architect-turned-cake designer Dinara Kasko.



The success of these individuals speaks to a widespread appetite for sculptural and novelty cakes for occasions like weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, or corporate events. This hunger has been building over the past decade, thanks in large part to television, social media, and an influx of practitioners from art, design, and other creative industries. It’s come to a point where cakes that resemble sculpture are commonplace—with many requiring comparable skill and technique to accomplish as a work of art. (The distinction between cakes and art is tenuous, and has its own implications for the law; whether or not cake is legally considered a work of art is being debated in a Supreme Court case. The lawsuit was brought against a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, and then claimed it was his right as an artist to do so.)



Coming into baking with a BFA in art (she focused on painting), Sideserf was able to start ambitiously—attempting a cake in the shape of a cow skull, for instance. “I had no idea what I was doing with cake, but just like in college, I was experimenting with different materials and seeing what I could do,” she said.



Sideserf does her fair share of preparatory research, gathering source material and video to try to get a sense of the dimensionality of her subjects, in order to best render them in the round. She said she’s looking to the work of artists more than her fellow bakers and cake designers for inspiration, citing hyperrealist sculptors like Ron Mueck and Evan Penny.



Sideserf’s certainly not the only one who came to cakes with a different creative skillset. Wedding cake master Ron Ben-Israel went to art school and previously had a career as a dancer; Karen Portaleo was a ceramicist and had her own prop and set design company, before she learned to bake cakes. And there’s a wave of pastry chefs working today who entered the field after pursuing architecture.



Of course, there are many innovative, artistically driven individuals who docome from a baking background, like Madison Lee, who grew up with her father’s bakeshop (the beloved Cousin John’s Bakery in Park Slope, Brooklyn) and attended New York’s Institute of Culinary Education.



Lee started her own business, Madison Lee’s Cakes, around eight years ago. She recalled how a friend once pointed out that her career has parallels to that of visual artists—except that she regularly has several commissions every week. “But then, unlike any other artist, it’s completely destroyed and there’s nothing to show for it,” Lee mused. “And then, the next week, you start all over again.”



How Did Sculptural Cakes Become So Popular?



One clear cheerleader for novelty cakes has been television. Shows like Food Network’s Ace of Cakes and TLC’s Cake Boss have given the cable-loving public enticing, behind-the-scenes access into the kitchens where teams of skilled bakers and cake decorators regularly produce massive cakes (often upwards of three-feet-tall and wide) in the shapes of nearly anything imaginable—from zombies and sea creatures to a life-size race car and a scaled-down replica of the Titanic.



Lee noted that shows like Cake Boss have had a real impact on her own business over the past decade. Customers would watch Buddy Valastro and his team making cakes shaped like shoes and purses, and then they’d call her to request something similar. “People watched and realized that cake is not just cake; it really has become another medium for art,” Lee said. “They didn’t know to ask for it before. They didn’t know what they were missing.”



Legendary New York-based pastry chef Ron Ben-Israel countered that the making of these artistic cakes is not exactly new, although the attention these creations are now receiving is novel. Ben-Israel (whom the New York Times famously dubbed “the Manolo Blahnik of wedding cakes” in 2003) and his peers have long excelled in this field, in search of creative alternatives to sheet cakes and tiered cylinders for birthdays, anniversaries, and other celebrations.



He noted that the age-old tradition of publishing images of cakes in print magazines like Brides and Martha Stewart is no match for the limitless reach of social media today. “It’s a perception thing,” he explained. “I’ve been doing it for 20 years. I’ve done hundreds of sculptural cakes, but now with Instagram, people know.”



The ubiquity of Instagram and Pinterest have certainly allowed for new names to enter the field. “With Pinterest and the internet in general, people are so much more awake to the creativity that’s around them,” Portaleo said. “They want more than your basic cake.”



Lee raised another contributing factor to the current momentum within the industry: gains made since the 2008 recession. She recalled that during that time and in the few years following, people were ordering very modest wedding cakes, keeping the size and budget small, and coupling them with other desserts. In the past two years though, she said, “big cakes are so back in fashion.”




So, How Much Do These Cakes Cost?



As more and more cake artists enter the field, from both culinary school and other creative industries, consumers suddenly have a wealth of options. Anyone looking for a fashion-forward cake, perhaps attuned to the Pantone color of the year, would be an ideal client for Ben-Israel. But say you want something a bit quirkier, like a birthday cake shaped like a sloth—you’d be better suited to hire Sideserf. Regardless of style, though, there’s always a tremendous amount of resources involved—with at times over 100 hours of sheer manual labor invested, requiring great dexterity and high-quality materials.



“Our novelty cakes are more expensive than any of our wedding cakes,” Ben-Israel explained. “You may have a two-year-old’s birthday you need a cake for, and our proposed budget is more than a wedding cake. Not every parent is willing to go that route.” According to his website, the price for these cakes typically starts at $1,500. “I don’t think quantity has gone down, but our pricing structure and expertise have gone up.”



Say you want a bust of your mother that will feed 80 people—prices can easily jump above a grand.



Wedding cakes by Ben-Israel and Lee both start at $16 per serving. To give people their money’s worth, Lee makes a point to develop a cake that will be a true complement to a wedding, whether that means replicating the beading of the bride’s dress or working with the florist to create exacting, sugary replicas of the actual peonies that will be at the reception.



“I don’t want to just make any peonies,” she told me. “I need to know what kind of peonies, what color they are.” Her hope, she said, is that people will have a moment of doubt, wondering whether the edible flowers are real. At an outdoor wedding last summer, Lee was setting up the cake when she realized that bees were gravitating toward the flowers. “That’s the biggest compliment,” she enthused. “If a bee can’t tell they’re not real, surely a person can’t either.”



Given the level of attention to detail (and the resulting price tag), it’s not surprising that cake artists like Lee, Ben-Israel, the Sideserfs, and Portaleo are accustomed to working with high-profile clients. When we spoke, Portaleo had recently finished a cake for the wrap party of the latest Marvel Avengers film; in December, she made a birthday cake for a gala that celebrated Jane Fonda’s 80th birthday. One of her best-known cakes was a replica of Maggie Smith’s character in Downton Abbey, made for the show’s season five premiere.



The Sideserfs’s cakes begin at $250, but with layers of customization and the number of servings—say you want a bust of your mother that will feed 80 people—prices can easily jump above a grand. But what’s making people fork over that much cash?



Lee pointed out that with weddings, the cake is a crucial element. “It’s the last thing that you eat, traditionally,” she said, “so it’s the last impression that you make on your guests of how you want them to remember the evening.”



When it comes to other events among families or brands, like a birthday or a business milestone, the cake functions as a showstopper or a conversation-starting centerpiece. Dave Sideserf explained that there’s often sentimental value for the client. “Customers have been so excited to see their cake that they’ve cried,” he said.



How Are These Cakes Made?


At her studio in Midtown Manhattan, Lee scrolled through her iPad to show me her digital cake sketches, the starting point for each of her pieces. During initial meetings with clients, she learns their story and makes deft drawings of the proposed cake, based on their wishes and interests and her own creative impulses. While these meetings happen six months to a year prior to the special event, the cake itself can’t be made until two days before its unveiling. All cake artists deal with this challenge: to create high-quality work within a small window of time, so that the cake looks and tastes great.



Lee acknowledged that some elements can be prepared in advance, like sugar flowers, which are composed of gumpaste—a sugar dough that hardens, made from egg whites, confectioners sugar, and shortening. She walked me over to a wall of small drawers and opened them to reveal the tiny dough cutters and silicone molds that can be used to make painstaking, textured replicas of the petals, leaves, and stamen for dozens of different types of plants and flowers—from snapdragons and stargazers to poppies and poinsettia. Each sugar flower must be assembled while the gumpaste is still soft, and each component is painted by hand. Needless to say, it’s a team effort.



She shuffled through the contents of a nearby drawer to find her favorite tool: a small white ceramic stick with a pointed end, used to carve tiny details into the surfaces of cakes. For her, the key materials are fondant, buttercream, gumpaste, and Crystal Colors—powdered food coloring she uses for painting, which can be used to achieve the effects of watercolor or acrylic paints. Lee also uses rice paper to decorate; combined with gumpaste, it can add light, fabric-like wisps of texture to the surface of cakes.



Ben-Israel’s cakes are made with a Swiss buttercream (“the lightest European buttercream possible, of cooked egg whites whipped into a meringue and then European butter folded in”), which, when you know how to work with it, he noted, produces extremely neat results.



The smooth outer layer of many novelty cakes is fondant, a flexible sugar material that can be rolled out in thin sheets, then draped and fitted over a cake, no matter its shape. “It’s really a skin that has no fat in it, so it creates a perfect background for decoration,” Ben-Israel said. He noted that his fondant is rolled out super thin, to one-sixteenth of an inch, thanks in part to recent technical innovations.



But it can be difficult to hide the seams of a piece of fondant, Sideserf explained, so her preferred material for sculpting the outer layers of the cake is modeling chocolate—which is also Portaleo’s favorite. “It feels just like a polymer clay, and I can sculpt with it just beautifully,” Portaleo said.



Portaleo added that “as the cake industry explodes, there’s a tool for everything,” but she prefers to keep her workspace sparse, using choice wooden tools that are similar to those she used back in her ceramics days.



In videos and on her show, you can see Sideserf using food-safe sculpting tools to shape and carve into modeling chocolate, and then adding pigment—which can involve painting, markers, airbrushing, or flicking drips of gel color.



Armatures and materials to add structural soundness to these cakes is often integral, especially in the case of large creations. While she had long used wooden dowels, Portaleo now swears by threaded rod, a metal material you can buy at home improvement stores; the rods are typically used by contractors to add stability to structures made from wood, metal, or concrete. “It’s so much stronger and gave me so much more flexibility for structures,” she said. It’s helped her create things like a 200-pound writhing orange octopus cake for the Georgia Aquarium, and a four-foot-tall dancing panda for Zoo Atlanta.




Less typical, though gaining traction online, are mousse cakes, which can take on sleek, minimalist forms. Kasko is well-known in this category. With computer software, she designs silicone molds for cakes, which have the textures of ripe cherries, bubbles, or prisms, then 3-D prints the molds and sells them. She makes tutorial videos and teaches classes so anyone can reproduce her elegant cakes.



Another rising mousse trend involves splashing a mirrored glaze on top of discs of mousse (it doesn’t hurt that the dramatic process is perfect for Instagram videos). The resulting cakes, like those made by Ksenia Penkina, take on a shiny, marbled effect, with vivid colors and metallic hints.



Other cake makers are experimenting with materials like wafer paper, or using fondant in unusual ways. San Francisco-based cake artist Jasmine Raelets her fondant dry out, allowing for surfaces that appear weathered or aged, resembling rock, marble, or metal; Maggie Austin uses fondant to create layers of delicate frills and ruffles.



But…Do They Even Taste Good?



Yes! While visual appeal is crucial, esteemed cake masters agree that the taste and flavors of a cake are just as (if not more) important. In order to foster return business, build a good reputation, or generate positive word-of-mouth reviews, the creators of these cakes must ensure that they taste as good as they look.



“Even if it’s a themed cake, you want it to be very delicious and seductive in its flavors,” Ben-Israel advised. “You don’t want to see something interesting or pretty and then be disappointed when you taste it.”



Flavors can be as adventurous and innovative as the cake’s design. Rae sees flavor as a critical opportunity for creativity; she encourages clients to choose outside of their comfort zones. “The flavors are just as much an expression of the piece as the visuals of the cake,” she said, noting that she’s often experimenting with ingredients and flavor combinations that are “edgy and unusual.” Her cakes could involve anything from cabernet or hibiscus flower to feta, black sesame, or coriander.



Lee comes up with new flavors each January; new trends inevitably emerge each year. Two years ago, clients were wild about spicy honey fig cake; last year, it was champagne cassis and salted caramel crunch; this year, it’s citrus champagne, chocolate ginger, and matcha yuzu. (Speaking from first-hand experience, I recommend the chocolate ginger.)



Dave Sideserf noted that it’s important for the flavor to align with the overall narrative of a cake. He recalled a recent cake for Minnesota’s Museum of the Weird, which was shaped like a sasquatch frozen in a cube of ice. The flavor combination they went with was rosemary cake with smoked honey ganache, which was chosen based on research into Minnesota history.



So, You Want to Be a Cake Artist?



It’s possible that all this creative cake talk has made you want to try it for yourself. And you’re not alone.



“We’ve moved into an era where everybody feels like being artistic or creating things is more possible, for everybody, and not just people who feel like they’re talented,” Portaleo told me. “Suddenly, everybody wants to be able to make these cakes, they don’t just feel like they have to buy them.” She’s made timelapse videos and tutorials, posted on her website, which offer a window into her process, and even step-by-step lessons for specialties like sculpting eyes and lips.



The crafting website Craftsy has a whole section devoted to cake, where users can pay $20 to learn to make one of Maggie Austin’s stained glass cakes, and they can also buy the necessary decorating supplies.



All of the cake artists I spoke to, in fact, are also teachers, and many post how-to videos online, or travel the globe to teach classes that people can pay to attend.



This month, for example, Sideserf is teaching a class on how to make a flamingo-shaped cake in San Diego; Portaleo is headed to Lima, Peru, to show students how to make cakes shaped like goblins or dancing girls; and Ben-Israel will hold a three-day immersive experience at his New York studio (he is also Guest Master Pastry Chef at the city’s renowned International Culinary Center).



The careers of cake designers like Kasko and Penkina, who do not have brick-and-mortar bakeries, revolve around teaching, through online tutorialvideos and giving in-person master classes around the world.



Portaleo said that her classes are similar to what you might find at any art school. For a class that focuses on making a bust, she’ll bring a skull and discuss proper facial proportion and measurements, or what makes a face look young or old. “They really do get a well-rounded education. It’s not just about cake, it’s actually a sculpting class, which is useful beyond the cake world,” she said.



But Are They Too Beautiful to Eat?



Put simply, as Kasko told me, “cakes are made so people can eat them.”


While hours on end go into making these cakes—Rae once spent 120 hours making a miniature replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre—their makers enjoy the fact that people eventually devour them. Many agree that the production, and the somewhat performative act of delivering the cake to the event before allowing people to eat it, is thrilling.



“You’re creating this piece of art—people walk into a room, and then they’re going to take it and taste it.”



Portaleo said that in her past career with ceramics, she enjoyed the way people could see and hold her work. But with cake, it goes even deeper.



“You’re creating this piece of art, and people are experiencing it—they walk into a room and can smell it, then they’re going to take it and taste it,” she said. “I love that additional level of experiencing a piece of art. It’s rare in the art world, and even in the culinary world, that you’re creating something that gets experienced on so many different levels.”



And the sweet temporality of it all only adds significance.



“I love that at the end of the day, it’s gone,” Portaleo told me. “This thing has been designed, created, built, delivered, celebrated, ingested—and then it’s gone.”



Cover image: Specialists at Madison Lee’s Cakes studio paint food coloring onto sugar flowers. Courtesy of Madison Lee’s Cakes. Photo by Samantha Margalit of Samantha Lauren Photographie.



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