Picture the perfect handbag: fuchsia-colored faux-crocodile skin exterior, elegant handles fastened with rose gold buckles and a jewel-encrusted clasp. It’s chic, exquisite, sumptuous—and delicious. In today’s world, a cake can be disguised as anything.
Hailing from humble beginnings, cakes were simple fruit and nut baked goods that were crumbled over the bride on her wedding day in a tradition called “crowning the bride.” Once the notion of eating the cake stuck, bakers began filling and smearing their creations with royal icing and marzipan, marking the beginning of the modern cake. But it’s doubtful that any royal baker would have predicted what heights the lowly cake would reach.
Today, cake decorating is an art limited only by the imagination. Food Network’s “Ace of Cakes” and TLC’s “Cake Boss” have taken it to a whole new extreme, using new tools and edible materials that bring castles, cars and characters to life in very tasty ways.
A far cry from their crumbly beginnings, contemporary cakes are all in the details: icing flowers can’t be hastily squeezed out of a pastry bag, but are meticulously crafted out of gum paste and dusted with coloring powders and pearly shimmer for three-dimensional glow. Impression mats add texture to previously lifeless edible trees and leaves.
Airbrushing adds depth and shadow to a scene.
Thanks to increased access to tools and classes, anybody can try their hand at cake decorating. For Shelly Baker, who has been teaching at the Canoga Park Kake Kreations store for 34 years, the learning never ends, especially as students present her with Pinterest-inspired projects. “I never get bored,” she says. While the most sought-after material these days is fondant, Shelly never sticks to just one product. She may use modeling chocolate instead of fondant, for example, or top a cake with a lace bow made from a SugarVeil confectionary icing mold (though she still calls herself a “buttercream icing kind of girl”).
Katie Auerbach is a self-taught fondant aficionado who got her start making friends’ birthday cakes inspired by what she saw on television. Katie now runs a custom cupcake business out of Thousand Oaks—KT Cakes Cupcakes. “I find joy in turning a thought or idea into something real.” And that she does, topping cupcakes with baby toes, succulent plants, dogs in sunglasses or whatever else may spring from her imagination.
A cake today can be transformed into virtually anything—a bathtub overflowing with gelatin bubbles, a crystal butterfly formed from melted isomalt, a chic handbag airbrushed to perfection.
Written by ALLISON MONTROY Photos by MICHAEL COONS
“Let Them Make Cake!”
Local classes to help you get started
Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Stores
Conejo Valley Plaza Shopping Center
1516 N. Moorpark Road, Thousand Oaks
816 Los Angeles Ave., Moorpark
5780 Lindero Canyon Road
351 Carmen Drive Ste. A, Camarillo
21851 Sherman Way, Canoga Park
Westlake Culinary Institute
4643 Lakeview Canyon Road
Chef Winnie Au is like a fairy godmother for cakes. With a smattering of fondant and gum paste, a sprinkle of food coloring and a modeling tool as her wand, Winnie turns plain old pumpkins into ethereal delicacies fit for a princess. All it takes, she says, is a little imagination—and maybe just a dash of magic.
When a career as a home economics teacher rekindled her childhood love for crafting and baking, Winnie, who has a bachelor’s degree in education, found herself dreaming more and more about life in the world of pastries and baked goods, to the point where she realized her hobby might just be something more. She put down the home economics hat and began pursuing a life in the culinary arts.
Her cake decorating “aha!” moment happened while she was studying at the Northwest Culinary Academy of Vancouver. The project: a three-tier Angry Birds cake with individual fondant characters. With a cramped desk space in her shared apartment, no proper tools and limited time, Winnie spent two days forgoing sleep for her sugar creations—and loved it. She knew she had found her calling. She returned to Hong Kong, where she grew up, and earned her Master Certificate in cake decorating from PME, a global cake decorating supplier and school.
Winnie moved to the West Coast two years ago and now spends her days at the Westlake Culinary Institute transforming cakes into confectionary masterpieces and teaching others her art.
Her floral formations look like no match for clumsy hands, but Winnie eagerly assures naysayers that gum paste flowers and fondant figures are for anyone—it’s like playing with Play-Doh.
“The key thing is patience,” Winnie says. “People are always surprised at the end of my class. They go from saying ‘this is impossible’ to ‘I can do this!’”
Winnie says her favorite source of inspiration is traveling.
“I’ll go to different bakeries when I travel and see what they’re doing,” she says. “One time in Vegas I saw an entire cake in the shape of a queen (made of) modeling chocolate. . . . I drew from that inspiration on my next project.”
Mostly though, Winnie loves to make gum paste flowers. Because nothing inspires her quite like a real bloom, she often goes out walking in search of a pretty blossom that she can recreate in her kitchen.
When it comes to cake adornments, the key is in the details, and Winnie puts calm, calculated effort into each delicate curve and intricate texture.
“No matter how long it takes me, I feel satisfied. This is fun to me. . . I spend my time making sugar into something beautiful. It’s a dream come true.”