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 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.
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’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 do come 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.
How Did Sculptural Cakes Become So Popular?
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.
So, How Much Do These Cakes Cost?
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.”
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.
How Are These Cakes Made?
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.
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.
But...Do These Cakes 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.
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.”