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Thanks to cake-decorating TV shows, even local bakers are bringing out the power tools

What's your favorite kind of sweet?
Posted 12:13pm on Wednesday, Feb. 03, 2010

On the Food Network show Ace of Cakes, a camera crew follows a band of pastry chefs who create physics-defying confections. On Last Cake Standing, bakers compete in a sugary smack-down, applying architectural details in fondant and butter cream. Over at TLC, the Cake Boss yells and tempers flare as the kitchen churns out a stunning four-tier wedding cake and a detailed replica of the Bronx Zoo in the same weekend.

Cake expectations, like the sweet masterpieces themselves, are being blown sky-high.

After watching Cirque de Cake every night on cable, America doesn't give a sheet about sheet cakes anymore. We want edible art -- and we're willing to pay hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars for it.

"Sheet cakes are dead," says Micki Hardy, owner of Elegant Cakery in Southlake.

"People want their entire lives incorporated into the cake," adds Martha Gamez, a veteran cake decorator at Dallas Affaires Cake Co.

And if you can't stand the heat of a blowtorch (or some other turbo power tools), you'd better get the heck out of the kitchen.

At Sublime Bakery in Fort Worth, Catherine Ruehle fires up her blowtorch to put the finishing touches on Cloud City from Star Wars. In Dallas at Frosted Art Bakery, Bronwen Weber pulls on her pink "Fire & Icing" helmet and grabs a power drill to work on an 8-foot oil derrick. (Somewhere, Betty Crocker is waving the wooden spoon of surrender.)

"Because people have watched the shows, they think to themselves, 'Someday I'm going to have a cake like that,'" Ruehle says. "And they save for it. We don't have too many people who blink at the prices." Her three-dimensional cakes start at $350 and can average $700. The more elaborate the cake, the more it'll cost ya.

Like $2,200 for an 18th birthday cake. That's how much someone paid recently at Dallas Affaires Cake Co. "People keep pushing the envelope," says Margaret Gragg, at Dallas Affaires, "and you have to respond."

Ruehle says that not only have the Food Network challenges raised expectations, they've raised awareness. Customers understand the skills and time -- six hours minimum, and up to hundreds of hours -- it takes to execute lavishly decorated multitier or three-dimensional cakes. Molded gum-paste figurines, fondant zebra stripes, intricately formed bows or special pearlized finishes all take time. But they deliver that "wow" factor that consumers are craving.

Fortunately for us, DFW is home to some of the rising stars in this extreme cake culture. Ruehle recently competed in a Food Network Challenge. (Contractually, she can't reveal many details, but she does say the cake is huge and three-dimensional and that she plans to use a blowtorch to introduce a new decorating technique.) And Weber is a frequent guest and judge on national TV.

"The standard limits are gone," Hardy of Elegant Cakery says. "When people come up with an idea, we have to figure out how to pull it off."

Catherine Ruehle, Sublime Bakery

Ruehle owes her business to a peewee soccer game.

"My son's soccer team needed a celebratory cake after they won, like, the 4-year-old's division," she says. "I made a 3-D soccer ball, and all of the moms were like, 'Oh my God! Where did you get that cake?!' I booked five cakes that day."

In the early '90s, Ruehle worked as a pastry chef in Connecticut and California. And before that, she studied art history in college. She hadn't put the skills together earlier, she says, in part because when she was in the food industry, "pastry chefs didn't do cakes. They were sort of looked down upon."

The Food Network, she says, helped raise the profile of cake bakers and decorators. (Today, they're "sugar artists.")

By the time Ruehle considered re-entering the fray, America's changing perception of cakes was already well under way.

"I wouldn't have been interested before the transition," she says.

It's the artistic part of the process that gets her really excited, and she thrives on the challenges of sculpted cakes.

Her kitchen has the slightly scattered look of an artists' studio, with drawers of dyes and small buckets packed with paintbrushes of all sizes.

"I love it when someone comes in here and says, 'These are the colors I want. Go.'... I'm always excited when someone says, 'I want a cake that no one has seen before,'" Ruehle says. "The only limits we have are budgetary."

Ruehle, like the team from Ace of Cakes, is a big fan of power tools.

"My favorite tool is my blowtorch," she says. "I'm lucky that I had a dad that taught me how to build things, so I know how to use PVC pipe, I know what a phalange is."

She's more likely to be found combing the racks at a hardware store than a bakery supply shop, and she applies her butter cream with a paint scraper.

"I spend a lot of time at Hobby Lobby and Lowe's," she says.

Ruehle gravitates to the artsy and edgy designs -- like the wedding-cake replica of Cloud City or a Yoda that looks like it was made of modeling clay, not sugar and flour.

"He was a tough one because I don't like to copy, but he's Yoda, so you have to get him right," she says. "I was really proud of him. His creepy little eyes were following me all around the kitchen."

Step into the by-appointment-only Frosted Art Bakery, and one thing is clear: The normal rules of cake making (and gravity) do not apply to Weber. It feels like a gallery in here, filled with edible pop art -- King Tut, an 8-foot-tall oil derrick, a pillar made of molded white roses and a stack of inverted cones that has no business staying upright.

Weber doesn't just bake cakes. She builds them.

As one of the earliest competitors in the Food Network's cake challenges, Weber has been sculpting cakes since the mid-1990s, when the idea was still in its infancy. Since then, she says, the boundaries have expanded well beyond what even she could have imagined.

"Fifteen or 20 years ago, I never imagined a cake standing on two legs," she says. "Gravity used to be an issue, and it isn't anymore."

Weber, who joined Frosted Art Bakery in 2006, has been working in bakeries since she was 14.

"I remember baking with my mother when I was about 3 and thinking that I couldn't wait to learn how to read because there were these books that would tell you how to bake anything," she says.

These days, her most complicated cakes can cost five figures and require hundreds of hours of combined manpower to complete the baking, engineering, decorating and transportation. Weber and the staff at Frosted Art have made a full-sized deer head that weighed about 100 pounds. Then, the team took a drill to a cinder block wall and hung the head so it looked like a hunter's trophy.

It looked so realistic, she says, that no one realized what it was until the hosts of the party pulled it off the wall to cut it. That is the ultimate irony of all the work that goes into these edible masterpieces. In the end, they all get carved up and consumed.

But that doesn't diminish the art or the accomplishment, Weber says. "People value the labor because they see exactly what goes into it."

And that 8-foot oil derrick? Well, it didn't pump oil. Just melted chocolate.

"My husband has four different kinds of welders," she says. "He does all the crazy stuff."

Micki Hardy, Elegant Cakery

The kitchen at the Elegant Cakery off Southlake Boulevard is spic-and-span. Even late in the afternoon after a hard day of baking, the chrome surfaces gleam and every speck of flour has been chased away. Plastic cases, neatly organized with ruler-straight labels, are stacked in rows along the wall and on shelves underneath the work tables. The conscientiously organized creative space sets the tone for the meticulous designs the Elegant Cakery produces.

Details matter here. Rather than focusing on challenging structures, Elegant Cakery wows its customers with intricate icing designs and perfect fondant placement. A cake styled to reflect a bride's dress, for instance, incorporates the pattern of the flowers. But it also re-creates the corset back in incredible detail, with fondant cinching together two tiny sides of the gown, while the train drapes around the bottom layer. Other cakes have delicate piping details more reminiscent of fine French lace than icing.

Delicate hand-painted peacock feathers, created with a paintbrush and liquid cake dye, elevate a simple layer cake. And an armadillo cake, far from looking soft, calls to mind medieval armor thanks to an artful combination of pearly airbrushing. (Yes, the armadillo cake was red velvet.)

Hardy is still amazed at the racheting-up of cake couture.

"You're looking at three or four tiers for a basic Sweet 16 party," says Hardy, flipping through her design book. First she points to a simple, one-tier cake with a tiara topper, then jumps to a cake with multiple lopsided tiers with Technicolor fondant razor-cut with an X-Acto knife and painstakingly laid into intricate patterns.

For the Southlake Town Square Christmas tree-lighting ceremony, Hardy and her team put together an adorable Christmas scene. Bits of green icing over Rice Krispies treats formed a towering Tannenbaum surrounded by painstakingly molded toys, including a near-exact replica of a Raggedy Ann doll.

And though she's happy to design a cake with an intricately cut fondant pattern or sculpted fondant bows, she admits that she's partial to butter-cream icing.

"I just think it tastes better," she says. "Many of our designs can be done in butter cream," including those beautiful piping patterns.

"We're best at being particular," Hardy says. "The filling has to be flavored just right. And we're meticulous about our decorations. If it isn't just right, we do it again."

Martha Gamez, Dallas Affaires Cake Co.

Gamez is re-creating a scene from the wildly popular vampire movie Twilight, inserting the birthday girl into the picture, on a paper-thin sheet of fondant. She's using only an icing spatula and a pastry bag. Gamez creates towering, tasteful wedding cakes without many of the more modern tools of the trade.

She doesn't own a stencil for piping, preferring to do every bit of it freehand, using quick, sure motions to apply the icing in swirling, dainty patterns. The self-taught decorator, who paints in her free time, says she finds that fancy tools just slow her down. Gamez doesn't use paintbrushes, either, or blowtorches or airbrushes or power tools.

Before the piping begins, Gamez applies a coat of butter cream as smooth as glass. The bakery recently conceded to the expansion of fondant, adding cutouts for decoration or thin sheets as a base for painting, but not for icing.

"We just don't think it tastes good," says Margaret Gragg, who helps brides and other celebrators design their cakes. She says that, while she's impressed by the structural feats completed on shows like Ace of Cakes, "it's almost like using Play-Doh. We try to never forget that people will be eating these cakes."

Dallas Affaires, which has been a destination for Dallas brides since 1986, creates modern cakes with a throwback sensibility.

Both Gragg and Gamez, who has been decorating cakes at Dallas Affaires for 11 years, say they've seen a change in consumers in recent years. People are more specific now, they say, and they want a cake to reflect the occasion and their personality. Like all cake bakers, they've had to learn to think like engineers.

Still, they don't plan to change their elegant, traditional style. Even Dallas Affaires' busiest cakes -- like a multitiered hexagonal creation heavily piped in bronze, red, peacock blue, green and gold and adorned with sequins -- never look tacky.

"Our bakery is still a bakery of tradition," Gragg says. "We accept the challenges and we meet them, but we try to keep it really edible."

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