The cake decorating world was turned upside down by the advent of the edible image, putting any conceivable design directly onto the creamy frosting of a grocery store cake. But a look at the avant-garde cakes of today shows that bakers still are stretching for that next creative tier.
Rainbow sprinkles, piping bags and edible images have given way to fondant, gum paste, icing and a naked canvas, aka the cake. Think topsy-turvy, 6-foot-tall structures garnished with sparklers, twinkling lights, automatic bubbles, smoky dry ice and even small-scale explosives.
Much of the credit for these crazy designs goes to television shows such as "Ace of Cakes," "Cake Boss" and "Food Network Challenge," which have given bakers and consumers big ideas about what defines a masterpiece.
And Austin has its own collection of cake designers who have dispensed with simplicity for the no-holds-barred style of cake madness. In fact, TLC announced Monday that Austinites will be able to cheer on hometown decorator Brian Stevens next month (Dec. 6) on its new reality cake competition show "Next Great Baker," a spinoff of "Cake Boss."
Stevens, the owner of Crazy Cakes, is still relatively a novice in his cake designs. He was an artist long before he started experimenting with his baked, 3-D sculptures. He spent years as a digital illustrator for video games companies such as Electronic Arts and currently Sony. Yet it was a fated encounter with the Dark Knight 31/2 years ago that inspired Stevens to cross over into a different medium outside of animation and into the kitchen.
"My son got this Batman cake for his second birthday, and I thought it looked amazing. I remember thinking, 'I want to do that,' " Stevens said. "So, for his next birthday, I made a SpongeBob cake."
His first attempt in cake artistry proved that he had the knack.
The cake had a neon-yellow fondant skin and chestnut brown shorts. Rather than a flat two-dimensional frosted cake, Stevens' 3-D version practically brought the Nickelodeon character to life. (Before SpongeBob, Stevens' only pastry experience was with $1 cake mixes.)
His SpongeBob cake might have cost him $150 in materials, but his passion for design (cakes and video) was reinvigorated. "From then on, I was just hooked. I wanted to do more," Stevens said.
He still does digital design, but finds that his cakes are more gratifying than games.
"I could spend all my time (and) energy in video games, but inevitably I have 60-80 people complaining about the finished product," Stevens said. "With cakes, I have kids' jaws dropping and parents in awe. You inspire people to do something they never thought about doing, and that's why I love cakes."
For one Thanksgiving, he constructed a 12-pound turkey-sized dinner roll cake smothered with yellow and white fondant for the melted butter. And for a birthday party, Stevens created an emerald 15-inch Tyrannosaurus rex rising from the vapors of hot crimson rocks (the vapors were courtesy of a water-based fog machine.)
His biggest triumph? Gollum, the frightful antagonist from J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" and "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
Stevens worked for 48 hours to capture the crucial moment as the emaciated, grey creature with webbed hands and feet finally gets his hands on the Ring, the object of his desire. The 2-foot structure won him second place in the 2010 fantasy/science fiction category at Austin's That Takes the Cake competition. The glossy fondant figure with its dainty, pulled-sugar hair managed to startle even its creator.
"My Gollum cake was my most expressive, realistic creation," Stevens said. "I wanted to capture this crucial moment and expression where you want to reach out and grab the ring from him."
Stevens won't be the first Austinite to find cake decorating fame on television. Jennifer Bartos has made several appearances on the "Food Network Challenge" designing cakes alongside cake decorator Bronwen Weber.
Her over-the-top, wacky structures were constructed under time constraints based on the episode's chosen theme. For the Incredible Edible Mansions episode, Bartos and Weber won with their recreation of Austin's John Bremond Mansion, made with a gingerbread facade.
Bartos, the owner of the All in One Bake Shop, decided to take a break this spring from designing and instead teach pastry and pastry art classes to customers.
Even though Bartos has hung her hat as a full-time cake designer, she can't imagine ever fully checking out of the cake world.
"There are so many great things about this industry," she said. "For me, teaching classes is my creative outlet. I like hearing, 'Wow, how can I do that?' "
She credits most of her acclaim from winning to her team's design of a Food Network-themed cake. The creative, inanimate allusions to Food Network personalities veneering the cake such as a stick of butter for Paula Deen, a bottle of olive oil for Giada De Laurentiis and a grill for Bobby Flay are what won the competition, Bartos said. And although the resulting cakes are still breathtaking, she said details are often rushed in the timed competition.
"You have to sacrifice a lot because you know you have to get it finished in that short time frame," she said.
The success of shows like the "Food Network Challenge" and "Ace of Cakes" have turned her business upside-down, Bartos said.
"Those shows have completely changed the industry," she said. "I doubt seven years ago people would have known what fondant was. Now people aren't hesitating to demand these crazy cakes. It's part of my job now to watch those shows and see what is out there now."
Judy Lee, a cake decorator at Simon Lee Bakery, agrees, even though she said the cake shows are centered more in entertainment than reality.
"The bakeries on television feel more like acting to me. Bakeries don't normally have that kind of production and drama to them," she said. "But, people realize now they can have more than just a chocolate wedding cake."
Lee, like Stevens, did not train in a culinary school or pastry program. After graduating with a business administration degree from the University of Texas and working in baking for a short time, Lee decided to follow what she calls her "life's passion" and work as a cake designer. As a child, Lee was always involved in "hands-on" projects and remembers days of helping her mother in the kitchen, icing and decorating. She enrolled in art classes molding with clay, sculpting figures and sketching designs and began her career in a Houston bake shop, where she met her business partner, Jad Simon.
"I enjoy hands-on projects," Lee said. "Everyone can bake, but not everyone can design. You have to structure (your cakes) like an engineer. If you don't build it correctly, it can all come crashing down." In her designs, Lee said, her ambition is always centered in reality. She must correctly consider height and weight ratio in constructing her sweet structures, such as her famous UT Tower.
The work-intensive, approximately 5-foot cake (priced at around $2,000) has made a number of appearances at weddings as the groom's cake and this summer was the wedding cake at former UT quarterback Colt McCoy's wedding. The hours it takes to construct the cake while still maintaining the freshness of the cake often have Lee arriving at her bakery at midnight the day of an event.
The creative spirit of customers sometimes pushes the limits. One person asked Bartos to create a dead person's ear. Another asked Stevens to build a cake that looked like a smoking bong. (Both the ear and the bong were produced.) One asked Lee to build a coffin cake, which she refused.
As with most art, the crazy cake bakers say, their creations are worth far more than just the signed checks they earn. The designers might spend hours in idea sketches, stacking tiers of cake and mixing the dough for their canvas, but they ultimately revel in their artistry.
"I'm selling an experience, not a cake," Stevens said. "I get a rush out of witnessing people's expressions. If you are completely convinced that it's not a cake, I've succeeded."