Eating with our eyes is especially true when it comes to edible wonders like cakes, how do experts find the balance between creativity, flavour, texture, et al?
In the world of desserts, the cake takes the cake. As clichéd as it may sound, it’s the sweet truth. “What can cake teach you about life? That practice makes perfect, and if you try something once, it probably won’t be perfect, and you have to keep working on it if you want to be good at it,” said Nicole Byer, an American comedian, actress, and host of the Netflix comedic reality bake-off series Nailed It! So then, one can agree that perfecting the art of creating a cake aka an edible wonder is not for the faint-hearted, but instead for the patient, hardworking and dedicated creators. We uncover the art, layer by layer. “Creative boundaries might seem like an oxymoron, but they serve in a symbiotic relationship. Bakers these days are expected to be very resourceful and experimental and to ‘upgrade’ not just cakes, but the dessert menu in general. This might include modernising the design, experimenting with new flavours and constantly changing things up,” said Ranson Besa Pilapil (a.k.a. Chef Bong), pastry chef and baker, Mondoux, a restaurant and cafe that regularly runs culinary workshops for kids, Dubai.
The inspiration for my cake designs can come from anything from architecture to high fashion. Since cake design encompasses so many mediums and techniques, I learn something new every day.
Beth Lauren, cake artist, The Cake Boutique by Waldorf DIFC
Nobody messes up with these rules
So, to start with, what are the sacrosanct elements a baker/artist has to keep in mind while designing an edible wonder? “Despite the vast possibilities in the field of cake art, what never changes is the delicious flavour profile and exquisite decoration,” said Beth Lauren, cake artist, The Cake Boutique by Waldorf DIFC, an online cake shop. They offer seven signature cakes, including White Chocolate and Raspberry, Sugar-Free Berries, Pistachio and Raspberry, Lotus Biscoff, Cocoa, Cheeky Monkey and 24 Carrot Gold. “Cakes should have multiple components that balance the sweetness and the texture, they should not be one note of sugar and softness. Well thought-out combinations make sure the cake is interesting to eat throughout the entire slice and the sweetness does not overwhelm the palate,” said Kelvin Cheung, chef and partner, Jun’s, an Asian dining venue, Downtown Dubai. “As they say in Mean Girls, ‘the limit does not exist!’ For passion projects, I think the biggest creative boundary is always gravity and taste – I think that’s why fondant cakes have been phased out so quickly and naked cakes have taken over, ultimately everyone wants something that tastes amazing,” said Elaf Patel, founder, Sugargram, a brand that started off in 2019 with the unique cupcake concept, and they recently launched Lunchbox Cakes; baby cakes that are a perfect size for a small celebration.
Traditionally cakes were always about the way they looked versus the way they tasted. They were a centrepiece used as decoration for celebrations like weddings and birthdays.
Kelvin Cheung, chef and partner, Jun’s, Downtown Dubai
Jun’s recently introduced an enhanced cake menu inspired by the chef’s Chinese heritage and North American upbringing. In Kelvin Cakes, you’ll find hints of salt and layers of crunch in order to entice diners to keep returning for another bite. “We believe in pushing people to think beyond classic cake flavours by introducing unexpected ingredient combinations, such as potato chips in the Coffee Kelvin Cake,” said Kelvin. Even in their classic cake, The Bai, you’ll find brown butter schmear and burnt milk crumble folded into the layers of the vanilla sponge and mousse providing a more indulgent eating experience. “Being an artist means the world is your inspiration and canvas. From towering wedding cakes and modelled figurines to hand-painting and gravity-defying creations, the cake industry grows at an accelerated rate and our clients are always looking for the next big thing,” added Beth. “There's a lot of choice in the market, and it’s important to find a way to stand out. Creating cakes for children, for example, requires an extra level of expertise and creativity. Over the years the designs – particularly of animals and different characters – have become real works of art,” added Ranson.
No matter how experimental you want to be, you can’t compromise on the taste and texture. It can be an absolute masterpiece, but if the taste and consistency aren’t accurate, your customer is probably never going to order it again.
Ranson Besa Pilapil, pastry chef and baker, Mondoux, restaurant and cafe that regularly runs culinary workshops for kids, Dubai
Rewind a little: so, when did cakes become a work of art?
Ranson, who has been in the industry for over ten years, says there has definitely been a noticeable shift in the increased importance that aesthetics plays in cakes and baked goods, “A huge part of this is because we live in a world of social media, where all our dining experiences are documented. People often come to your restaurant because of what they’ve seen online, and if your competitors' cakes are going to ‘look’ better, they will go there.” Kelvin shared how he’s grateful that one is seeing a shift away from the aesthetics, “Consumers did begin to value the outside more than the inside, as it gives the perfect Instagram moment. However, there’s a shift; for example, our cakes are always naked and whilst they look good to me, they are not the traditional decorative cakes you see gracing celebratory events.” Beth shared how the tradition of making magnificent cakes dates back 100s of years and is considered a symbol of wealth, “One of the most prominent cakes in our history is Queen Victoria's wedding cake. This cake was an entirely white cake to symbolise wealth and luxury as sugar was extremely expensive back then. Nowadays, ingredients are available to everyone, so we are able to celebrate every special occasion with a beautifully designed cake.” Elif does believe that we do eat with our eyes first, especially with dessert since it’s such a sheer indulgence, “When it comes to us, the conversation always comes back to ‘will it survive a bike delivery’ because we need to know that the cake will make it to our customers as delightful as the day it was designed.”
With the kind of talented cake artists, we’re all exposed to online and in Dubai, there is a real sense of enjoyment when cutting into a masterpiece that’s been handcrafted; I think like with all other art, the more you are exposed to it the more you are inspired.
Elaf Patel, founder, Sugargram