A Southern tradition catches on nationwide and gets a little crazy.
When Shirley Maclaine hacks off the business end of an armadillo-shaped cake and Tom Skerritt thanks her for giving him a fine piece in 1989’s “Steel Magnolias,” groom’s cakes started a journey from regional custom to national trend. Armadillos abound in Texas but these days groom’s cakes run the gamut from sushi platters to horned toad to sneakers and tennis bags to barbecued hotdogs.
“That was a terrible armadillo,” sighs Earlene Moore of Earlene’s Cakes of Lubbock, Texas, a pioneer of today’s sculptural groom’s cakes. “The ‘Steel Magnolias’ cake was basically a two-D cake that was built up. It didn’t look real.” Moore created her own biologically accurate armadillo cake around the same time and sat him on a hidden platform of Rice Krispies Treats “so you could see his feet. I invented as I went along. There were no rules back then. And mine was 3-D all the way.”
Moore, who began baking professionally in 1975, says groom’s cakes reflect Southern hospitality, as “people in the south tend to be real gracious.” They started out as chocolate sheet cakes with chocolate frosting, with clients occasionally “asking for a Texas Tech logo or smiley face,” says Moore. “And then I started getting calls - ‘Can you make me a basketball? Can you make me a space shuttle?’ I’d figure it out because I liked the challenge.” She’d sketch a cake, get approval and “pray that the cake would come out looking like what the client actually wanted.”
Both the sculptural cakes that Moore pioneered, and later, the cartoony, Dr. Seuss-like cakes of baker Colette Peters, became popular in the late-90s. That’s when Elisa Strauss of New York City’s Confetti Cakes joined the fray. Her art degree in painting helped her lands jobs in textile design at Ralph Lauren and accessory design with celebrity hairdresser Frederic Fekkai, but neither fulfilled her as did her side-job baking cakes. Working full-time, she got a Pastry Arts degree at New York’s Institute of Culinary Education and made quantum leaps in the field. Her cakes are culinary essays in discipline wrought from flour, sugar, gum paste and fondant.
Clean lines, refined texture and pantone-perfect color are evident in her sushi cake’s California rolls and salmon, tuna and shrimp sushi, painstakingly crafted from gum-paste (an edible sugar, cornstarch and gelatin that can be custom-dyed), sitting on a wood-grained-painted fondant-covered layer cake. Fondant, which gives a glass-smooth finish as opposed to frosting, is made of confectioner’s sugar, glycerin, glucose, gelatin, corn syrup and water. She rolls each gum-paste grain of rice by hand and freely admits that her obsession with detail is out-of-control. “Guilty,” she laughs. “But having actually sewn a gusset in a purse, for example, is what makes my purse cakes so realistic. I understand construction and that translates into good cakes.”
“Groom’s cakes are all about what’s personal to the guy,” she says, “a hobby, a sport, a profession.” She’s made cowboy boots, baseball caps, wine bottles and even a stack of sports books created for a sports agent groom. Currently on maternity leave, Strauss still teaches classes in sculpted and tiered cakes for students from all over the world, explains her technique in two exceptionally clear cookbooks and advises other baking professionals like Jill Adams of The Cake Studio in Brooklyn.
Adams came to New York City with a studio arts degree and went to culinary school to figure out how to combine her two jobs teaching art and teaching cooking in after-school programs. She got hooked on sculpted cakes after attending one of Strauss’s lectures and even interned for her. “I thought wedding cakes were as creative as I could go and then I was introduced to this whole whimsical world.” It’s a world in which she’s designed a purse cake for Victoria Gotti, a Tiki Bar for Jimmy Buffett, a deliciously realistic Peking Duck and a gastroenterology cake. “That was fun, I had forgotten where the organs actually go,” she says of a cake that looks a little like an autopsy. “The best part of my job is that no two days are alike,” she muses.
Adams says you reverse the baking process with sculpted cakes. For regular cakes you bake the cake, layer, frost and decorate it. For sculpted cakes you create all the decorations first with gum paste, pastillage, which is similar to gum paste but minus the gum, and modeling chocolate - chocolate mixed with corn syrup. These cakes can take up to a week to make and that’s without accounting for design-time, so you bake the cake last so it’s fresh.
Adams bakes in half-sheet pans and nine-inch rounds, filling and layering, creating stackable “layer cake bricks.” She surrounds herself with sketches, images, measurements and visual dictionaries, stacks her “bricks” and carves away cake “like an ice sculptor takes away ice,” she explains, “revealing a shape.” She crumb coats the final cake with a thin layer of frosting that seals the cake, preparing it for frosting or fondant, like priming raw wood before painting. She dowels it to add structural support and covers it in fondant before “getting to the fun part - assembling.”
Adams does a lot of sports-related groom’s cakes as well as “speed boats, dogs, barbecues, even a ‘plumber’s butt.’ This is the weirdest profession,” she laughs. One groom gave her a list of his favorite things, so she made a cake incorporating “pickles, a marching band, the Dodgers and Giants, Ben and Jerry’s, spring rolls and drums.” It actually works.
When you see the photographic realism of Earlene Moore’s horned toad and armadillo, Elisa’s Strauss exuberant yet refined sushi and Jill Adams’ hip, joyful barbecue, you realize that groom’s cakes are more than just a way for a guy to be included in his own wedding. It’s his chance to commission a piece of edible art that’s all about him.