This photo from the set of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is one of my favorite things. And one doesn’t think about Marie Antoinette without thinking about cake, or at least I don’t. Though I also know that the famous quote was translated wrong or taken out of context or attributed to the wrong person, which some self-righteous nerd explained to me years ago. Truly, who cares.
I’d also never really cared much about proper cakes, the ones with layers and frosting that are served at weddings or birthday parties. They’re just kind of sweet and soft and somehow always a letdown. I would rather have almost anything else—a donut, a danish (a cheese danish!), a tart, even a streusel-topped coffee cake, which is cake but not the kind we’re talking about. And so until a year or two ago, outside of the occasional carrot cake, I had never really made a proper cake.
But they are kind of a thing these days. Did it start with cupcakes? The pandemic? I guess that is when I started paying attention. It is funny to think that the popularity of something clearly intended for large celebrations prospered at a time when we had fewer celebrations than ever. But people started posting cool cakes on Instagram, sometimes they were pastry chefs pivoting to self-employment, sometimes artists who wanted to try a different material, and probably a host of other origin stories. But the cakes they were making were so compelling that I paid attention and wanted to give it a try.
Last summer one of my godkids was turning 7. They are a very cool person with impeccable taste and I felt like I wanted to impress them with a spectacular cake and so I decided to make a giant sheet cake to bring to their birthday party. It was the first big party they would have “post-pandemic”, which in their short life was essentially ever. I had been inspired by something I saw Michelle Marek, a talented pastry chef in Montreal, post that involved a lot of piping and googly eyes. The kid and I had a long-standing shared appreciation of googly eyes, so it seemed like a good direction to go in. And I gotta say, I impressed myself with that cake. For someone who had never used a piping tip before, it turned out alright. It might actually have been the thing I was most proud of in 2022. Yikes.
And it ushered in an age of cake experimentation. I look for opportunities to try out a new idea and push myself. And I genuinely have fun making them. There is something about decorating a cake that feels unlike anything else I do in baking. There is no precise instruction—you kind of just have to wing it. In that way, it feels the closest to making art of anything I have experienced in the kitchen. A blank canvas that you let intuition and your aesthetic sensibilities fill. I get the same rush when I step back and look at a finished cake that I used to get with painting or sculpture. Creation!
But my love of making cakes hasn’t really impacted my lack of interest in eating them. I’ve come to think of it as being like improv comedy, which always seems super fun for the people doing it, but kind of terrible for everyone else. (Though, thankfully, it is rare that a cake is as bad as an improv show.) And cake decorating is definitely a form of showboating, much like improv—the baker begging for attention and praise from their audience. Imagine serving a cake that nobody remarked on. Thanks to some good recipes I have found (see below), the gap is narrowing and I imagine someday making a cake that I would prefer eating over even the best cheese danish. Okay, that maybe feels like it is pushing it.
These are some of the folks that inspire me regularly:
Honestly, probably the main reason I got into cakes. She has published a few recipes online and they are all absolute winners and basically the only cake recipes I use. Check out this beautiful cornmeal cake with an olive oil buttercream. And not the kind of cake we’re talking about, but her King Cake recipe is the greatest ever published.
No stranger to readers of this blog, Camilla is a musician, writer, and pastry chef who is also the best teacher. I took her candied fruit class, which was very rad and I now am a person who candies my own fruit. I have already written about my love for her cookbook, Jam Bakes–one of the GOATs. She once made a cake with an edible face that I think about a lot and is my platonic ideal of what a good cake should be: impressively delicious looking and a bit ridiculous.
Everyone who cares about pastry is currently buzzing with anticipation over Natasha’s upcoming book, More Than Cake. I get ideas from her all of the time. She’s another rare combo of good taste, humor, and talent.
I learned about Michelle through Camilla and Natasha and I want to join their friend group real bad. Not only does Michelle make incredible pastries at Gia Vin & Grill , she also makes super cool ceramics.
Hyun and I got our MFA’s from the same program (Art Theory and Practice-wooo wooo!) and she makes such wonderfully weird and beautiful cakes in Chicagoland.