‘Sushi’ by Foodie Cakes

Let Them Eat… Cake?

1st November 2013

Jennifer Lipman discovers that The Great British Bake Off is just the tip of the ice(ing)berg

When Chris Holmes left his job at Stansted Airport earlier this year, he decided that a simple resignation letter wouldn’t do. Instead, he handed in his notice on a cake, giving his boss an edible iced letter explaining that he was pursuing his dream of becoming a professional baker.

Holmes’ stunt attracted considerable media attention, but he is far from being the only baker in Britain who has decided that the everyday cake, with its run-of-the-mill swirl of icing, is just that bit too conventional.

Top practitioners have always been able to pipe icing into glorious floral arrangements, of course, or create theme cakes based on customer requests. And there’s long been a market for novelty cakes – footballs or spaceships for kids, or X-rated ones for stag and hen dos. But in the last few years, more and more bakers have been pushing the boundaries with baked goods that look like anything other than what they are.

When I left my last job at a newspaper a few months ago, I decorated a goodbye cake in the manner of a typical front page. I’ve also dished up a cake that looked like a pizza, complete with grated white chocolate as ‘cheese’, fashioned cupcakes into bumblebees and spent hours moulding an edible champagne bottle for a special birthday.

But I’m an amateur. Fans of the Great British Bake Off, which screened its final episode a couple of weeks ago, will recall how Frances Quinn – the eventual winner – carved out a particular niche for edible artistry, with a droll sandwich cake in a paper bag in the first week, breadsticks that resembled matches (placed, naturally, in large matchbox) in the second, and ever more quirky creations as time went on, leaving viewers, and fellow contestants, astounded.

Her natural creativity and flair for design is completely in tune with the culinary Zeitgeist. Across the country, amateur and professional bakers are devising ever more ingenious ways to fashion objects not usually associated with cake – chicken legs, penguins, even vomit cakes and horror film-esque disembodied arms – out of butter, icing sugar and food colouring. Why bake a simple, attractive sponge, when you can mould one into the shape of a roast chicken or a mini burger with chips on the side?

In essence, it’s Art Attack meets the Great British Bake Off – spurred on by social media, where truly crazy creations go viral in minutes.

“The field is very crowded at the moment,” says creative baker Debbie Goard, of Debbie Does Cakes. “The challenge for those of us in the industry is to try to continue to innovate.”

‘Steak & Chips’ by Poppy & Lulu

It is not, perhaps, a field that many people actually plan to get into. “It began as a joke when I made a ‘sausage and mash’ cake for my friend’s birthday,” explains Louise Caola, one half of Poppy and Lulu, which sells cakes that look like savoury dishes such as steak and chips. “People's positive reactions got me thinking what else I could make. I began experimenting and my creations made people laugh so I decided to carry on.”

Likewise, Nikki Dixon was hardly expecting to become a professional. But after posting a picture on Facebook of her giant burger and fries cake, made for fun, she was inundated with requests. For a while it was a hobby, until a colleague at her advertising agency convinced her she was on to something. Now, Foodie Cakes has a repertoire includes mini sushi cakes, a jacket potato with beans that has been baked – but not in the traditional sense - and confusingly sweet fried eggs.

Many of the professionals come from art or design backgrounds, where pushing visual boundaries is the norm, and it’s the creativity that appeals. “To transform one medium into something entirely different is pretty amazing, says Goard, who recently crafted a baked version of the Frankenweenie character Sparky, and also made a maggot-infested chicken leg for a client. Holmes, who’s made everything from edible cars to after-dinner penguins since quitting his airport job, says that it’s a natural meshing of his artistic side with his love of food.

Yet art isn’t meant to be eaten. “I’ve had people ask me to make lifelike recreations of their beloved family pet,” says Holmes. “It always makes me wonder how they feel when it comes to sticking a huge knife into its head and eating it.”

Caola admits that one roast chicken cake looked so realistic that it was slightly off-putting. “I had a few comments from people online saying things like 'why would anyone want to eat that'. But once cut and on your plate it just looks like a good piece of cake. Who wouldn't want to eat that?”

Yet it can go too far. Miss Cakehead is a professional who has carved a niche with cakes that look like intestines, severed chests and other body parts, or cupcakes splattered with edible vomit. “In my opinion this is art,” says Lisa Marley, who runs London-based cookery school The Cocoa Box. “It probably tastes good but doesn't look very appetising.”

But by and large the shock factor is part of the fun. As Dixon points out, cake is – at least in theory – a treat food, enjoyed on special occasions, so it should offer more than just a tasty mouthful. The fact that the cakes don't look anything like they taste pushes the boundaries of expectation, offering a deeply sensory experience. “They take people on a mind-boggling journey that ultimately ends in the desired cakey deliciousness.”

After all, we eat with our eyes. We might not be wise to judge a book by its cover, but we naturally judge cake – likewise fruit and veg, or anything we eat – on appearance. “A cake must taste fantastic and be moist and delicious but if it looks amazing then I enjoy it all the more,” says Marley.

Nevertheless, as Mary Berry frequently chastised Frances, even if it looks mind-blowingly fantastic, ultimately, it’s got to taste good too. A disappointed customer won’t come back for a second slice, no matter how quirky and amusing the cake.

For Dixon, that’s always at the forefront of her mind. She spent months playing with ingredients to ensure flavour, consistency and texture were of the highest standards. “People tell us they weren't expecting the cakes to taste as good as they did. While it’s very important that they look like the thing they are meant to represent, they also need to taste great.”

Surely a cake that looks perplexing but amazing and still tastes phenomenal is too much of a challenge for an amateur?

No, say the experts. No question, you need to get to grips with basics first. “But once you know the principles of baking you can use them to create new products and your only limit is your imagination,” explains Holmes. “Baking is so accessible and the recipes and techniques are generally not complicated, so everybody can have a go.”

It’s about trial and error, experimenting with what will work – and what won’t. “Give it a go and do something mad!” says Dixon, who mostly honed her skills in her mother’s kitchen. “Try new ingredients, new shapes, new sizes! That’s the fun of baking, exploring new ideas and creating something truly unique.”

And newcomers shouldn’t be afraid to veer from what the recipe book says. Perhaps Delia won’t advise you to use tools intended for florist to make the key trimmings, for example, but why shouldn’t you? After all, if you’re attempting to make a cake that looks like a steak, you’re already breaking the rules.

In the end, it’s about finding your ‘thing’. “Not everyone can turn a Victoria sponge into the Eiffel tower, hell I couldn't,” Dixon says, recalling another disastrous attempt to make a cake that looked like a broken leg in a cast, for a similarly injured friend. “It was awful, in fact it was terrifying,” she admits. “That was when I decided to stick to ‘food-like’ cakes – but perhaps someone else might just make the most amazing ‘leg in a cast cake’.” Take a dozen eggs…


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