The cakes have all sprouted horns. Literal horns, like unicorns. They’re twisted and gold and pointy, sticking out from the center of decorated layers. The eyes are painted on the cake in a sleepy half-moon with curled eyelashes, and the manes are piped on in pastels to mimic the flow of hair. Those horns, despite how unappetizing they might look, are in fact edible—made of fondant, a sculptable sugar substance often used to create shapes or rolled out to cover cakes with smooth perfection.
“I will say the issue I have as a decorator with having so many cakes posted on social media is that is builds very unrealistic expectations for customers,” says Ong. “They’ll see a beautiful cake on Instagram or Pinterest and ask me to re-create it exactly, which is problematic for two reasons: 1) you’ll never be able to perfectly replicate someone’s work and 2) as an artist, you should never be stealing somebody’s creative property.” Yet this is the nature of the Instagram beast: People want the cake they saw someone else have, as though it’s a Balenciaga Motorcycle Bag in the year 2001.Cake has always been a visual business, but it’s become a visual business so homogenous and perfection-driven that it’s shocking when all of a sudden you see one that breaks the mold. When I recently watched a 1997 Martha Stewart appearance on Baking With Julia where she frosted an almond wedding cake without the use of a bench scraper to smooth the sides and made marzipan cherries by hand, I was moved nearly to tears by the earnestness of it: flavor first, design simple. Were the new makers of Instagram-perfect creations as interested in handmade decorations and tasty cake, and how do bakers balance the need to keep up with the trends and their own personal artistry?
For Roopa Kalyanaraman Marcello of Brooklyn-based Monsoon Sweets, it’s important to stay true to a vision that complements your entire brand. “One of the reasons that I keep my cakes' design on the simpler side is because what makes them stand out is their unique flavors and quality. I'm the only baker in New York City specializing in cakes that incorporate the flavors of South and Southeast Asia,” she tells me, “and I think most of my clients choose me because of that—and not because I am going to make them a flower-covered cake that is more of a centerpiece than a dessert or one with the entire cast of Paw Patrol created out of fondant sitting on top of it.”John Kanell, who runs the Preppy Kitchen Instagram feed, began decorating cakes as a kid with his mother. Of today’s tools and techniques, he says, “My teenage self would look at [them] and say, ‘What's that?’"
“I never knew about piping tips,” he tells me. “It was just about what you would do with a spatula.” Now he has a favorite tip (Ateco’s 122, for buttercream roses), a bench scraper, and loves cake strips, which allow you to bake layers that don’t dome, saving you the trouble of leveling. When he began his blog, the first recipe was for a “lovely lemon cake.”It tasted great, he says, but his husband knew there was a problem. “You have to visually make it appealing,” he told him, for Instagram. Using his fine arts background, he’s done just that.
“My paintings are really intense, tonal with a lot of gold leaf work,” he says. “I applied my palette from painting and my love of detail to my baked goods.”
Ong also approaches her work as a cake decorator as an artist, which allows for starting over from scratch when something doesn’t work. “At the end of the day, a cake is an art piece, and no artist would let their work into the world without it being perfect in their eyes,” she says. “Much like a painter will scrap his canvas if they are unsatisfied with it, I have torn whole cakes down to nothing and started over multiple times. To me, perfection is definitely not the dictionary’s definition of ‘perfect.’ I say this a lot to people just starting out: the mark of a talented cake decorator is not that they make the perfect cake the first time around, it’s that they make the least mistakes and can come up with ways to cover all of them up.”
None of the bakers thinks it’s necessarily bad, the way cakes have changed. Most of Kanell’s followers are coming to him for recipes, not decorating how-tos, and just want cake that’s delicious—it’s refreshingly old-school, he says. “I think that what's social media has done has broadened people's horizons,” he says. “Some people will love a really bright and colorful cake, some people will like an all-natural or a really rustic cake. There's a whole spectrum, just like in fine art. If anything, social media has just taken people out of their immediate experience. Growing up, I knew my mom's cakes and my grandma's cakes and the occasional cookbook, but now you can see every new trend.”
Kalyanaraman Marcello echoes that, but she is mindful of how tricky the balance can be. “Here's a weak analogy for you: my cakes are mostly brains and a little bit of beauty,” she says. “And I think that's that they should be. A cake should, first and foremost, be delicious. Unfortunately, many cakes out there are not good, but they get away with it because of their presentation.” That’s the kind of sentiment that brings us back to 1997, to Martha piping a pearl border of buttercream on a wedding cake with Julia Child, before the unicorn horns and geodes and shags. Those cakes aren’t gone, I’ve found out; they’re just a bit smoother. Even Martha, I’m sure, has a bench scraper now.