Every once in a while I receive cake orders that are extremely specific. A customer might email me saying, “I’d like a 6-inch strawberry cake with vanilla frosting, decorated with three red buttercream roses, seven green buttercream leaves, and yellow sprinkles around the top edge.” But most of the time, the orders I get are pretty vague, sounding more like, “I’d like a cake to serve 8-ish people, with some sort of fruit component and floral decorations.” Vague requests give me a ton of creative liberty, which is great, but the number of possibilities can be overwhelming. Which fruit should I choose? Which type of flower? Should I make a 6-inch cake, assuming that the customer is going to cut relatively small pieces, or an 8-inch cake in case they cut bakery-style slices?
Over the years, I’ve developed a solid set of steps to walk through when I’m given artistic license in crafting a cake. The photos above are of three dog cakes I was commissioned to make in the last month. For each, I received basically the same request: “I’d like a cake with a dog on it, to serve ___ people.” I’m going to use these cakes to explain some of what goes into conceptualizing a cake, because as you can see, though the orders were similar, the style of each cake is significantly different.
If the customer doesn’t care about the flavor: chocolate cake and vanilla frosting. It’s far and away my most-loved cake.
If they ask for something kids will like: chocolate cake and vanilla frosting.
If they want something fruity: I recommend my lemon cake, which they usually decline and ask for chocolate cake with fresh strawberries in the filling.
If they request vanilla cake: I sigh, because vanilla cake sucks, then suggest some frosting and filling flavors that are slightly bitter or acidic to balance out the cake’s sweetness. Anything but vanilla cake and vanilla frosting. That’s a big no-no.
For the dog cakes, one customer requested chocolate (yay!), one said they didn’t care (so chocolate!), and one asked for ombré-style succession of chocolate and vanilla layers (ya win some and ya lose some).
If it’s a wedding cake, I assume the slices will be quite small. If it’s anything else, I assume the slices will still be fairly small, and also that at least 10% of the people at the event won’t want any cake. A surprising number of people don’t like cake. The standard numbers for what size cake serves what number of people are listed on my business page.
WHAT MEDIUM OF DECORATION?
95% of the time, the answer is buttercream, because it tastes good and is extremely versatile. You can dye it, pipe it, apply it with a paint brush, texture it with the tines of a fork . . . the list goes on and on. I’ll only use one of the “play-doh” mediums — fondant, modeling chocolate, gumpaste, or marzipan — if 1) the entire cake is supposed to look like something that’s not a cake, like a human brain, or 2) if I have to make edible figurines, like in this Little Prince petit four. When it come to deciding between the four “play-doh”s, I rarely take taste into account; whichever you choose is probably going to be left on the plate when all is said and done. Fondant is my go-to play-doh. It stays pliable as long as you’re working with it, and obediently dries and holds its shape when you leave it alone. Modeling chocolate never really dries, which can be nice if you want to go back and reshape something, but will droop and literally let you down in anything other than a cool, crisp climate. Gumpaste is on the other end of the spectrum; after 24 hours, it’s basically granite, so I only use it if I’m making a figurine or decorative element that needs to be super sturdy and precise, like a little sugary astronaut that’s going to be stuck to the side of a cake. Marzipan doesn’t take food coloring very well, it tends to crack after being rolled, and a lot of people don’t like it, so I generally don’t use it unless the customer wants some little artsy-looking zoo animals or something.
For the dog cakes, using buttercream was a no-brainer. If one of the customers had wanted the entire cake to like a replica of their dog, I would have carved the cake and covered it in fondant. But because they just wanted images on top, I went with good old buttercream, knowing it would taste good, I could easily dye it and apply it, and I would have more control of the style, which I’ll get to in the next section.
WHAT STYLE OF DECORATION?
This question can be the most straightforward. Standard birthday cake? The style should be casual and fun: birthday message, sprinkles, done. Standard wedding cake? The style should be classy: fancy piping, fresh or buttercream flowers.
But picking a decorating style is often a harrowing task. I’m only going to discuss my conceptualization process for style regarding buttercream cakes, because that’s what I usually make, and this post is already long as fuck.
I’ve divided the issue into two categories of customer requests:
- “Can you put this [extremely common thing] on it?”
Usually the “common thing” is flowers. But also solar system stuff, ocean stuff, Christmas-y stuff — really anything nature or holiday-related. The main factor I take into consideration in these situations is the age of the target audience. For groups where the average age is below 10 years old, I’ll go for a colorful and cartoon-y vibe. For anyone over 10, I’ll use on my own personal style — buttercream, not too gaudy, mostly muted colors, those tiny edible gold stars I’m obsessed with.
The hardest requests are the ones that essentially ask me to stereotype people, like “girly stuff” or “Dad stuff.” What does that mean? Makeup? Golf clubs? I always ask customers to give me some examples of decorations if the request is this general.
- “Can you put this [extremely specific thing] on it?”
A superhero or video game character. A company logo. Most frequently, an image of a person or pet. For specific requests, I have to ask myself, “How closely can I replicate the [extremely specific thing]?” Usually I can do a pretty good job with this. If it’s an animated character or a particular logo or design, I’ll make a stencil. However, if I have to base it on a photo of a human or animal, the style choice is tougher. Realistic? Semi-realistic? Cartoon-ish?
As an example, consider the dog cakes:
For the first cake pictured, the customers provided me with lots of pictures of each dog to use in my buttercream replica. I’m pretty confident in my ability to paint a realistic-looking animal with frosting, and the plethora of photos allowed me to form good mental images of what each dog looked like, so I decided to go for an as-realistic-as-possible style.
For the second cake pictured, I only had one photo, of a man and his dog, to use as inspiration for decorating. My main goal was to create a consistent image; so far in my cake-making career, I haven’t been able to use buttercream to create a realistic depiction of a human, so while I could have potentially painted the dog realistically, I didn’t want an uber-realistic dog next to an “uncanny valley” man. Also, because I only had one photo, it would have been risky to go for a realistic depiction. So I decided to use a style similar to one you might see in a drawing from a children’s book — not cartoon-ish, but not trying to look like a photograph.
Finally, for the last cake, the request actually fell into the “extremely common thing” category: the customer asked me to simply put a corgi on the cake. Not a specific pet or anything, just a corgi. I decided it would be odd to paint a realistic corgi, because it would have been based on a random photo from Google Images, so I went for a corgi caricature.