Stacked Up

By Valerie Lemke

December 19, 2008 5 min read

STACKED UP

Many cakes have gone from vanilla to "va-va-voom"

Valerie Lemke

Creators News Service

From small wheat cakes in Roman times to today's elaborate fondant covered towers, the wedding cake is constantly evolving, according to Ron Ben-Israel. He should know -- his design studio and bakery in New York City has helped change the look of the ubiquitous wedding confection.

"I started doing wedding cakes 15 years ago as a reaction to what I was seeing in the pastry world," he said. "Currently there is a lot of poor design and use of inferior decorations."

His bakery makes about 400 cakes each year, with 80 percent for weddings. Wedding cakes can be ordered to serve 50 guests or more than 1,000 people.

Ben-Israel Cakes are recognized throughout the culinary world for their dramatic, one-of-a-kind design and attention to the details of a specific wedding. When Ben-Israel designs his cakes. "I look for flavor, workmanship and a contemporary look," he said.

Although he trained as a pastry chef, Ben-Israel prefers to be called baker. "I'm not just a designer. I bake, otherwise I don't feel alive," he said.

But his design -- often featuring exquisite, lifelike sugar flowers -- is as highly praised as the exquisite and unusual flavors of the cake and fillings.

Recent tasting sessions at his bakery had brides raving over combinations of vanilla, ginger and chocolate stout (yes, that's Guinness) cake layers alternated with passion fruit, hazelnut and cream fillings.

However, these are not your frosted vanilla cakes, he said. "Each slice is a complete dessert," he said.

There is a lot of confidentiality in Ben-Israel's cakes. "When a bride comes in today, what we design for her will be the look for next spring and summer. It will be an original and we keep it secret," he said. "By the time our work is published in magazines, it is no longer a trend."

What is next on the horizon in the wonderful world of wedding cakes? "I can't tell you what we're working on for 2010. It's still under wraps," he said.

In La Jolla, Calif., on the other side of the country, Michele Coulon Dessertier is a favorite choice for Southern California brides. A pastry chef for 30 years, Coulon is intimately familiar with the changing fashions in the wedding cake world.

"Wedding cake trends come and go and some come back again," she said. Today, for example, the red velvet cake is experiencing a revival. "It's really back in right now. So is the spice cake."

Some of the older trends come back for sentimental reasons. "Brides also may want to have me make their wedding cake look like their parents' cake did," she said. "They bring in a picture. Generally it's the old-fashioned white cake with white frosting and white frosting decorations."

Coulon has no reservations about the traditional look, but she balks at some past methods and recipes. "Older cakes had gobs and gobs of frosting. The cakes we design are not all frosting. We decorate with chocolate curls, fresh flowers and fruit," she said.

Since beach-themed weddings abound in this resort town, she makes a lot of white chocolate seashells as cake decorations, too.

The frosting is also lighter, with some butter and no artificial ingredients and mousse, custard and fruit fillings replace frosting between the layers.

The cake has also been revised. "We make our cakes in the European style with butter, no salt, less flour and egg whites from cage free chickens instead of egg yolks," she said.

The Gateau Aileen, Coulon's most popular cake, is "five layers of hot milk sponge cake packed in between with four layers of fresh berries." Running a close second, Torte Lion Belge pays homage to all things chocolate: cake, mousse, ganache and chocolate meringue for a crunch.

"People use to think of this torte as decadent, rich and out of control," she said. "Now they think it's OK because it's something you won't have often."

Coulon's wedding cakes aren't always a single confection, either. A recent wedding featured 165 hot pink cupcakes decorated with "disco dust," flowers and black ribbons.

Her most involved wedding was a stand of small individual cakes, with eight flavors of cake and fillings. All had different frostings and decorations and large cookies were the dessert plates.

It's not only cake that works. Coulon once satisfied a bride and groom's wish by baking a wedding pie.

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