Is the dragon fruit, watermelon, or both really cake? Answer at the end of this article.
Of course, it was 2020 that brought the viral phenomenon that had people questioning (maybe hoping) that their entire reality was cake.
The trend of posting videos featuring a lifelike object that a knife then revealed to be a baked good took off this summer. It turns out that there is someone in Columbus who specializes in just such desserts.
(614) Media spoke to Jama Bains of Short North Piece of Cake to get some insight into the process of creating cakes that fool the eye before filling the belly.
Interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
What is your position and background?
At Piece of Cake I’m considered the Fondant Decorator. I’m responsible for making all of the fondant elements that go on all of our cakes; all of the different toppers, standing numbers, pets, people, animals—everything that can be made in advance gets made by me earlier in the week. Then by Friday, I start decorating cakes for the weekend. I do a lot of the celebration cakes that are shaped or have a lot of fondant detailing. We have another decorator who specializes in the really nice buttercream work you see, and a wedding-specific decorator.
My background is in fine arts, which is pretty common for a lot of decorators these days. I did a lot of painting and drawing growing up and got a BFA from Ohio State with a focus in sculpture. When I started at Piece of Cake, as customer service, I was just a couple years out of art school looking for a decent day job, cake decorating wasn’t on my radar at all. I was so impressed by the decorators who were there at the time and in awe at the kind of artistic skill that went into what they were making. I was constantly asking them questions about what they were doing, showing a lot of interest, and they just sort of took me under their wings, and I was making my own cakes within a year.
How did you train for this position?
Almost all of my training was through hands-on learning from my co-workers and trial and error. Sugar-based mediums require a very specific way of working, and to try to master them it takes tremendous patience and practice to really get the hang of it. For instance, fondant is nice and pliable and dries hard making it ideal for a lot of toppers, but as you’re working with it, it’s very rapidly drying out so you have to have a lot of speed and confidence. You can’t really take your time. Modeling chocolate has a much longer working time and is easier to blend, but since it’s chocolate, it’s literally melting in your hands as you work so you have to figure out how to deal with that. I think doing sculpture in college really set me up with a good foundation of how to think about and approach three-dimensional aesthetic objects and the past few years have given me technical skill building through practice and material exploration.
The purpose of any cake is a celebration for the taste buds, and when you can turn that into a work of art that’s an added bonusJama Bains
How long have you worked in this field, and specifically at Short North Piece of Cake?
I began at Piece of Cake in early 2016 and started learning to decorate cakes a few months in so it’s been about 4 years.
How many of these lifelike creations have you been responsible for?
Too many to count. I think our bakery is kind of known in Columbus as the place to go for these types of cakes so we’ve always gotten a lot of them. I’d say we get about 8-12 shaped cake requests a month.
What are some of the items you’ve been asked to recreate in cake? Has there been an increase in the number of requests for these since the videos of these have gone viral?
Off the top of my head, an air conditioner; a cotton candy machine; a voodoo doll, a sea turtle; Pusheen (a cartoon cat); lots of stadiums; food items like burritos, tacos, sushi, chili, pasta, pizza, cheeseburgers, Pho, donuts, stacks of pancakes; liquor and wine bottles; beer mugs; a White Claw can; a bag of money; toilet paper; potted plants; a baseball cap; books, the list goes on and on. Some, like sushi or Chipotle burritos, are pretty common requests, others are more unique requests, like the cotton candy machine I made recently. I think the requests are probably beginning to increase but it hasn’t been a huge explosion yet, although with most trends, there’s a bit of a lag between what happens on the internet and what people start asking for.
Do these kinds of cake taste just as good as a regular cake, or are they more art than baked good?
There would definitely be no difference in taste between something shaped and something more traditional. It all starts as the same cake. The purpose of any cake is a celebration for the taste buds, and when you can turn that into a work of art that’s an added bonus, but if it’s not delicious then what’s the point, right? I do think it’s worth mentioning here the aversion some people have towards fondant. I myself have heard “Chopped” judges telling the audience that fondant is disgusting, and I think a lot of people believe that but it really isn’t true. It might have been a decade ago. From what I hear fondant has come a long way since the early days. There are different brands and some are better than others, but the fondants we use in our bakery are high-end and actually taste good. We have several clients that request fondant cakes specifically for the taste of it. Plus, even if you do try it and decide it isn’t for you, it’s not an either/or situation. Underneath fondant, you’ll always find a nice layer of buttercream so you can simply peel it off, have your art, and eat it too!
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How much longer (if at all) does it take to make a cake that is designed to look like something else? What other challenges might be involved?
Any cake that is shaped or otherwise designed to have the illusion of being something else takes a significant amount of time. Even seemingly simple forms, when constructed with cake, provide a complex set of problems. You have to take layers of this soft, squishy, moist material and figure out how to manipulate it through both additive and subtractive techniques into being shaped into a form that not only looks like something, is to the correct scale and proportion, but also won’t collapse or fall over. Then if you manage that, you have to figure out how to put a layer of buttercream on it that is mostly even, doesn’t compromise the form you just worked so hard to create, and is most importantly smooth, all with your regular offset spatula. Any imperfection in your icing will show through your fondant and ruin your illusion. Next, you have to actually cover it in fondant (or modeling chocolate), which depending on the scale and form presents another set of obstacles. You also have to think about how to create convincing textures and colors and layers of detailing. And of course in a lot of instances whatever you try first doesn’t work the way you envisioned so then you have to come up with a plan B, and you have to do it before the cake gets too warm and the buttercream goes soft or the humidity in the air causes condensation that threatens your paint job. You spend a lot of time mitigating temperatures too. Every element has an optimal temperature. Cold buttercream is more sturdy. Cold modeling chocolate will hold it’s shape better but won’t be manipulated as easily as when it’s room temperature. Texture can be achieved with texture mats, tools, straws, aluminum foil, gloved fingers, paint, etc. Color can be added with powders, airbrush, gel food colors, each with their own set of considerations. Each cake is an exercise in continual creative problem solving, but once you’ve mastered each test of ingenuity and you get to see the sheer joy and excitement, sometimes even tears, of the client it undoubtedly makes it all worth it.
How much of your job is that of baker and how much of it is artist?
My job is actually 0% baker. This isn’t common among cake decorators, but I actually don’t really know anything about baking. I’m very fortunate to work at a bakery where we have some separation between baking and decorating that gives each sphere the unique ability to really home in and focus on what they do best. We have two bakers who are incredibly talented and passionate, and they’re responsible for baking everything—every wedding cake to every cookie. We even have a position for the person who takes the cakes and splits them into layers to put in the filling and do the initial crumb coat; so by the time a cake gets to me, it’s already passed through 2-3 people, and I just have to do the aesthetics.
ANSWER: The watermelon was real. The dragon fruit was (a very delicious) cake.