On a recent rain-soaked afternoon in Toronto, the door to the Cake Opera Company's midtown boutique opens up to a fantastical, heavily frosted scene. The overwrought decor of the baked-goods emporium – large mirrors in ornate frames, curios covered in gilt – is in keeping with, even reflective of the extravagant confections crafted and sold inside. Think pseudo- Baroque explosions of icing and batter, cakes that wouldn't be out of place on a museum podium.
"I always loved making beautiful things, even in high school," says Alexandria Pellegrino, the creative force behind Cake Opera Company. "There were [clothes and accessories]that I wanted but couldn't afford or that no one was making." So she learned to make them herself. After graduating from the Ontario College of Art & Design, Pellegrino enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu's pastry arts program in Ottawa to satisfy her varied interests, which ranged from art restoration and religious iconography to horror movies and, of course, food.
As a student, the 29-year-old says, "the two ideas of the really beautiful and really grotesque fascinated me. Then I started incorporating classic French pastry and this idea of excessive consumption. My instructors thought it was crazy and amazing." At the same time, they encouraged Pellegrino to develop her signature style, one that has led her to create cakes adorned withsuch trimmings as tiny bird skulls made of edible gold.
As unique as her cakes may be, however, Pellegrino's m.o. is becoming a little less rarefied. A sought-after cake designer (her clients have included Nicole Richie, Vivica A. Fox and Spam heiress Gillian Hormel) and a judge on TV's Cake Walk, Pellegrino is leading a coterie of Canadian cake artisans who are raising the bar on baking. There are plenty of takers for their flights of fancy, which run the gamut from cakes in the form of geisha girls to surreal ones incorporating all manner of flora, fauna and more. These days, the success of TV shows such as Cake Boss and Ace of Cakes, which give viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the extensive work that goes into making decadent desserts, means that a grocery-story cake just won't do for a discerning clientele bent on keeping up with the Kardashians – or, if they have the money, outdoing them altogether.
Sasha Chapman, acting senior editor at Walrus magazine and a well-known food writer, concurs: "The Food Network has a lot to answer for. It's not okay to serve a lopsided cake anymore," she says, going on to recount a story she heard about a woman who ordered a cake shaped like a Louis Vuitton handbag for her child's first birthday. "It's easier to spring for a $300 cake than an SUV. You're proclaiming a lifestyle."
As for the bakers' part in all of this, Alison Fryer of Toronto's Cookbook Store isn't surprised that desserts have gone elaborate. Ultimately, she says, "cake designers are frustrated architects and engineers at heart."
"When I first started out 15 years ago, there was only a handful of people in this industry," says Bonnie Gordon, founder of the Bonnie Gordon College of Confectionary Arts. Although special occasions have always been celebrated with cakes, it was Martha Stewart who "really elevated the wedding cake," steering it away from prim white tiers to something showstopping, Gordon says.
"It's not a passing trend; it's a new field of study," she explains. "And the interest is international. Right now, I have a student from India, two from France, another from Brazil. They all come here because Toronto has some of the best cake designers in the world concentrated in one city."
Take Jaime Ho, 34. One of Gordon's alumni, the chartered-accountant-turned-cakemaker tuned into her true calling while watching an episode of Food Network Challenge. She now teaches the structured cakes course at the college and runs the Wicked Little Cake Company, which she opened in 2008.
"I had no idea that so much was possible with cake, that you can take something so soft and spongy and have the flexibility to sculpt something three feet tall.
"I have always taken art lessons," Ho continues. "I did a lot of model sculpting and was interested in working with glass but never got around to it. Working with sugar is a lot like working with glass."
No kidding. As today's generation of cake art shows, sugar can be used in its coarse form to resemble crystals, as confectioner's sugar to mimic snow or – once it's cooked to a certain consistency – much like blown glass itself, Ho says.
Certainly, there are logistical challenges when your medium is perishable. A cake must be assembled in a short window of time, explains Rosanne Pezzelli, a former illustrator and painter who now owns Bakerbots Baking in Toronto.
"Working with ingredients like flour, butter and sugar means your creation is always in slow transition," the 34-yearold says. "You don't want the fondant to sweat or the buttercream to melt. You need the cake to be moist and fluffy, yet the structure needs to be sound. Humidity is always a concern."
The pressure, consequently, can be intense, especially when the order books are dominated by one very particular customer: the bride.
"I got married in 2005 and was a prime example of that target market," laughs Rosie Alyea, owner of Sweetapolita, a blog and confection outfit based in Newcastle, Ont. "I wanted a stylish wedding and the cake was the biggest thing. It's an even bigger thing now. I see brides with [virtual]pinboards for their wedding cakes."
Of course, a bespoke cake isn't inexpensive. Pellegrino's start at $1,500, while Ho's will set you back at least $300. Pezzelli's custom cakes start at $150, her wedding cakes at $500.
Unlike traditional works of art, though, these edible masterpieces are destined to be consumed. How does it feel to invest such creativity into a project with so short a shelf life?
"I like the idea of not being precious about it," Pezzelli says. "It's just on to the next cake, another blank slate."
Special to The Globe and Mail