Cake as Art: A Rant

Ok, I’m probably going to catch a lot of flack for this, but it needs to be said.

Lately, I’ve been seeing a ton of tweets about Buddy Valastro’s 2000 lb “Transformers” cake, complete with hydraulic system. (click here, if you have no idea what I’m talking about!). At first, I just sort of rolled my eyes. The way cakes have been trending the past few years, there’s definitely been competition to do the biggest, craziest, etc.

After a few dozen mentions on Twitter though, I started to wonder. At what point does “cake art” cease to be CAKE art?

Here’s the thing. That “cake”? That’s more than likely not technically edible. There’s a very good chance that no food inspector would allow it to be served (at least by MN standards – I have no idea what the laws are like in other states). Not assembled in his bakery. Handled with bare hands, in the back of a moving truck. Gross, gross, gross!

Even IF the cake was legal to serve, there’s no way in hell you’d find me eating it. To make a cake like that requires a lot of logistical tweaking. First of all, the cakes themselves would have to be made far in advance, given the amount of incorporated outer detail. By this, I mean sculpting, etc – the detail that has to be done AFTER the cake is assembled. Little pieces of sugarwork “gears” and whatnot can be made far in advance – but that “cake” is full of after-assembly work.

To have cake made that far in advance, well.. it’s not going to taste good. Time gives cake the opportunity to dry out. If your cake uses all natural ingredients and STARTS tasty, it’ll be nasty by the time that thing is served. If your cake uses box mixes, it’ll last longer… but not be all that tasty to start. Also, there’s a good chance you’ll be forced to commit a cardinal sin (in my books, anyway!): Freezing cake. No one should ever freeze cake for more than about 10 minutes*. Seriously.

Did they have dairy in that frosting? If not: gross. If so… even more gross. If they couldn’t even make it in the bakery, I’m guessing they didn’t keep it all chilled for that monumental amount of design time, either.

Anyway, let’s say that he was magically able to bake ~1000 lbs of cake all at once, very shortly before he actually served it. Let’s say he had enough artists on hand to turn that cake from cake and frosting, into the “Cake” you see in the video.

Cakes require structure. True cake artists will use the minimum amount of structure they need to make a stable cake. Wedding cakes are doweled, for instance. You don’t need or even want 50 dowels in a layer, but you need enough for it to be stable. That Transformers cake? The amount of non-edible structural support that that thing would need is mind boggling. The arms. Those would weigh at least a couple hundred lbs each. Each arm would have to have several types/means of supporting cake at various angles. That’s assuming that they’re actually cake, and not decorated styrofoam – more on that later. Those heavy arms will need to be supported in the body, and given the amount of cantilever going on there – that’s not insignificant. Additionally, there are lights AND a hydraulic system in that “cake”.

Bottom line: to make a 2000 lb cake like the one featured in that video, you are basically just covering a non-edible structure with cake. Honestly, I don’t see what’s so impressive about that.

Don’t get me wrong – if it weren’t for “Ace of Cakes” and Duff Goldman, there’s no way there would have been any market for crazy cakes in Minnesota. Well, or much elsewhere, for that matter. I would never have received some of the insane – insanely COOL – requests I’ve fulfilled over my years in cake decorating. Duff was a pioneer. Many of us who have made a living off of making insane cakes owe him a LOT of gratitude.

The thing is, in this quest for outdoing each other in cake insanity, people have lost sight of a very basic principle of cake art: it’s cake. Cake is supposed to not only be edible, it’s supposed to be tasty. The whole reason it’s cool is because you are creating something that looks amazing, and then TASTES amazing. It’s food. First and foremost, it’s FOOD.

When I was still making custom cakes, I would get some weird – and sometimes insulting requests. “Can you make a cake that looks like (whatever)… oh, I don’t care what flavor, we’re not going to actually serve it”. “Can you make a (whatever) cake? Actually, can you make it out of styrofoam? Would that be cheaper?”. That sort of thing. I never did manage to wrap my head around it.

I can see a need for making a fake cake that looks like a cake: Wedding shows, shop displays, photo shoots for the most part. A fake cake that looks like a real cake can be useful in some situations. What blew MY mind, however, was when people started asking for fake cake that looked like something other than a cake. How impressive is a cake made to look like whatever … when it’s not even cake? And really, what’s the point? You want a styrofoam cake that looks like an airplane? Why not just buy a model airplane? It’ll last longer!

Seriously, I’ve had many requests like this. I COULD NOT make this stuff up. My entire cake career, I had to battle the “Cake that looks great is going to taste like crap” idea. Yes, I could make a cake look like pretty much anything… but it was ALWAYS more important to make it TASTE amazing. It’s CAKE. That’s where the focus should be – taste!

Styrofoam decorated with fondant is not CAKE. Hydraulics and metal framework with pieces of cake involved, covered in fondant is not CAKE. Why are we lauding this stuff as cake art?

There are a ton of cake artists who can do everything that Buddy does – myself included. There are plenty of people who can do it BETTER than he does. Most of those people wouldn’t put so much inedible crap in a cake. Most of those people don’t have obnoxious “made for reality TV” personalities, either.

It’s just sad that THIS is what gets attention. A cake 1/10 the size, but completely edible, fresh, and with amazing detail is FAR more impressive. If you’re going to make a display this big, and this inedible… honestly, I’d be more impressed if it was all made out of lego. This is not sugar art, this is not cake art. This is … performance art. Can we go back to showing some love for legitimate cake/sugar/food artists? Please?

That is all.

PS: If you also believe that cakes should taste amazing, you should order a copy of my cookbook, “Evil Cake Overlord“! (I know, I’m shameless today!)

PPS: Do you have any idea what kind of chemicals go into making fireworks? I don’t know why anyone would want to eat anything that had fireworks sprayed all over it.

PPPS: Fondant was never meant to be rolled 1/2” thick. That’s nasty. I’ve seen Buddy do that on cake challenges AND on his show, I can’t even watch. No wonder people have weird ideas about fondant – I can LEGITIMATELY blame the media!

* Freezing cake for 10 minutes or so allows it to firm up a bit – temporarily – and be easier to carve. I’m cool with that, if not abused.

4 thoughts on “Cake as Art: A Rant

  1. Just a quick aside/toss-off: I think Cake Boss is a fun show about the big, crazy Valastro family as much as it is about Buddy and his cake projects. Also? I’m not a cake artist, beyond a simple two-layer round birthday cake or a dozen cupcakes.

    That being said…Buddy often puts up schematics of what he does in terms of the cake construction on the show: many, many of his project cakes are modeled out of Rice Krispy treats (called “cereal treats” to avoid the copyright issues on the show), and covered in fondant, paste or modeling chocolate. There are cake components, clearly, but I think that’s how he gets around the weight of the cake. And yes, I’ve seen him pull sheets and sheets of cake out of his freezer to accomplish his feats. I’d bet there’s a “show” portion and an “eat” portion of most of his stuff.

    I’ve also seen him make fresh tiramisu, Sal’s coconut cream pie, a cake his father invented, and lots of smaller projects which don’t require freezing or rice krispy treats to accomplish. I get the feeling that when he’s not trying to be a showman, Buddy is a hell of a baker too. 🙂

  2. I had to stop watching that show to lower my blood pressure. I own a cake studio within half hour of that now infamous Hoboken bakery and I am *constantly* compared to him whenever people find out I make cake. I am always quick to tell people that my studio is MUCH different than his – no drama, everything is made from scratch as up to the minute as possible (I have seen far too much frosting in a bucket there), our sculpted cakes are actually CAKE & not just giant rice cereal treats on top of sheet cakes and I would NEVER frost a cake on the floor or with bare hands.

    Your post hit so many nails on the head. I’m happy to know I’m not alone!

  3. Well I’m part of the choir here… when I see projects like the transformers one I just think it’s crossed the line from edible art, meant to be enjoyed and temporary, to pure sculpture.

    Great he has the talent and team to make it, but it’s not edible, it’s not meant for a gathering, etc… It’s just a sculpture done in another medium. At which point I think, well why this material over say styrofoam and plastic?

    Then again I might be biased as my wife did get me an awesome cake from Celebration Generation last year. We oooed and awwed, I was speechless, we took pictures and then… ate a very delicious birthday cake.

    With huge works like the transformers piece, what happens afterwords? As you point out it’s beyond eating, especially after the fire works. So it gets tossed at some point in time? What a waste.

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