Diana Ayala, the owner of Mermaids Bakery, once made a cake for a family of fire-breathers. “They wanted a real fire-breathing dragon,” she explains, and they even suggested running a gas line through the cake to make it happen.
While Ayala wasn’t sold on the gas line, she’s always loved a good challenge. So she sculpted an enormous red dragon out of several tiers of cake and fit a tiny Roman candle in its mouth — with plenty of instruction that no one stand too close when the candle was lit. The dragon sparked for about a minute, and then they cut the cake.
The family loved it.
Cake decorating is as much a science as it is a visual art, melding structure with an ability to translate customers’ imaginings into tangible desserts. While every pastry chef brings their own techniques and style, there’s also a collaborative effort in the back of the bakery, a nod to tradition and a constant desire to innovate.
“When I make my own cakes for my family and friends, this picture comes into my head, and I see the shapes and think, ‘What do I need to make it look like that? Circles, squares, teardrops?’” Ayala says. She went to school for fashion design, one of many artistic pursuits she enjoyed growing up. Interestingly, baking wasn’t among them.
Baking came up after five years of raising her two boys, when Ayala was looking for a creative outlet that also paid the bills. Soon after, in 2008, she and her cousin founded Mermaids Bakery, at 1543 Champa Street. They learned how to make their own cake batter — adapted from their grandmother’s recipe — by trial and error, but the cake designs always came easily.
Ayala’s favorite approach to visual design is to paint cakes with food dyes and paintbrushes, like watercolor. “I’ll just sit there and paint it on. Wipe it on with water, wipe it off. Doing stuff like that lights my light bulb, energizes me like a battery,” she says. She’s painted everything from zombies to van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” but the painting is only one aspect of a cake’s design.
To make a specialty cake, pastry chefs typically stack sheet cakes that are held together with filling such as cream cheese frosting or chocolate meringue buttercream. From that structure, the cakes can be sculpted into many forms. “There is no manual for making shaped cake,” says Michelle Rasul, owner of Gateaux, at 1160 Speer Boulevard. “Every cake that you make that you haven’t made before is a gamble. It’s all about how you prepare.”
Things such as weight, temperature, taste and texture set the stage for the design created with buttercream frosting or fondant, a thinly rolled sugar dough. Sometimes those layers are formed into more traditional, circular cake shapes, then painted or adorned. Or they may be sculpted into realistic renderings. The fire-breathing dragon is one example, but pastry chefs can also re-create motorcycles, pieces of fruit, helmets, bags of chips, plants, a camera or beloved pets. Rasul once made a reproduction of the Stanley Cup. The Gateaux Instagram page shows cakes featuring a bass jumping from a pond, a sugary stack of books and a jack-o-lantern.
Rasul started working behind the counter in bakeries in southern New Jersey as a teenager in the 2000s. She looked forward to moments when someone would mess up an order, because it gave her an opportunity to go into the kitchen to see what they were doing, and she was always drawn to the design. But it was only after working at many more bakeries, attending Johnson & Wales University for a few years and moving to Colorado that a happenstance encounter with the then-owner of Gateaux landed her a job at the bakery. Ten years later, she became the owner.
“I could sit there for hours and just pipe,” she laughs, adding that while the decorating is her favorite part of the process, there’s other hard work that goes into making the cakes and running a bakery. It’s a job that can be glamorized on televison, but the real work is time-consuming and demands long hours, she says — not just in the kitchen, but also standing on ladders to set up multi-tiered cakes at weddings and driving delicate desserts through Colorado’s mountain passes.
James Williams, the new owner of Azucar Bakery, at 1886 South Broadway, agrees. “Pastry is its own animal,” he says. “It’s tedious, I’m not going to lie.” Williams has more than thirty years of experience in kitchens, and he bought Azucar last September to fulfill a longtime dream of owning a bakery. He’s found that pride and passion compose much of the grit that pulls pastry chefs through the long hours and fast pace — that, and the ability to create for someone else.
“There’s really nothing more fulfilling than to know I’m being asked to be part of someone’s special occasion,” he says. Williams’s personal memories of sweet celebrations extend back to his childhood in Arkansas, when cakes and pies were always a central part of any gathering.
Cakes can showcase milestones like birthdays, graduations and weddings. They commemorate those events in a tangibly beautiful and delicious way, and then they’re gone — as ephemeral as the memories of the moments themselves. The way cakes become incorporated into the celebration is why Ayala says she doesn’t mind seeing her artwork get cut up and eaten.
“For somebody to trust us with a milestone in their life, it’s never bothered me, ever,” she says. But that’s also why it’s so important to try to understand the personalities of the customer and what they’re looking for in their cakes. Ayala thinks it’s somewhat of a psychological connection, where she gleans the general concept and then digs deeper to extract depth and find a creative spin.
At Gateaux, Rasul sees her role as visualizing a part of a customer’s life story. “I like to know a lot about the person. What kind of ice cream do they eat? Everything down to their hobbies or their age,” she explains. If a family comes in and asks for a cake in the shape of a racing car in honor of someone’s birthday, Rasul wants to know why. “Maybe they were a racer themselves," she suggests. "Whenever they think of him, they still smell the burning rubber of the tires."
Translating the images and stories of customers into dessert often requires a team effort; the bakery counters can serve as workshop space for strategic planning and creative expansion. “There hasn’t been anything we haven’t been able to do, [which] is a testament to the people I have working with me,” Williams says.
“Honestly, it’s sugar, and we can figure it out,” Ayala adds. “My team, they’re so cool, and we all work together sometimes to figure it out.”
In many ways, Rasul believes that pastries are a collaborative effort not just by her staff, but also an accumulation of a long history of chefs and bakers innovating with sugar and flour. “We’re very much building on a template,” she says. “Pastry has always been looked on as a canvas — just the infinite possibility.”
Mermaids Bakery, Gateaux and Azucar each serve a wide variety of pastries in addition to their specialty cakes, and they’ve created a unique lineup of seasonal varieties for Valentine’s Day. Go to their websites to learn more about their offerings.
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