Piece of Cake

P.O. Box 46562, Eden Prairie; 612) 829-0673

Some situations are just too dicey and important to venture into alone. You need a professional, a real, elite pro who shows up in a special coat lugging a bag of strange instruments designed exclusively for orthodontics, foundation repair, forensic accounting, whatever.

But not all specialized professionals have a grave air and the scent of doom around them: Some come festooned with ribbons, sugar, icing, and icing-sugar ribbons. They are the women (yes, they are all women) who swoop in like doily-capped ninjas, and knit sugar, chocolate, ribbons, swags, and flowers into formidable edifices of, well, cake.

Kristine Heykants

But not any cake. Once-in-a-lifetime cake. Death-defying cake that will echo through the decades in guests' memories, shine for centuries from photographs and, for many, remain preserved for the ages in a box in the freezer.

In some circles, the Twin Cities' few elite wedding-cake professionals are as well-known as any celebrities, and, like superstars, they are referred to by first name only: Doll, April, Ginny. (That's Doll Laboe, of It Takes the Cake; April Wysocki, of April's Country Cake Cupboard--see "Sweet Dreams are Made of This," August 20, 1997--and Ginny Steffes, of A Taste of Elegance.) And now there's a new name clamoring for inclusion in this competitive and sugar-dusted set: Jessica, as in energetic, bright-eyed Jessica Bartl.

Not that Bartl is any sort of novice. I first became aware of her when she, as the New French Bakery's pastry chef, set out fantastic creations like a cloud-buoyant pistachio-crusted white-chocolate mousse cake, or a passion-fruit cake with an orange-and-cream-colored mosaic décor as pretty as a constructivist lithograph. I lost track of her after she left the New French three years ago; turns out she was baking at Minneapolis's Minikahda Club, and starting a wedding-cake business on the side. Now she has struck out in hopes of surviving on her cake skills alone--skills I got to watch firsthand in a southeast Minneapolis commercial kitchen she shares with a caramel maker.

On the day I observed, the kitchen held three edible sculptures, two in progress and one of them finished. The latter was an astonishing three-tier stack of pale green and pale purple rounds made to look like hat boxes, each topped with a lid patterned in watercolorlike grape clusters and leaves, the whole tower tied together with shimmery lavender ribbon. Bartl was still putting the final touches on a square, marzipan-wrapped two-layer structure as glossy as a piece of well-lit quartz in a museum case, and a fondant-wrapped three-layer cake as polished and majestic as marble.

(Fondant is a sort of icing that has replaced buttercream as the key ingredient in wedding cake this decade. It's made of sugar, water, corn syrup, cream of tartar or gelatin, all cooked until the paste has the smoothness and consistency of modeling clay. In the right hands, a sheet of fondant can become as big as a tablecloth and as thin as strudel dough, and it can be wrapped around a cake in some mysterious way that makes a completely smooth, wrinkle-free exterior: It looks as if the cake has been born, like an egg, not assembled, like a frosted cupcake.)

Bartl had planned a floral theme for the marzipan cake, and as I stood and talked to her, she began casually picking up white-chocolate putty and rolling it into small balls, flattening each with a flexible scraper and twisting it into a sugar rose with petals so thin you could see through them. They were as pretty as real flowers, but more enchanting for not being so.

While she worked, Bartl told me she's delighted to have transitioned from the macho world of restaurant kitchens to the girlie universe of wedding cake. "The first time I met someone who didn't want to do anything but wedding cakes, I thought: Why do you want to do that? There's so much more out there. I had these ideas--I wanted to go to Europe, work in these big kitchens, prove myself. But after a couple of years of that, it loses its luster.

"I remember when I first started [at the Culinary Institute of America] I had a big, blond German chef who would stand in my face and holler at me nose to nose. I had another chef who said women had one use and it didn't have anything to do with cooking--and he would burn your food. So I started out shy, easily shattered, but you get tougher.

"In hotels you'd put in 18-hour days. I worked in California as the poolside chef. It was pretty cool watching Dustin Hoffman walk by as the sun beat down on you. But the more time I spent in hotels, the more I learned to appreciate the rest of life. The joy I get out of sitting with brides, planning that cake; the joy I get figuring out recipes and techniques, playing with decorations and toys and ribbons--I'm a total dork about ribbons, I love them--all of these things are so gratifying. When you're doing wedding cakes, you're acknowledged for doing something creative, beautiful, full of flavor, and recognizably yours."

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