By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
By Hannah Sayle
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
How? How do you do that? And that? How that? How how how how how. In an hour's interview with Robin Martin, the owner, baker, and cake designer at Gateaux, a little local cake concern that is making a national name, I asked "how" so many times I began to feel like a little howling poodle.
But the hows are half the intrigue when you're speaking to a wedding-cake designer who takes sugar--well, basically sugar--and spins it into architectural fairylands. I almost wish I were writing this story for some text-poor picture magazine so you could see all the uncanny things Martin does with sugar. Like the Alice in Wonderland wedding cake, four tiers of bright blue and white riot with a tea-party theme--flapping tablecloths, dancing ribbons, lustrous pearls, cozy sugar cubes, and multiplying china-dainty daisies--all topped by a cutie-pie cake teacup filled with chocolate fondant tea. Or the basket-of-puppies kids' birthday cake, the puppies' little cake heads and floppy sugar ears begging irresistibly from a home of woven chocolate buttercream. Or the stained-glass wedding cake, a somber tiered progression in profile that is covered with flowers and leaves, which looks, with all its undiluted deep jewel tones and black outlines, like something for James J. Hill's front parlor.
When the hows are answered, they seem to fall into one of four categories. First are the ones so simple you almost wish you didn't know--that stained glass is made of the same translucent icing you'll remember from Dairy Queen cakes, for instance. The second hows are the ones that, when explained, still make no sense. Martin told me three times how it is that hard white fondant--the notoriously difficult icing made of sugar, water, and cream of tartar--can be maneuvered in such a way that it drapes in folds like velvet swags. I still have no idea. Suffice to say that it involves heavy-gauge wires, thick wooden dowels, kneading, and, as far as I can tell, an advanced engineering degree. Third are the hows that make you whistle with appreciation of simple ingenuity. Martin gets her fondant to look like a perfectly geometrical embroidered quilt with, of all things, tile-spacers from Menards. And finally, there are the hows that are so secret I had to promise I'd never tell. How does she make such lustrous edible pearls? Not the severest tortures could pry it from my lips.
So I'd better stay out of Martin's circles, because, in my opinion, severest tortures are the stock-in-trade of the successful wedding-cake designer. You couldn't pay me enough money to spend my days listening to obsessed brides rhapsodizing about the lace on their gown bodice, or the ribbon-flowers on their sleeves. But Robin Martin can't get enough of those particular topics. As we paged through her photo albums of past cakes, she ecstatically pointed out the details that personalized each and every cake. The subtle lace that graced one exactly mimicked the bride's gown. The design of the fondant ribbon that wrapped another came from the bride's bodice. The hundreds of small piped flowers mirrored yet another bride's ribbon-flowers from someplace or other on her wedding costume.
Martin spends three to ten hours working with each of her brides on their cake, developing that level of personalization, and even when she recounts it, she nearly flutters off her chair in delight with the detail of it all. "I'm the luckiest person in the world," she gushes. "I get to meet people that are so happy--so happy. They're in love, they're planning the biggest party of their lives. And then I get to feed them, which sparks passion. When I was a [portrait] photographer, people looked at their portraits and said they were 'nice.' When they look at their cakes, they love them, they adore them, they are completely passionate about it. And I'm completely passionate about it." Martin proceeds to tell me, in very excited tones, her green eyes dancing, how she worked with one bride to incorporate flowers from her dress into the cake without letting the groom get any advance alert about that all-important gown. "So much fun," she concludes.
Of course, finding someone to cheerfully, enthusiastically (ecstatically, even) undergo severest tortures--like, for example, making an all-sugar teacup for your top tier--doesn't come cheap. The average Gateaux fondant-wrapped cake costs $850 and feeds 175. Often Martin does not just the main cake, but also grooms' cakes; on one, each layer represented a different sport, including an orange basketball-like surface with black grooves, handmade dimpled golf balls, and fuzzy yellow tennis balls. She might even do edible favors for the wedding guests, like handmade truffles, or chocolate lollipops. For her most recent all-the-extras wedding, Martin says, she billed $4,000.
Think that's prohibitive pricing? Guess again: Martin does three cakes a weekend and books a year in advance. Right now she's turning away 30 brides a month who want Gateaux cakes but didn't book early enough. And while $850 may be on the high side for Minnesota, where the average wedding cake seems to cost around $500, it's nothing compared to the breathtaking prices commanded on the coasts. News reports say the average price for some nuptial batter and frosting by a celebrity wedding-cake designer like New York's Sylvia Weinstock is now $20,000. "I don't think Minnesotans will ever pay $20,000 for a cake," says Martin. In New York, everything is art, and generates attendant hype. But in Minnesota, "We're all just practical, normal people, and a cake isn't art here, or sculpture. It's dessert. I'm not an artist--I'm a cake decorator. Let's keep the feet on the ground, shall we?"
Feet on the ground, shoes in the sugar: Martin says she and her second in command, Patty Salmon, keep special sugarcoated shoes at the store. If they didn't, all of their shoes would be crusty. Since the cakes all have to be fresh for the weddings--and nearly all weddings are on Saturdays--they bake on Thursdays and ice all day, and often into the night on Friday, listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, and getting lost in these extravagant cakes. Maybe too lost. "So many times I've come home Friday night and I'm totally exhausted and"--she makes a horrified face--"ewwww, what's that? There's buttercream behind my ear."
Still, as much as Martin wants to insist that she's not an artist and her cakes (some of which are visible at www.gateaux-inc.com) are merely the bride's will made into dessert, she will admit she never goes to the weddings that feature her cakes. "If I had to watch one of them get cut apart I'd start to scream," she says. How awful, I marvel, nodding at a lavender cake in corduroy-rolled fondant and covered with hundreds of piped cherry blossoms. How could they?
NOISOME CHOCOLATIERS: When I first wrote about B.T. McElrath, who I think is the maker of the finest artisan chocolates in all the land, he was working all by his lonesome in a basement in southeast Minneapolis; one man, a couple of machines, a few hours' labors making chocolates no one was particularly asking for. What marked his days most seemed to be a monastic silence of sweet-smelling echoes.
Three years later, monastic silence is a thing he dreams about at fitful midnights. McElrath now has six assistants, a couple more basement suites, and works 16 to 18 hours a day making chocolates as fast as he can for a populace that can't go back to the farm once it's seen Paree. Or once they've tasted zinfandel-balsamic-vinegar truffles, anyway.
Zinfandel-balsamic-vinegar truffles, for those of you who haven't committed past Eaters' Digests to memory, are the sort of thing McElrath, a onetime chef for Faegre's and the New French Café, has made his name perfecting. Specifically, they're chocolate truffles flavored with a reduction of wine and vinegar, the flavors combining in a deep, distantly thunderous, highly satisfying way. "You wrote about me in my monastic cell," said McElrath, when I caught him on his phone in the midst of his pre-Christmas chaos. "I use that sometimes. It seems funny now. Wait--I can't hear you. That grinding is the machine--the toffee. People love that stuff. I can't make it fast enough."
That toffee comes in silvery tins in half-pound and one-pound sizes, and is a buttery, crisp, buttery, sweet, buttery, fresh, buttery delight. (Butter!) Know anyone who loves Heath bars? Make them see heaven: Boxes at the Uptown Lunds go for $17.99 a half pound; $27.99 a pound. Other things preoccupying McElrath this week include red, raspberry-mousse-filled chocolate poinsettias (available in a nine-piece sampler box for $11.99), and chocolate champagne bottles for the New Year. "A week after New Year's, the Valentine's Day push starts--basically, it's all fun and games until Easter," says McElrath. So, the question remains, with all that busy, noisy production, why can't we find McElrath chocolates from sea to shining sea? They're basically still only available in the Twin Cities area.
McElrath sighs audibly--even in all that racket--when I ask him this. Clearly, he gets asked a lot. "These candies are somewhat alive. They're delicate. For this type of product to have a decent shelf life, it must be handled carefully." No extreme heat, no extreme cold, no excessive aging in warehouses--in short, they need attentive retailers to treat them nice and make them feel like folks. McElrath says he has talked to big retailers before and none seemed up to the task. There's hope for those who don't live within shopping distance of a Lunds, however. Though he wouldn't divulge details, McElrath says there is a major retailer trying to figure out how to showcase his li'l tykes. And, for what it's worth, coincidentally or not, McElrath chocolates will now be available in two Chicago-area Nordstroms.
B.T. McElrath Chocolatier; 2010 E. Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, (612) 331-8800. Following is a partial list of places to buy McElrath chocolates: Most metro area Lunds and Byerly's; Cooks of Crocus Hill, 877 Grand Ave., St. Paul, (651) 228-1333; Turtle Bread Company, 3421 W. 44th St., Minneapolis, (612) 924-6013; and Bridge Square Gallery, 16 Bridge Sq., Northfield, (507) 663-9089. (Butter!)
So just remember, all that racket? That racket tolls for thee!