Piece of Cake

Kristine Heykants

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.

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."  

What makes Bartl's cakes so recognizably hers, in addition to the elegant, playful exteriors, are the inspired insides. She has a chef's appreciation of acute and sophisticated flavors, making her own marzipan from scratch, using real butter for her buttercreams and rich Belgian Callebaut as her chocolate. I got to try nine of her fillings and five of the cakes, many of them truly extraordinary. A pear custard was grainy with the texture of real pears; the fruit had been poached in a simple sugar syrup with black peppercorns, cinnamon, star anise, white wine, and orange peel, additions that added a roundness of body and a beautiful fragrance to the mixture. A praline mousse was thick, buttery, and rich with the flavors of honey, cream, and ground hazelnuts; a deep-red lavender-raspberry filling was brisk with berries and lightly scented with the floral herb.

Herbs and flowers are of abiding interest to Bartl, as they are to many chefs these days. She let me try the prototype of a hibiscus custard she's developing; it tasted fairly plain, but the flowers lent it a pretty purplish color and lovely scent.

The cakes themselves are nothing like the stiff shortening-based things you might remember from weddings past. Her citrus-almond pound cake is dense and eggy, boasting a translucent crumb and the sweet, cheerful flavor of tangerine. Star anise and cinnamon make the light taste of a classic, refined white cake jump, particularly when you get up close and inhale. The pecan and hazelnut sponge cakes are dense and dark, full of fresh-ground nuts and offering the lush, big taste of
rich celebration.

Sampling wedding cake is a particularly fun thing to do: You try each item individually, then combine fillings and cakes looking for the perfect match. If you're in the market, Bartl will haul her over-the-shoulder-cooler stocked with cakes and fillings to your house, and you'll feast while looking at photos of her past confections. Cakes cost $2.25 to $3.25 a slice, depending on ingredients and added extras: For example, the star anise-cinnamon cake with the pear custard filling would cost $2.25 a slice, while a pecan sponge cake filled with bittersweet chocolate mousse would cost $3 a slice, because of the costly ingredients. After Bartl had finished making the edible roses, she went on to creating marzipan leaves for her fall-themed cake. She rummaged around in a toolbox: "Toys, I love toys," she said, pulling out small plastic forms shaped like the leaves of maples, birches, oaks, ferns, and roses. She quickly rolled out sheets of red, orange, and yellow marzipan, stamped out a few leaves, and dug around in her toolkit again, this time bringing up tiny rubber mats embossed with the vein patterns of various leaves. Pressing the mats into the corresponding cutouts resulted in exceedingly realistic-looking leaves, which Bartl then twisted to dry in wavy, twisty, fallen-leaf ways. In between she dashed off a few green and brown marzipan acorns.

I told her how impressed I was at seeing a marzipan ecosystem take shape before my eyes. "Oh, anyone could do it," she shrugged, and directed me to something she now considers the easiest thing in the world: Half-hidden next to her finished hatbox stack was a smaller cake, done up to look like an open box, lid askew and tissue spilling forth. The body and lid were frosted with buttercream icing and the tissue was rolled, patterned fondant. Sure, I thought, anyone could do that. Just anyone.



TEE-HEE-HEE: Don't ever try to get anything out of Patrick Atanalian, the famous (some might say infamous) chef who recently migrated to the Loring Cafe from St. Paul's Vintage. He just laughs. Or rather, he chuckles mysteriously for a long time, somehow implying that he's telling you much more than he is.

So exactly how did he end up at the Loring? He giggles, stops, chuckles as if remembering something, stops, cracks up, and then concludes: "It just happened."

Was it because he finally freaked out the people at the Vintage? Enigmatic bark, pause, chortle, pause, tee-hee. Finally: "That's why people go to so many restaurants. Some people like your food, and some people want Italian." Indeed.

And how does he like being in charge of the famous (some would say infamous) Loring artichoke dip? Ha-ha, pause, reflective titter, pause, gasp, big, horsy laugh: "It's fine with me, it's been a Loring dish since they opened." Alright, fine. I give up. Atanalian-watchers already know of his reputation for creating avant-garde dishes--who can forget his days at the New French Cafe, where he served marinated pork tenderloin in a white bean and opal basil emulsion, with sweet potato pancakes, red-beet cornichon salsa, and candied fennel? Or that Vintage menu studded with tongue twisters like plantain-red-lentil-jicama-Coke ragout, or zucchini risotto with roasted-tomato-peppermint-tea tapenade? Atanalian managed to rein himself in with his first Loring menu last summer, but the fall one--which debuted last month--has his name written all over it. The Cajun beef tenderloin is accompanied by a relish of pineapple and roasted shallots in a marshmallow lime sauce. Chinese barbecued chicken comes alongside black-eyed peas, snow peas, and bean sprouts in a root-beer sauce.  

Old hands also know that as wacky as Atanalian's menus read, his food is like his conversation: Amusing, enigmatic, a little strange, but unforgettable. Bargain-hunting Sunday dancers please note the prix-fixe dinners with ballroom dancing the Loring is offering November 21, December 5, and December 19. A mere $35 gets you a three-course dinner, free dancing lessons, and Dan Newton's Cafe Accordion Orchestra. Or pay $10 for dance sans dinner. Call (612) 332-1617 for more information.

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