Jessica Helfand | Essays

Sweet Spot: Cake as Craft?

A typical cake made by Bartolo "Buddy" Valastro, of TLC's Cake Boss

Within the broad genre known as reality television — in between the astonishing displays of amateur talent and the atrocious tales of teenage pregnancy — are nearly half a dozen programs devoted to extreme displays of, well, frosting.

(No, I am not making this up.)

Here in America, our love affair with sugar is hardly the stuff of news. But cake decorating has reached a new, arguably exalted position in the pantheon of nightly programming: from TLC's Cake Boss, Ultimate Cake-Off and DC Cupcakes to the Food Network's Ace of Cakes and Cupcake Wars, to WE-TV's Amazing Wedding Cakes and Wedding Cake Wars, never has there been so much airtime devoted to the apparently endless details that go into making dessert. 

Mind you, it's fascinating to watch. In particular, the engineering and pyrotechnics go way beyond basic baking, and the creative process involves a fair amount of planning (obviously) and sketching (interestingly) as well as some rather ambitious 3-D modeling projections. Who among us knew, for example, that Rice Crispy Treats provide reliable structural foundations for life-size confections, or that chocolate comes in a flexible consistency akin to plasticine? Or that fondant — that smooth-as-glass icing that graces the surfaces of so many layered masterpieces — can be stretched and torqued and thinned to quarter-inch perfection through a giant metal machine? There are airbrushes and carving tools and colors not found in nature, sheer pastes and gilt powders and best of all, digital printers that, improbably, produce perfect little edible photographs. Suffice it to say, you'll never look at an Oreo the same way again.

Or, for that matter, an art supply store.

For my money, this is where it gets really pathological. To walk down the cake supply aisle at any of the nation's Michael's Arts and Crafts stores is to be stunned into the realization that cake decorating is not a craft, but an art form where the medium is sugar. If you stop and realize the degree to which the civilian world has, in the last decade, become a population of artistic wannabes, you understand that the success of these shows lies in the simple fact that they supply two very fundamental human needs: they presuppose that everyone either is or aspires to be creative, and they assume all of us have a sweet tooth.

Fair enough. But do we really need ten of them?

Comments [5]

My problem with this whole phenomenon, is that the cakes produced on those shows look awful. I can't sit through another episode of say America's Next Top Cake Bakery Challenge Wars, without questioning my own taste. Who are these judges? Who are these "bakers"?

Most of the cakes end up being only concretely gigantic. The issues abound; Since when is a cake made out of Rice Crispy Treats? Why are they all airbrushed like a tshirt from a New Jersey boardwalk? Since when are structures of PVC and or Cardboard fair (or edible)? and finally who wants layers upon layers of colored fondant (which tastes AWFUL)?

I want just one of those networks to make a show called Real Cakes (just brainstorming here), that would let me enjoy what is enjoyable about cakes. Namely, the cake (but really the frosting).
Adam Okrasinski

As with every artistic medium it all depends on the final result. There are really creative people out there who create cakes that are beautiful and artistic and in good taste and also taste good. These cakes are works of art but have the added benefit of bringing joy and making people happy.
orit mazor

Yes ~ I SO agree !!!
I want every cake to be beautiful like the first Martha Stewart wedding cake ~ but REALLY ~ some of the cakes on these shows are made so fast and so high and so boldly colorful with moats and boats ~ they are just TOOOO MUCH ...and then they fall over....so what's the point !

Yucky looking and I can't imagine eating a piece....!
Let them eat cake....takes on a whole new meaning.
Lee Moody

I only watch Amazing Wedding Cakes, but that one is some good TV. Those people are artists. They don't even waste time with the baking or anything.
Peter A Jacobson

This just in (thank you, Very Short List) —

Click here to view.

And I, for one, am counting the minutes.
Jessica Helfand

Jobs | July 18