That Takes the Cake
Austin cake artists strut their stuff at national show
Baking and cake decorating have become spectator sports in recent years, making the transition from professional kitchens to the pages of cookbooks and food magazines all the way to cable television and into our homes. What started with Julia Child baking with famous pastry chefs and lifestyle maven Martha Stewart providing countless hours of arts & crafts instruction has now morphed into a cable television pastry case filled with such delectable selections as Food Network Challenge, Cupcake Wars, Ace of Cakes, Top Chef: Just Desserts, Unique Sweets, CakeLove, Baking With the Cake Boss, Bama Glamma, and Sweet Genius, just to name a few. All that television exposure has inspired home bakers around the country to try their hands at stacking and sculpting cake layers; fashioning dainty flowers from gum paste; making animals, fruits, and people out of tinted fondant; and creating elaborate design elements from poured and pulled sugar or carefully tempered chocolate. Nowhere is evidence of this burgeoning trend more apparent than here in Austin. Capital Confectioners is an organization of about 125 local cake artists who host That Takes the Cake, the largest annual cake and sugar art show in the country. Now in its eighth year, this weekend's Austin show has steadily outgrown a series of local venues and will need every bit of the 60,000 square feet of space available at the North Austin Event Center (10601 N. Lamar) to accommodate competition cake displays, vendor booths, and educational classes.
"I remember the first year, we used one hallway over at the Le Cordon Bleu facility and there were maybe 100 cakes on display. At least half of those were made by students in the school baking program as an assignment because their instructor was one of the organizers of the show," recalls show director Jennifer Bartos, owner of Make It Sweet. In contrast to that first year, Bartos projects that more than 2,500 guests will view between 400 and 500 cakes on display during this weekend's show. That Takes the Cake features a new theme every year, which is the primary way the Austin event differs from the Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show, home of the nation's most prestigious annual wedding cake competition. This year's theme, Cake-a-lot: Knights of the Turn Table, promises to attract a fascinating array of Renaissance-inspired confections from jousting knights on noble steeds to damsels with crowns and flowing garments to historically correct fruit cakes in the tasting competition. "We never wanted to limit the show to just wedding cakes. Changing the theme every year encourages people to demonstrate a wide variety of skills and techniques, and it's also our contribution to that whole 'Keep Austin Weird' thing," Bartos explained with a grin.
The show is a three-division, judged competition open to bakers of all ages and skill levels. In the divisional category, entries are classified by age and skill level as well as style to insure fair evaluation. Entries in the show cake competition must be based on the annual theme and meet specific height and serving size requirements. All the design competitors will be evaluated by a distinguished panel of qualified judges, and each competitor will receive a judges' comment sheet. Medals, merchandise, and cash prizes will be awarded to winning entries. Categories in this year's tasting competition include birthday cakes, cupcakes, Renaissance cakes, and cookies. Chronicle contributor Kate Thornberry and I will be among the judges for this section, in which winners will be receive coveted King Arthur catalog gift cards in various denominations.
This year's Renaissance theme just happens to have an auspicious tie-in with the logo of the show's first big national sponsor, the King Arthur Flour Company. "We're thrilled to have a company with the stature of King Arthur on board, and they've already shown an interest in developing a long-term relationship with the show," Bartos reports. The 200-year-old, employee-owned company is renowned in the baking world for top-quality flours and a mail-order catalog of essential baking equipment and ingredients, as well as a retail bakery and teaching facility in Vermont that has become a tourist destination for serious bakers. As the sponsor of the tasting competition, King Arthur is providing gift cards as prizes and also supplied bags of all-purpose flour and boxes of unbleached cake flour to competitors in that category.
Shopping opportunities are another key component of this show. Companies with their eyes on the burgeoning cake and sugar art trend have been quick to develop and market tools and equipment for consumer use. Now it's possible for home bakers to create professional-quality cakes and candies, as well as chocolate and sugar art showpieces. More than 45 vendors have signed on to showcase their wares this weekend. Guests can check out everything from pans, molds, pastry tips, transfer sheets, aprons, and jewelry to chocolate-tempering machines and cutting-edge pieces of decorating equipment such as the new sugar melting gun and edible sugar glue from a company called Get Sassie! (take that, Martha Stewart). Bartos reports that rather than confining vendors to one specific area this year, their booths will be strategically placed among the competition exhibits for maximum exposure.
The crucial third aspect of this weekend's event is continuing education for accomplished and aspiring cake decorators alike. Cake world luminaries Nicholas Lodge, Mike McCarey, Roland and Marsha Winebeckler, Kathleen Lange, and Marina Sosa are not only judging the competition but also providing expert instruction. Both before and after the show, these visiting experts will present extensive, hands-on classes at the Crowne Plaza where preregistered students will leave the class with new knowledge and completed projects. Although the registration deadline for those classes has passed, many of the same instructors will present a series of on-site miniclasses during the two-day show. Space may still be available for short classes offering instruction in such skills as cake painting ($65), making poppies and feathers ($100), smooth buttercream icing ($80), Battenburg lace ($60), figure modeling ($70), and working with Isomalt ($150). For complete event and class details, show schedules, and info on registration and general admission, go to www.thattakesthecake.org. See you there!
That Takes the Cake comes to the North Austin Event Center (10601 N. Lamar) on Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 25-26.
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