Cakes as art, when did it start?
June 27, 2009 6:39 AM   Subscribe

Can anyone tell me when and how super-fancy, customized cakes became so popular, sought-after, and possible?

On various cake-baking reality shows I've seen cakes shaped like anesthesia machines, dj tables, and the Sutton Hoo helmet, and even around town in bakeries, most wedding cakes are fondant-covered and incredibly detailed. The armadillo cake in Steel Magnolias is an old example, but it was played as an odd joke, and unless I'm wrong, this explosion in creativity is novel.
posted by juniper to Food & Drink (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Are you including "face cakes" in this milieu? Because those are pretty recent, I think. Maybe past 5-10 years.
posted by ShadePlant at 7:04 AM on June 27, 2009

I think cakes carved into clever shapes are as old as Woman's Day magazine. The new part is the notion that they were other than a novelty for childrens' brithday parties, retirement parties and maybe 40th/50th brithday parties.

Enter pros with all kinds of tools, techniques and talents that mom didn't have time to develop since she was in the garage working on this. Pretty soon, as you describe, you had cakes as art.

So I think a lot of it was attitude change in the customer base.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:29 AM on June 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Having read about the kinds of things that were presented at the royal tables of early modern Europe, I'd have to say that super-fancy customized cakes is centuries old. It'd be nice to hear from someone who knows a bit more specifically about the history of baking, though, since what I've read mainly comes in as asides in political histories.
posted by asciident at 7:40 AM on June 27, 2009

Sorry no citation, but I've definitely read about exceedingly fancy cakes being served in French courts of the 1600's. I'm guessing that fancy custom cakes are at least as old as kings with bakers.
posted by Aquaman at 7:49 AM on June 27, 2009

You're not going to find a specific inventor or date, since as many people pointed out, cakes have been fancy forever.

To narrow it down, by "custom" cakes, do you mean cakes which have been molded and decorated to look like something other than a cake?

If that's true, then the first popular example of this I saw in popular culture was purse cakes, which got trendy around the time people were freaking out over Louis Vuitton bags.
posted by Juliet Banana at 8:59 AM on June 27, 2009

Like so many other things that "seem" to explode in popularity, I think it's that they were always around but we just didn't know about it.

Reality TV, internet, etc. gives things like that transparency and saturation that could never occur that fast pre-technology.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 9:33 AM on June 27, 2009

Response by poster: I guess that what I mean to ask is, when did non-royals, the non-exceedingly-wealthy start clamoring for expensive, usually "themed" cakes. To me it seems fairly recent. Or, when and why did bakeries start offering the Art Deco or Day of the Dead or Redskins wedding cake, or yeah, the cakes that look like beavers or laptops or (shudder) purses. I am being somewhat influenced in my perception of ubiquity by the cake shows, but when I got married a few years ago the array of options was amazing, and my own cake was like a dream. I guess I just wonder if there was some invention or idea in the 90s (I had a Carebear cake as a kid in the 80s, but it was just a fancy cake mold, not a BEAR THAT STOOD UP!) that made this current craze possible.
posted by juniper at 9:39 AM on June 27, 2009

The normals take on all sorts of extravagant habits of the rich...cakes, extravagant parties (proms), full-length pants...we'll do whatever the rich do. Just give us a bit of time to save up our life savings to blow on these things.
posted by hal_c_on at 10:33 AM on June 27, 2009

Wilton has had a corner in my local craft stores since my daughter was a toddler (she's 19 now), and I've used their cake pans and idea books many times. This recent explosion of cake-as-art may have come from Food Network's Ace of Cakes which has apparently been around since 2006. Food Network also runs a show called Challenge that is sometimes centered around elaborately themed cakes.

In short, I think you can blame Food Network for stoking public interest in custom cakes.
posted by contrariwise at 12:19 PM on June 27, 2009

I think the recent explosion of fancy cakes is related to the proliferation of rolled fondant. I can't find info about how long this has been available, but it's the plastic looking substance that is molded to create all the wild shapes you see on something like Ace of Cakes. While it's technically edible, it is not the most appetizing substance.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 2:37 PM on June 27, 2009

What solipsophistocracy said.

And let's be real here: those cakes are exercises in inedible sculpture; witness how many on Ace of Cakes (christ I hate that goddamn show and that goddamn 'bakery') are rolled fondant pressed on wood or armatures of wire. There is absolutely no interest in flavour or texture. It is simply sculpted fondant, which as noted above is not exactly tasty, and may as well be modeling clay. Sure, it's difficult to do some of the stuff that they do, but it's sort of the apex of food style over substance.

Give me a devils food cake with a ganache over fondant stupidity any day.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 2:56 PM on June 27, 2009

...when did non-royals, the non-exceedingly-wealthy start clamoring for expensive, usually "themed" cakes.

It coincides with the recent decade or two of ordinary, middle-class people living people living beyond their means and treating as necessities what were formerly luxuries.

This is meant as a serious answer, not as snark.
posted by Robert Angelo at 4:06 PM on June 27, 2009

My non-educated guess is that it has to do with the proliferation of wedding shows and people wanting to keep up with the Jones'. That, and the mark-up on those monster cakes.

Buttercream over fondant anyday for me...
posted by cestmoi15 at 6:42 PM on June 27, 2009

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