Local Bakers Combine Artistry, Architecture and Culinary Prowess to Create Show-Stopping Cakes
Most bakers never forget their first three-foot cake. It’s a confectionery rite of passage. Crystal Sparkman, owner of Bake Eat Love in Pawtucket, remembers hers vividly: an “Alice in Wonderland”–themed creation complete with a mushroom-shaped base, a tipping teapot and a Mad Hatter topper for a 30th birthday party.
“This cake had to be planned out months in advance,” Sparkman says.
PVC pipe and Plexiglass were used to secure the internal structure and every tier had to be sized precisely to fit over the pipes. To complicate matters, a snowstorm the day of the party meant no parking and icy sidewalks outside the Providence restaurant where the event was taking place.
Sparkman recalls shoveling a path before carefully walking each piece of the cake inside. She stood on a ladder to stack the tiers before rolling fondant and piping roses to cover seams mere hours before guests arrived.
Needless to say, the birthday girl was blown away and Sparkman was able to breathe a big sigh of relief once the first slice was served.
While a three-foot cake sounds extreme, Sparkman’s story is fairly emblematic of what most cake bakers are up to these days. More than an amalgamation of eggs, flour and fondant, today’s cakes combine artistry, architecture and culinary prowess. And in no sector is that more apparent than weddings, where cakes play a far bigger role than just dessert. The centerpiece of the reception, the cake is a sweet symbol of a couple’s love and relationship that must not only taste good but give some insight, by way of the design, into who they are.
No local baker may understand this better than Jennifer Luxmoore, owner of Sin in Providence. After attending the Johnson & Wales University pastry program, Luxmoore opened Sin over a decade ago at the height of the “Ace of Cakes” craze, when the popular television show had everyone dreaming of over-the-top theme cakes. For Luxmoore, it was the ideal time to go into business.
“Everyone was watching the show but there weren’t a lot of people carving cakes locally and so having that TV exposure taught the clientele what could be done. I didn’t have to teach them,” Luxmoore explains one afternoon in her West Side bakery and café, where, in addition to making cakes, she offers single-serving desserts, along with coffee and cocktails.
Over the years, Sin has built a following for its modern, often avant-garde, cake designs.
“All of the cake people in the area have their thing. If you want something a little weird, you come to us. We like the slightly different and nontraditional,” Luxmoore says. Recent Sin standouts include a skull and cauldron cake for a Halloween wedding and a multi-tiered cake painted with edible watercolor scenes of Providence for a wedding taking place in the Aldrich House on the East Side.
But even with more traditional brides, there are opportunities for Luxmoore to inject some of Sin’s signature style.
“We may be held to what the client is giving us in terms of a photo or colors, but we also try to find out what is special to the client and then maybe change the topper or add ombre [mixed colors],” explains Luxmoore, who has two full-time employees—head designer Keri Bonilla and designer Tiffany Flanagan—to take the lead on cake orders. They work mostly with fondants and painted surfaces—decorator Angela Sowerby focuses on buttercream work. The team brainstorms and then they go back and forth with the client until a design is finalized.
Sparkman prefers a similar process.
“I like to make the cake my own while also basing it on what the client is like.”
Sparkman, a Johnson & Wales culinary program graduate who began baking cakes out of her home 10 years ago before opening her bakery in Hope Artiste Village in 2012, takes several days to assemble her cakes, making more complex elements, like sugar flowers, even earlier.
Her design process is fairly seamless, with the dress, wedding colors and venue dictating details. But in the age of Pinterest, where ideas run wild, there is the occasional bride who changes her mind with every pin to her wedding-themed board.
“That’s when I say, ‘Let me draw you something. I promise you will love it.’ And they usually do,” Sparkman says.
In all cases, it’s important to be honest about what is realistic, according to Sparkman. Many factors, including weather, budget, even sheer gravity, can render certain designs implausible—no matter how beautiful they may look on the computer screen.
To ensure her cakes appear as promised, Sparkman travels with a repair kit complete with piping bags, frosting and fondant to clean up any dents and dings that can happen in transit.
“Delivery makes me nervous but once it’s there, that’s a relief. You work so hard on the cake you want to make sure it gets there safely,” Sparkman says.
Nearly every wedding cake baker will tell you that transport is the most nerve-wracking part of the process. For Isis Brighton, owner of Isis Cakes, that might be where her similarities to most local bakers end.
Since starting her business four years ago after baking at Sweet Cakes in Peace Dale, Brighton has become known for a style that she describes as “natural simplicity,” making her cakes without food coloring, fondant or anything else considered artificial. Instead, she turns to fruit and vegetable juices for dye, and keeps designs limited to buttercream frosting, glazes, locally grown flowers and fruits dried in the kitchen at Grapes & Gourmet, the Jamestown wine and cheese shop owned by her family, where she does her baking.
“I like to let the ingredients shine through. In baking, if you’re using good ingredients, you don’t have to over-sweeten things.” Brighton says. “And with natural decorations and fresh flowers, the magic just happens.”
Brighton is always on the lookout for unique ingredients. She’s been loving husk cherries recently and has also experimented with making maraschino cherries sans red dye. She keeps close ties with several local flower growers so she can get her hands on the best of what’s in season, no matter if the bride is looking for a cake full of dahlias or just wants to keep it simple with fresh herbs and greens.
Naturally, Brighton’s cakes tend to attract a specific type of bride, usually someone looking for a more rustic-style cake to go with their venue.
“Most customers understand what I’m trying to do,” Brighton says.
Sparkman and Luxmoore concur that having their vision understood is key to success.
“The best is when they look at the cake and say ‘Oh, this is so much more than I was expecting,’” Luxmoore says, smiling. “Getting that kind of feedback is just fantastic.”
Sparkman finds that working with clients is not all that different from a marriage: She’s aiming for a long-term relationship, rather than just one great day. For the couple who commissioned the “Alice in Wonderland” cake, she's made a baby shower and first birthday cake as well.
“Each time, you want to make the best cake they’ve ever seen so they say, ‘That’s our cake lady. From now on, she’ll always take care of it.’”