On Cake

and the shifting aesthetics of perfection.

I always pursue perfection when I am decorating a cake. I try for clean lines, full coverage, a smooth top. If I pipe on extra decor, I seek uniformity. I avoid writing letters on cakes, because I invariably mess up. I love cake so much that I never want to do it dirty. There’s no moment in my life more stressful than when I take my deep breath to begin a decorating project. The only person who could be around me when I made my first and only wedding cake, for my friend Layla Schlack, was my mother. No one else could have absorbed that anxiety without taking my mood personally. 

The origin of this pursuit of perfection is undoubtedly all the cake television I watched in the late ’00s and early ’10s. On those shows, cake was extravagance and no swirl of frosting could be amiss. And of course there has been cake Instagram, which was once a place of fondant-smooth uniformity. 

But now cake Instagram is a diverse space, and I’m questioning what I consider “perfect.” Some people go for an over-the-top take on classic American bakery decoration: piped ribbons, heavy food coloring, a semi-deranged Amy Sedaris–esque housewife vibe. Others are what I consider nouveau classic—not covered in fondant, which has gone out of fashion (thankfully)—yet still perfectly smooth with intricate piped designs or other less abstract details. There are stunning Jell-O cakes filled with fruit chunks and delicate flowers, so much more intriguing than their ’70s ancestors.

Then there are what I consider the organic cakes, with buttercream squiggles and full fruit and spoons of jam and maybe leaves, or even lettuce, atop them. These are flavor and ingredient forward, but nonetheless conform to a specific cake perspective. They’re my favorite, a point of obsession and inspiration—the kind of cakes I wish I could have done and sold while I was a baker on Long Island.

Looking at cake online has made me wonder who has started each trend, how they proliferate, and whether people ever get tired of being in their wheelhouse and long to break out. How should a cake be, and how does each style reflect each maker? Indeed, I’ve written about it all before. That piece didn’t scratch every itch, and it was written before organic cakes emerged into my purview. Now, I want to know where their inspiration comes from and how they make it work—probably, in a perverse way, because I couldn’t do so while I was making vegan cakes with entirely organic ingredients.

It should be said that these bakers are always very honest about burnout, and I have to think that some of the burnout is owed to the way perfection is expected in each and every execution of the product, both aesthetic and flavor-wise. This is also mainly women’s work, and it is feminized regardless of who’s performing the buttercream sweeps. (Remember that pastry chefs are mainly women who are often not as respected or paid as well as their male savory counterparts.) Much is expected; a far-too-small price tag is anticipated.

Lately I myself am only making one-layer snacking cakes, never with a full-on buttercream frosting. This is because of the hot, humid climate in which I live and where buttercream would drip off, causing me a mental breakdown. I’ve made peace with using citrus or compotes or simply powdered sugar as my solo decor (even powdered sugar melts, though, when it’s out of the fridge a minute too long). Last week I made a tahini-date frosting for a chocolate cake and dusted it with fleur de sel, and that was good enough. I’m planning to make my own wedding cakes, and now I envision a table of differently sized round cakes—20 inches, 10 inches, 6 inches—in different flavors, with different local fruit on top. I don’t think I will be a Bridezilla, but I will certainly be a Cakezilla.

How a professional baker or pastry chef decorates cake, though, is a matter of personal style, ingredient philosophy, and taste, but this is a society where only money really counts, and so the people doing the ordering also have a say and can often determine the creativity of any given cake-maker attempting to make a living. 

“I feel like I'm almost forced into probably being a little less creative than I want to be most of the time,” Chelsea Kravitz tells me. She’ll be opening up a café and bakery called Flourish Bakeshop & All Day Cafe soon on Long Island. I wanted to talk to her because her cakes are gorgeous, but I know the audience there where I grew up and had my own cake business can be challenging. At the café, she’ll be able to show off her savory side, too, which she believes is her forte.

Cake baker and snack expert Folu, of Unsnackable, says that some uniformity in cake is to be expected. “Learning cake decorating is very hard, cost/resource-intensive, and quite counter-intuitive with the added pressure of creating something meant to be crowd-pleasing and celebratory,” she says. “I think that creates an economic and social incentive for bakers to create things that look like what is popular on social media.”

But to Folu, social media also helps. “Cake has become an adult dessert again (outside of weddings) and it has helped diversify the flavors and decorating styles,” she says. “Pop-ups/residencies and social media has helped lower the entry barriers to pastry so more unique cakes and bakers are getting visibility.” It’s a double-edged sword.

“A lot of clients want a vanilla cake,” says Kravitz. “They want it to look like some picture that they pulled off of the internet. Obviously, it's a ton of fun for me creatively when I can actually kind of do what I want with it. When people are a little more trusting, give me the color and give me an idea of what the person likes and let me create something. But I also make cakes that are shaped like cakes and look like cakes. I don't like fondant. It doesn’t taste good. I think that cakes should taste good first and foremost and look beautiful secondarily.”

When I mentioned the organic cakes that have been in vogue lately, Kravitz said she thinks of those as “pastry chef” cakes—the kind of style someone accustomed to plated or more baroque desserts would be able to come up with and get away with. I called Bronwen Wyatt of Bayou Saint Cake in New Orleans, who’s famous for her squiggles of buttercream, and she confirmed that: Wyatt had never planned on making cake her livelihood, but the pandemic changed her plans when she ended up out of her pastry chef job at a hotel. (And it wasn’t the first time, as Wyatt became a pastry chef because Hurricane Katrina threw off her plans to become an academic.)

She got on Instagram to create her cake business as an income source, and was inspired by the organic styles of Sasha Piligian of May Provisions in L.A. and Elisa Fields (who used to go by @ovenwitch) to use edible flowers, or what she calls “drifting florals.” Both Piligian and Fields worked together at Sqirl, which is where Piligian developed and honed her style that might have set off the organic design trend. “I talked to some other people about this before; it's kind of hard to say who started it, but I think we all influence each other,” says Piligian. “Unfortunately, with social media, that's just what happens, and I try not to let it like seep too much into my head.”

It seems like it’s Wyatt who’s made the squiggle famous (Piligian even tells me she stops herself from adding squiggles to her cakes, because “it’s Bronwen’s thing”).

“I just wanted to figure out a way to do something really playful,” Wyatt says of the inspiration, which she’s drawn from Korean Instagram cake accounts, like Yammy Cake, and the visual artist Amanda Faber. It does add a touch of whimsy to what could be deemed serious cakes that she’s now been topping with things like carrots and lettuce because that’s what’s available for the season. She’s also been making the most gorgeous King Cakes, a local pre-Lent tradition.

Joey Peach of Flavor Supreme in Chicago is another baker working in this style in what seems like the most luxurious way—whole pieces of fruit, big, colorful sweeps of frosting that make you want to reach through the screen for a lick—and to boot, they have an admirable list of ethical standpoints on their website, including that they won’t work with chocolate. 

“At first, the best I could do was go to the farmer's market and get the things I couldn't find there at local markets, or sometimes Whole Foods,” they tell me. “Now that I've done this for awhile, I've built more relationships with local farmers that give me the honor and privilege of working with their amazing products. I really enjoy the creative challenge the colder months pose in terms of accessibility of fresh fruit and flowers—it feels like a big puzzle!” 

They also cite Piligian and Fields as influences, and also came to baking as a way of making ends meet. “I started baking during the winter of 2018. I remember being super depressed, escaping through The Great British Bake Off, and wanting to master layer cakes,” they say. “I began to bake my friends' birthday cakes, and every time I shared a photo via social media, I would get inquiries about them. I started to get more and more ideas, so I began selling them part-time. When I got furloughed from my full-time job as a sexuality educator, I began leaning into cake work.” 

One of my concerns seeing these cakes that have so much fruit and other edible matter on them is that they’re not helping the baker break even, cost-wise. Because I was once trying to do this, I am sensitive to the fact that usually food costs and what a customer is willing to pay don’t jibe.

“I should definitely be charging more,” Wyatt says. She’s changed some things with her ingredients in order to make the margins work out for herself. “I'm going to keep moving forward with trying to use the ingredients and the quality of things that I can,” she says. “I will eventually have to make some more tricky choices. I use a nice flour—I use Central Milling flour, but I’m no longer using freshly, locally milled. And [I use] organic eggs, but they're from Costco. They're not from a local farm.” 

Wyatt notes that if she hired someone, they’d be making more than her because she would pay them a living wage that she can’t pay herself right now. For Piligian, this is also a source of stress—the “Excel spreadsheet” side of baking where costs have to be broken down. She took a break over Christmas because she was exhausted, but there’s always the nagging worry that because many people are trying to make a living from baking where she lives, that her customers will move on to someone else if she’s not available. “I'm thankful to have had unemployment as a supplement,” she says, “but eventually, maybe this could become a sustainable business.” Every baker’s wish.

I started writing this piece to understand how these cake-makers do it: how do they find inspiration, how do they not find too much inspiration and start mimicking others, how do they make ends meet? I ask these questions because at one point, this was all I could imagine doing with my own life, and I envy these people’s talents. It’s a hard life, and the trends are ever-changing—I don’t think I’d be able to hack it, and so I’m ever more impressed by those who can. And what I found out was that being a self-employed baker is a lot like being a self-employed writer, with all the fear that that entails. Fear of rejection, repetition. What will the next cake trend be? Maybe paying a fair price, maybe some semblance of security for all creative people.

On Friday, paid subscribers will receive my interview with Bettina Makalintal, who is a culture writer at Vice where she writes the “Cake Hole” column on Instagram cake trends.

An interview about How I Eat with Lifehacker. An Instagram Live with Dlish.

I’m back into Knausgaard, who simply gives me so much pleasure. I don’t know any other way to put it!

Chocolate cake with tahini-date frosting (pictured—my friend who is a chef told me I should sell cakes again, which brings us to the entire above essay). Ketchup. Superiority Burger burgers, which are worth how intensive they are. The hummus from the Zahav cookbook, which is the hummus my Uncle Rich makes whenever us vegetarians come over, which is the best hummus I’ve ever had.