Unless you've seen it, you can't imagine it: Hats, lamps, clowns, mice, chessmen, bears, Santa Claus, snowmen, flags, lighthouses, Cal Ripken and Elvis and Buddy Holly, lilies, tulips, trout and, of course, the bride and groom -- all done in cake.
That's right, cake. It was the icing on the cake, of course, that provided the medium for all the amazingly artistic work that appeared at the 21st annual International Cake Exploration Societe's Convention and Show last weekend.
The society consists of some 3,000 passionate cake decorators from around the world, 1,300 or so of whom showed up at the Baltimore Convention Center for three days of demonstrations, exhibitions, sightseeing, shopping and nonstop talking about CAKE.
"Just about everything" can be represented on top of a cake, says Linda Dobson, co-director (with Diane Gibbs) of the Maryland show for the cake society.
A survey of the cakes on display from Maryland members makes that perfectly plain: There's a carousel with icing horses marching around it, a picture of a hot-air balloon carrying two contented mice, a chessboard with dark and white chocolate chessmen, a teapot, and a tiny woodland scene, complete with woodland creatures, a stream and vegetation.
All cake society members are encouraged, but not required, to bring an example of their work, and about 90 percent do. The decorations have to be edible, though the cake can be a dummy. The skill level ranges from beginners to professionals -- the chessboard cake was made by a member's young grandchildren.
Cake decoration, like other esoteric realms, has its own language. Fondant, buttercream, royal icing, gum paste, color flow, marzipan, piping gel, pastillage, piping tips, cutting stencils and sugar art pens are tools of the trade for the people who make your birthdays, anniversaries, weddings and other holidays edibly memorable.
And nothing, it seems, is too much trouble for the dedicated cake decorator. Duplicating a bride's wedding dress on the tiny figure atop her cake is, well, a piece of cake. Dobson once "dressed" an icing bride in a copy of her human counterpart's dress, then gave the icing groom a copy of the new husband's Naval Academy uniform.
The popularity of cake decorating can be attributed largely to Joseph Lambeth, who lived in the last part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th, Dobson said. Lambeth was an Englishman who won 210 international awards for his cake decorating and who developed the British-American style of three-dimensional decoration.
Some of the dimensions achieved with what is essentially sugar and water are mind-boggling. There's a Tiffany "lamp," made of fondant (a thick glucose mixture that is cooked, beaten, kneaded, rolled out and shaped), piping gel (which gives it the stained-glass colors) and royal icing (which has egg whites and can be shaped or, when diluted, used to "paint" designs).
There's a panda bear with frosting "fur" created with a pastry tip. ("That's a No. 233," said Maryland delegate Wilma Peterson.) And there are amazingly realistic flowers -- lilies, tulips, orchids and chrysanthemums, among others -- created with gum paste.
Among the elaborate floral creations is a wedding cake by Avelina C. Florendo of the Philippines. It has a floral base, and a bride and groom atop a globe.
Florendo's husband, Herminio, said they have been coming to the cake conventions for the past 10 years. Asked how one would get something so fragile as a cake from the Philippines to the United States, he laughed and said, "You have to pack it well." The Florendos' secret is plywood crates.
Not everything survives the journey to downtown Baltimore unscathed. Injured cakes are just what the mother-daughter team of Betty Jane and Diane Orner are waiting for in the show's Cake Emergency Room. Armed with buttercream, royal and other icings, edible dyes, cake tips, foils, spatulas, rolling pin and mixer, the Orners are prepared to offer assistance to anyone whose cake had crumpled, dented, slipped or cracked in transit.
Betty Jane Orner said the worst show-cake accident she knows of happened not too long ago in Kansas City. "It was a gingerbread house," she said, "a huge display. The humidity got to it and it just collapsed."
Marge Kehoe, her fingers covered with chocolate, blamed jolting during the car trip from her home in Springfield, Mass., for breaking all the chocolate butterflies on her four-tiered cake. She is in the emergency room patching them up and putting them gently back on. "So they'll sort of look like butterflies."
The cake show is not a contest; there are no prizes, ribbons or plaques. It's just a chance for people to show off their work to their peers and to the general public. In any case, the showiest cake in the hall (and the largest) is the Maryland cake, designed and created by Maryland members of the society.
Dobson designed the cake, on which about two dozen people had labored since spring. It's a stunner, with three tiers of cake and a "beach" base with a boardwalk made of fondant and brown sugar sand. In the center of the base is a sugar skipjack and on the top is a sugar model of Thomas Point Lighthouse.
Other decorative elements include sea gulls, herons, the skyline of Baltimore and a cyclorama landscape of Maryland, from the mountains to the ocean. One tier has seals from all of the state's counties.
Besides that, the cake has a night side and a day side. On the day side, "open windows" in the buildings spell B-A-L-T-I-M-O-R-E. On the night side, lights in the windows that spell the name really are tiny lights.
Maryland's pride is on display at the show for visitors from about two dozen countries, said Gibbs, the show's co-chairwoman. Her husband made the Maryland cake's lighthouse. "It took him a long time, but he got it done," she said.
Cake society members who want to learn a new technique can attend demonstrations on such things as "10 Ways to Transfer Images to Cakes," and "Tridimensional Embroidery." And anyone who's inspired to try something new can step over to the vendor aisles and buy the latest in cake-decorating equipment. Exhibitors here range from Duncan Hines to Beryl's Cake Decorating Equipment.
Beryl's, which imports from Britain, is run by Beryl Loveland, a native of Britain who studied pastry making at L'Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda.
She never intended to get into the import-sales business, she said. "But every time I went to England I bought books and I found new projects I wanted to do." Soon, other people were asking her to bring back things for them. When she called one company to find out if she could buy its products, they said, of course you can and by the way, we don't have an American representative, Loveland said. And so she was in business, and now represents other British firms as well.
She offers books and videos, cutters (used to impress designs into a cake, or to cut out a pattern for the design), stencils, all sorts of tints and liquid colorings, pastry tips, molds and pans and just about anything else needed to master the "cake-decorating and sugar-related arts."
And maybe some other arts as well. She has one customer who works with pottery and uses some of the cake tools.
This borrowing of craft techniques goes both ways. In cake decorating, there are tools for creating smocking (a form of needlework decoration that stitches folds to each other in a pattern) and basketweave.
"I've found out that anything you can do in needle embroidery, you can do in cake decorating," Loveland said.
The 1997 convention of the International Cake Exploration Societe will be held in Orlando, Fla. For information on joining the organization, write to I.C.E.S. Membership, 1740 44th St. S.W., Wyoming, Mich. 49509.
Pub Date: 8/21/96