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New generation of cake artists push the limits of edible art

Cake culture in Austin looks nothing like it did 15 years ago, when Jennifer and Randy Bartos bought a wedding shop that specializes in cakes.

They weren’t that interested in selling garters and invitations and other wedding gear, so they transformed All in One into what is now Make It Sweet, the largest baking supply store in Central Texas.

Not long after getting into the baking business, Jennifer Bartos realized she was meeting all the serious bakers in the area and that they needed a way to get to know each other. The Capital Confectioner’s Club was born, and within a few years, the group was hosting a cake show in the hallways of the Le Cordon Bleu culinary school. “We had 100 cakes that first year, but 75 of them were student-required cakes,” Jennifer Bartos says with a laugh.

That small show has grown over the past 13 years into That Takes the Cake, one of the largest cake and sugar arts shows in the country. The event returns Saturday and Sunday to the Round Rock Sports Complex, 2400 Chisholm Trail Road.

Jennifer Bartos and the Capital Confectioner’s crew that runs the show are expecting more than 4,000 attendees, all of whom are here for the same thing: to gawk at nearly 300 show-stopping cakes, cookies and creations that Jennifer Bartos never could have imagined were possible back when the show started.

“There were people who were doing cake, people who did big wedding cakes and stuff, but what we think of as cake culture did not exist,” she says. There was an annual trade show with the International Cake Exploration Societé, Jennifer Bartos says, but everyday bakers weren’t experimenting with fondant, gum paste and molding chocolate.

But then the Food Network started airing shows about cake competitions and creative bakers, including Duff Goldman, whose show “Ace of Cakes” debuted in 2006. When YouTube and food blogging took off, TV viewers realized they could watch and read tutorials about how to make amazing creations at home.

Jennifer Bartos moved to Austin in 1990 and met Randy Bartos at a credit union where they both worked. She had been baking cakes for friends and family and had a dream of opening a dessert-only restaurant in Austin. After Sept. 11, she and Randy Bartos decided a retail store would be better road to take.

“We gutted the place, got rid of noncake stuff, brought in cake things and started learning,” she says. “Neither of us had owned a retail store or worked in a bakery setting, but we immersed ourselves into it.”

When they moved from the original location on U.S. 183 and into a new, larger space up the road at 9070 Research Blvd. in 2012, they had to make a decision: Should they continue to take custom cake orders from customers or expand the classroom so that more people could attend classes?

The Bartoses decided that teaching their customers to make better cakes (and cookies and cupcakes and just about anything sweet) was a higher priority than making those cakes themselves. They built a classroom that could accommodate 36 students right next to the retail space where customers can buy specialty tools and ingredients that were previously available only online or in limited selection at craft stores.

They now offer classes nearly every day of the month, sometimes several times a day, on everything from cocktail-inspired cupcakes and whoopie pies to savory cream puffs and yeasted bread.

Jennifer Bartos says she’s seen customers become increasingly savvy, just in the past five years, thanks to even more access through sites like Craftsy and through Facebook groups on specific techniques, tools or ingredients.

But there’s an economic reason, too. In 2011, the state Legislature passed a cottage law that legalized the sale of many home-baked goods. Suddenly, that beautiful cake you make for your niece becomes a cake you could sell for a profit.

“We joke about it in the cake ball class,” Jennifer Bartos says. “I tell people, ‘Once people know that you know how to do this, you might just end up with a little side business.’”

She’s not really joking. At least a few times a month, someone she taught in a class will approach her to say they’ve started a side business selling cakes, cake pops or, in the case of a woman she ran into at Sur La Table the other day, anatomically correct cookies.

“We all know that this had been happening for years, but once people were able to do it legally, it made a huge difference” because bakers had a financial incentive to get even more creative than they already were, Jennifer Bartos says.

Sara Weber is one of those home bakers who, though relatively late to the cake game, are making a name for themselves in a competitive but highly creative industry.

Weber is a therapist who lives in North Austin, and she also has an art degree in ceramics. Although she worked as a self-taught pastry cook in Atlanta, Weber’s primary focus after she moved to Austin had been her therapy practice.

But after she and her husband had a son, Silas, she started baking birthday cakes for him. She made one cake a year, and every year she upped the ante. By the time he was in kindergarten, she’d made sculpted cakes that looked like a dragon or a cheetah running mid-stride.

She didn’t start selling cakes until 2015, during a time when both she and her husband lost their jobs, and though they both found new jobs, Weber continued to make and sell cakes on the side through her cottage business, Sara’s Sweets.

Nowadays, she sees patients during the day while Silas is at school. In the afternoons, she puts on her chef coat to squeeze in a few hours of cake artistry before dinner with the family.

Her work area, which looks more like a drafting table than a kitchen countertop, is set up in the family’s living room. Her tools range from paintbrushes and PVC pipe to the relief cutting mat favored by quilters and the kind of poking, prodding and shaping tools you’d find in a sculptor’s studio.

The past few weeks, she’s been finishing her competition cakes for this year’s show. She’s teaching a class for the first time at the show this year about painting stained glass cookies, and she’s excited to see whether her entries do as well as some of her previous pieces, which have won and placed well in various categories in her division.

“In the cake community, everybody gets support from everyone else,” and that fierce collaborative spirit is one reason Austin’s cake show is considered one of the top five in the country, she says.

She belongs to several Facebook groups, some so niche that they are dedicated to specific ingredients, such as wafer paper, so if she gets stuck, she can ask for help. Recently, she was having troubles with a product called Flexique, so she went online to ask her peers, and by the end of the day, a rep with the company was on video chat to troubleshoot her issue.

Live streaming has been another boon to the community, especially Periscope, Weber says. Caking — yes, you can use that as a verb — is a solitary activity, she says, but live streaming connects bakers with other bakers to learn or show off what they are working on.

Weber sees a lot of the recent creative growth coming from new, higher-quality specialty products, as well as new knowledge about older but equally puzzling ingredients, such as isomalt, a sugar substitute that, though tricky to work with, allows you to melt, mold and sculpt to make edible glass. Thanks to shops like Make It Sweet and a new baking supply store in Round Rock called Over the Top Cake Supplies, as well as e-commerce sites, Weber can stock up without having to travel to a trade show.

“More artists see this as an outlet” for their creativity, she says, flipping through a gallery of jaw-dropping creations on her phone. “I don’t know what these artists were doing before they were doing cake, but they probably were using different materials than cake.”

These elaborate cake creations blur the line between art and food. Even though all the cakes at a show like That Takes the Cake are edible, every cake baker has a different opinion about whether their cakes are meant for eating.

“What we’re doing in cake right now mimics nonedible art so much that we are evolving into a place where it’s no longer cake,” Weber says. She likes to make cakes for eating, even the meticulously detailed Santa she made over the holidays, but she’s still fulfilling her art dreams.

Weber is happy to have two jobs that keep two different parts of her brain and heart engaged. She’s also seen full-time bakers suffer from back and neck problems or other stress-related health issues that she wants to avoid.

“Doing art has always been on the agenda in one way or another,” she says. “I just didn’t think it would be in sugar.”

Modeling Chocolate

The same recipe, minus 1/4 cup corn syrup, works for milk/dark chocolate and does not have as many issues as white chocolate. However, you’re stuck with brown and have no color options other than black.

2 lbs. white chocolate (in any form, block, chunks or chips)

1 cup light Karo corn syrup

Melt chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl in 30-second intervals on high (100 percent), stirring between heating. Do not overheat. The bowl should be almost cool to the touch. Overheating will quickly cause the chocolate to burn.

Heat corn syrup in a separate microwave-safe bowl on high (100 percent) for 45 seconds. Pour syrup into melted chocolate and stir with a rubber spatula until completely blended, about 30 generous folds of the spatula. Make sure the spatula and bowl are scraped clean of white chocolate. If any white chocolate has not made contact with corn syrup, you will have lumps in your finished modeling chocolate. Watch for white chocolate streaks while you stir. Mix until the streaks are gone.

Do not over-mix. If you over-mix, your chocolate will become crumbly and fall apart. The over-mixing pulls out too much cocoa butter (fat) from the chocolate. The crumbly chocolate will settle at the bottom of the bowl, and the clear liquid fat will rise to the top. You will not be able to blend the fat back into the chocolate once this happens.

Line a quarter-sheet (9-inch-by-13-inch) cake pan with a large sheet of plastic wrap, making sure there is plenty of overhang. Pour chocolate mixture into pan and wrap the overhanging plastic wrap around the chocolate. Pull the plastic wrap straight and tight over chocolate. If the plastic gathers and pokes into the chocolate, you will have trouble pulling it out of the modeling chocolate after it hardens. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and set aside at room temperature overnight.

The next day, cut the block of modeling chocolate into knead-able sections. The block will be greasy. It needs to be kneaded. Dust a little cornstarch on the table to knead if chocolate is sticky. If the block is too hard for you to knead, heat in microwave 5 seconds at a time until you can begin to easily press your fingers into the block with less force. You will notice the block changing into a silky and pliable claylike ball. It will be a light ivory color after it is kneaded. This is now modeling chocolate.

Cover with plastic wrap and drop in a resealable plastic bag for storage. Store at room temperature for 3 to 4 months before the oils begin to dry out, or in the freezer for up to 2 years.

To color: Knead in gel paste or liquid paste color of any kind. The water-based icing colors will be perfect for the job. Start with a small amount, and add a little bit at a time until you get the color you want.

To make white, you must use white (titanium dioxide) powder or liquid color made for chocolate. Add it to the chocolate a little bit at a time until you get the color you want. The water-based white colors are too liquid for this job.

You can use pre-colored candy melts to make modeling chocolate, which is a helpful tip when you need several pounds of one color. You can also pre-color your melted white chocolate before adding your corn syrup.

Tips: If you’re getting chunks of white chocolate in your finished product, then you did not blend the corn syrup with the melted white chocolate completely. You can try to remelt in the microwave and mix again by getting it to a very soft and pliable temperature. But do not overheat or the fat will separate from the chocolate.

If you’re getting grit in your finished product, then you have over-mixed and pulled too much fat out of the white chocolate. The modeling chocolate will be a crumbly mess as you knead. There is no way to restore it to a smooth and workable clay at this point.


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