Customers ask the Vona sisters for fire trucks, hamburgers, and trumpets. They demand kittens. Could you make me a red sneaker, like an Adidas sneaker? A reclining cheetah, complete with spots-oh, and, can you put him on a bed of jungle grass?
Whatever the order, the Vonas provide. All it takes is sugar, flour, eggs, butter, baking soda, and buttercream frosting. “I bring ideas to life-using cake,” says the slender, sharp-nosed Sofia Marini, pushing up her hairnet. “For grass we use coconut, for water we use royal icing. We have to get creative.” Along with her two younger sisters, Sofia owns and runs The Cake Boutique, an unconventional bakeshop that sells its goods “by appointment only” and is known in wealthy Wilton, Connecticut for its “Shaped Custom Cakes.”
Business is booming, and the turn-of-the century carriage house the girls bought four years ago is starting to feel cramped. The kitchen’s large single oven will cook ten separate cakes over the next two days, all ordered for Easter Sunday. Spending upwards of twenty hours to concoct each individual dessert means that the sisters often stay in the kitchen until two or three in the morning. Sonya and Sandra joke that if they bake a cake for their eldest sister, it will take the form of a Dunkin’ Donuts cup because Sofia is “always attached to a cup of coffee.”
These days, it seems that everyone in Wilton wants a sculpted cake. Driving up Danbury Road to the boutique, the sisters pass their old high school and continue past gentrified strips of antique stores and cozy cafes. “It’s a cute town,” Sofia said, “with people who will spend money on cakes.” At twelve dollars per slice for particularly difficult forms (witness the cheetah), the Cake Boutique’s clientele is limited. You can tell by perusing the cakes in their backlog; one client ordered a cake shaped like a purse, filled with cookies sculpted after her choice cosmetics-Chanel Glossimier, Vega eye-shadow, and “Mystery Blush.” You can now have your designer bag and eat it too. Consumerism becomes consumption.
The Vona enterprise is just the latest slice of an American baking trend that started in the 70s, when sculpted cakes were displayed to attract fairgoers. At the top tier of that movement was Roland A. Winbeckler, a baker who stacked his reputation on life-sized cakes resembling celebrities from Christopher Columbus to a midriff-baring Cher. Last TV season, the celebrities he carved stepped aside to let cake sculptors share the limelight, courtesy of the Food Network reality series Ace of Cakes, which tracked the day-to-day stresses of a Baltimore bakeshop that once iced an exact replica of Wrigley Field.
Historically cakes have been round, as that is the natural shape of rising batter. But because the delicacy is eaten almost exclusively on special occasions, the shape of cake has taken on more significance. Romans impressed their cakes with stamps depicting gods; Russians ate round cakes in praise of the sun; and Chinese cooks served round mooncakes to honor the goddess of the moon. We bake what we praise.
In 1976, Winbeckler baked a cake in the shape of Colonel Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and presented to the god a cake in his own image. The Colonel asked, “Is it chicken flavored?” More recently, police officers arrested a Connecticut bride for hurling slices of cake at caterers who had closed the bar. Upon arrest, she attempted to bite an officer. When the cake is a weapon, and the man is a cake, can we no longer distinguish what is edible, what is real, and what is cake?
Welcome to the realist movement of culinary arts, where customer testimonials on the bakery’s website praise the Vonas as “artists.” One Wilton mother attested that for her son’s bar mitzvah, the sisters had “created an actual boat so stunningly accurate that many guests thought it could not possibly BE a cake!” It was a success, as realist art is, because it deceived its audience.
Growing up, the sisters joined their mother, a homemaker, in trying new dessert recipes every Sunday after lunch. Their father, a stonemason, sat back and ate. “His medium is stone,” said Sofia. “He made beautiful things out of stone.” The Vonas’ craft melds their parents’ professions. Just as their father once carved rock, today they lean over teetering towers of stacked sheet cake and, with lean knives, cut away to uncover the forms buried within. “Actually a lot of people tell us they don’t want to cut into the cake,” Sofia said. “They don’t wanna destroy it.” But the Vona sisters know better. Moved by artistic mettle, their brave carving recalls a statement of Michelangelo that their father might have known: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
A popular video posted on YouTube shows a British baker sculpting a block of chocolate cake into a near-perfect replica of a slumbering human baby, complete with tiny, curled fingers molded of peach fondant. The final cake seems innocent, almost adorable. But comments from the videos viewers seethe with disgust: What sicko would want to eat a baby? Such a question is central to cake sculpting. Why do we desire to ingest what we love? To eat the work of cake is akin to Communion, wherein we take that which we love inside of ourselves in a cannibalistic ritual.
“Eventually they make their way into it,” Sofia said of her timid customers. “They wanna see what’s inside.” To know the cake, they must destroy it. To fully love it, they must gut it. Anne, a Wilton bride, wrote to the Vona sisters that she had overheard guests expressing surprise because “cakes that are pretty usually don’t taste good.” It’s a lesson those attendees might have learned anywhere in life. Perhaps it is only in cake art that surface and interior are equally rewarding, that what is beautiful is also kind, and also sort of delicious, and buttery, and downright satisfying.