by Lori L Tharps
French monarch, Marie Antoinette supposedly said once, “Let them eat cake,” referring to the hungry peasants of France who could no longer afford even bread. In response, she got her head cut off. Not a pretty picture, but since it’s Bastille Day and the day reminds us of cake, we thought why not talk to one of Philly’s newest artisan bakers who specializes in delicious, bespoke, buttercream frosted cakes for any occasion.
Carey Madden is the owner and founder of Violet Bakery and the author of two delightful cookbooks about cake. Her latest, Buttercream Basics (Robert Rose) just came out so we decided to talk to her on this very cake-appropriate day about the intersection of art, passion and dessert.
Qwerty Philly: Your cakes are so beautiful. Do you consider yourself an artist or a baker? Also, where and how did you learn to make such beautiful creations?
Carey Madden: I spent a decade icing and decorating cakes baked by other people. I didn’t begin baking in earnest until I started to develop recipes for my first book (Sensational Buttercream Decorating). So, I have always considered myself a cake decorator before a baker, and a craftsperson before an artist.
I think the line between baker, craftsperson and artist is a fine one, hard to distinguish and maybe incidental. An attorney that crafts a brilliant courtroom strategy is relying on creativity, as is a computer engineer that develops a better way to navigate the web. In the Dutch Golden Age, the lowly house painter was in the same guild as the stone mason and the fine artist, including Rembrandt and Vermeer. I believe we are all artists at some level, and finding our individual form of expression is imperative to a fully realized and satisfying life.
I learned my craft mostly on the job at The Two Little Red Hens Bakery in New York City. I also interned at the cake studio of Ron Ben-Israel. Working at a production bakery was hard work, the pace was fast and the hours long, but the experience was invaluable. There’s nothing like necessity and pressure to push you to innovate and improve.
QP: Your new book is called Buttercream Basics: Learn the Art of Buttercream Decorating and it has lots of colorful pictures and step-by-step directions, but do you really think anybody could read the book and come out with cakes as gorgeous as yours? Or should folks not aim so high?
CM: I don’t think that baking, cake decorating or any creative endeavor is merely about the end result. The act of creation itself is of equal or greater value than the finished cake. Sure, practice helps, but the love and effort that is baked into a cake establishes the value.
I think there is beauty in imperfection. Imperfection is evidence that an item was crafted by hand, and not machine or computer. This is why the domed and lopsided cakes of our childhood will be some of the most beautiful cakes we experience.
True, some projects in Buttercream Basics are aspirational, but many of them utilize the inherent texture and imperfect finish of buttercream to work with, and even camouflage, the developing skills of an unpracticed hand. Other projects are slathered with candy or fresh flowers, which require little decorating finesse. In any event, keep in mind, it’s just cake. It will be eaten and enjoyed regardless.
QP: What we love about your book is that there is so much color and whimsy in your cake decorations and yet everything also looks really delicious; Why do your cakes look edible whereas other “decorated cakes” look like sculptures that you wouldn’t want to ingest?
CM: The cakes featured in the book are all decorated with buttercream. I have always considered buttercream as food first, and decoration second. So even when it’s piped into intricate decoration it retains its soft, satiny, and delectable appearance.
Other cake decorating mediums, such as fondant and gumpaste, can be sculpted into mirror image perfection. This perfection makes for cake that is exquisite as a work of art, but less titillating for the taste buds.
QP: Clearly you have a gift for cake art. What made you decide to put your knowledge on the page and write books? And how hard was it to translate what you know about cake making into easy explanations for regular folks?
CM: Having the opportunity to spread the word about the joy of buttercream was a happy marriage of my two abiding passions, cake and the written word. My appetite for books and literature is as voracious as my appetite for cake. Contributing to the cannon, even in such a narrow and technical manner, felt like a huge honor.
Honestly, it was challenging to write the technical instructions in the book. Not because the act of decorating is necessarily inherently challenging, but because words are not always sufficient in describing what occurs in physical time and space, and in multiple dimensions. Thankfully, with the help of my editor’s sharp mind and beginners eye, we were able to develop a vocabulary and step-by-step process able to translate the physical onto the page.
QP: What word of advice would you give anyone trying to make a decorated buttercream frosted cake for the first time? Is there a secret tip you can share with us?
CM: My secret tip for making a buttercream cake is the same secret for pretty much everything else in life. If you’ll allow me to quote myself from the book’s introduction, I’d say, “Let loose the creative noose of perfection, high expectations, self-criticism and judgement. You are the very best part of your cake.”
QP: Finally, where can people buy your book?
CM: Buttercream Basics is available at indie and chain bookstores, and at your favorite online retailer.
(all photos supplied by Carey Madden)