Just off Main Street in Babylon Village is a small cake shop with two large glass windows. Inside those windows is an array of elegant, imaginative and inventive cakes. People strolling along the sidewalk cup their hands over their foreheads and peer in, trying to get an unobstructed look at what is happening inside. If the glass wasn’t there, these cakes would be devoured before you could cross the street.
Inside, Micheline Cummings, cake decorator and owner of Madame Butterfly Cakes, is at work designing and creating edible artistic creations. The spectators aren’t anything she’s not used to.
“We constantly have forehead prints, chin prints and hand prints because they are trying to see what we are doing,” she says. Do the cakes look good? Just ask her customers who are afraid to even cut into them.
“We tell them just cut the back, like a band-aid,” she says. “Rip it off and do it fast.”
Completely self-taught, Cummings opened the shop a little more than eight years ago and since then, along with her sidekick Terry Haughey, has been making edible art.
Cummings attended Hofstra University. Her initial plan was to become a lawyer, but midway had a change of heart and wound up graduating with a psychology degree. She always had an artistic edge, but how that tendency found its way into a confectionery craft is anyone’s guess.
“As I started to shy away from traditional art, I started doing more cake decorating,” she says. “I am not sure why I started playing around with cakes.”
But while cakes are group affairs, their smaller brethren cupcakes, even though they are more diminutive in scale, still have endless possibilities when it comes to one-of-a-kind personalization.
Amy Brady entered a cupcake shop one day and fell in love. She thought it would be a cool idea to open her own store, but there was one problem: She had never baked a cupcake in her life. But that did not stop her from opening Cupcake Gourmet in Huntington Village in March, 2008.
“I started playing around with some recipes and trying them out on all my friends,” she says. “They actually liked it!”
Brady, like Cummings, is completely self-taught and even built the shop herself. Prior to her cupcake endeavor she was a graphic designer at People magazine. But more than a law or psychology degree, her design background comes in handy when taking a vision from the customer’s mind to their stomach. Talking and understanding the theme and specifics of the occasion are some of the basics of designing and apply directly to Brady’s cupcake work.
Chief among them: asking question. A bride-to-be walks into Brady’s shop wanting cupcakes for her wedding. Brady peppers her with questions: Is the wedding low key or formal? Where is it being held? The answers will help determine what flavors and decorations will work best.
“The more information I have,” Brady says, “the better I am able to make her happy, which is my goal.”
Cummings also likes to play 20 Questions with her customers, and then some. “People who have never been here before kind of get thrown off at first when they come in, because I ask a million questions.” she says. Her interrogation tactics aren’t nosy, but a necessity—some people walk into her shop already knowing exactly what they want, while others only bring ideas. Either way, Cummings does her best to make sure what comes out of the oven is unique.
“I hate for someone to have a copy of someone else’s cake, so I always try to offer some suggestions to personalize it,” she says.
It’s during this brain picking that Cummings sifts through the customer’s ideas—the, “It would be so cool if you could do this”—and the customer’s requests—the, “you’ve got to do this”—and starts to imagine what the actual finished product will look like. “As we’re talking, I start getting a mental image of the cake and it’s actually designing itself in my head,” she says. Occasionally, she’ll even sketch out a possible design.
Once the design is complete, the vision has to be executed into an edible piece of work. Just like an artist uses a variety of different mediums and techniques, a cake decorator does the same. Just like sculpting with modeling clay or marble, there is a technique for sculpting cake.
Cakes by Mona New York, known as CMNY Cakes, is where James Cameron would likely go to get dessert for his birthday. The shop is creating what it calls 3-D cakes.
“I think it is kind of our signature stuff,” says Ro Sokhi, one of the store’s owners. CMNY’s main bakery is located in Levittown. The sculpting technique is something of a necessity for CMNY’s 3-D cakes. Cummings also employs the sculpting technique even though her cakes’ weight and density, she says, don’t lend to sculpting certain things.