No two decorators are alike. Similar to artists, they work with different mediums and tools to create different details and effects. “My favorite tool is the frosting bag,” Brady says. “You can do so much with it.” Muscle memory is helpful, although Cummings says carpel tunnel can be a downer from piping and using your hands constantly.
Airbrushing is another technique that can be used to add extra detail and depth to a cake. It allows for edible paint or liquid food coloring to be sprayed on using compressed air and a needle pin. It’s used often by Sokhi on his 3-D cakes.
“With the airbrush you can add depth and gradation,” he says. “You can add detail and interest when it wouldn’t really be there otherwise.”
And then there’s good old frosting. “You can do painting with frosting and use a tapered spatula and get a really nice feel, like working with acrylic paint or oil paints,” says Cummings, who also says food coloring can be used to paint with to create the appearance of watercolor.
Regardless of how a cake is styled, Sokhi says much of a decorator’s skill comes from being previously exposed to some type of art. “You really have to be artistic beforehand, whether that means drawing or something else completely,” he says. Once the skill is there, Brady adds, it’s usually there for the long run.
Nearly every variety of dessert is made from sugar, but because there is a range of different mediums, cake decorators need to account for weather conditions according to the product. Humidity and the outside temperature cause ingredients such as frosting and fondant to respond differently.
“You are constantly adapting to the weather conditions, even though you have air conditioning going,” says Cummings. “Even if you have everything down pat, Mother Nature can screw with you.”
Weather is just another concern to factor into the dessert-making process, as if it wasn’t laborious already. The time it takes to construct a cake is, in general, greater than the amount needed to make a single cupcake, but making 200-plus cupcakes, with tiny details and hand-painted designs, adds up fast.
“It is a labor of love,” says Brady. “I love to do it. The first 25 are fun, but by the time you are at 200 you just want to get that stuff done.”
Completing a 3-D cake at CMNY takes between one and two days with about 8-to-12 hours per day. In total, Sokhi says on average it takes about 16 hours to complete one cake. “Of course, if it is really crazy, then it might be more,” he adds.
Cummings says she and Haughey work 16- or 17- hour shifts. “I try not to time it anymore because then I realize that I make less than a migrant worker,” she says with a chuckle. It’s the artistic vision, Haughey adds, that keeps them going as the clock turns. “If it misses by that much it’s not good enough,” he says.
If the idea of cake decorating and design is appealing but the intense workload of a shop isn’t, one of the dessert-making classes at The Chocolate Duck in Farmingdale may be a happy in-between.
“We have great teachers,” says owner Harry Cohen, who has been in the business for more than 20 years. His daughter, Christina Bisbee, is one of the main teachers. Even former Food Network Challenge contestants come in and teach fellow students. Classes are offered for individuals and in groups and often parents will enroll with their children.
“Very often they take classes together so this way it is an experience,” says Cohen. “Besides a learning experience, it’s a bonding experience.”
Whether it takes a brainstorming session to dream up, multiple days to construct or a few hours mimicking an instructor, sooner or later the cake or cupcake is completed and ready for that special occasion. The entire process from start to finish can be time consuming, tedious and stressful on a decorator.
“There is a sense of relief that you have done something and you have done it well and you have made them happy,” says Cummings. “But there is a joy knowing that you have done something that they are going to have fun with.”
It gets so involved, the true reason for ordering a cake sometimes gets lost: A recipient was so enthralled by a Madame Butterfly cake they called Cummings asking if she could shellac it and preserve the edible artwork.
“It is cake—eat it,” she says. “Grab a fork!”