Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
In a world where cakes are molded into the facsimile of a Chinese take-out box overflowing with chow mein or perhaps a realistic rendition of a bowling ball, it’s soothing when cakes are just cakes. And yet, the ultra-sickening, rose-frosted versions aren’t quite on the agenda either.
Bakers across the country are ditching fondant and opting for fresh ingredients from the farmer’s market. They look for green grasses and fodder as ornaments. The cakes have become a canvas for extreme fantasy and creative experimentation – and just plain beautiful.
Take Elana Berusch, who posts her elaborate designs on Instagram under the handle @lanibakes, is one of these bakers. Berusch is a food scientist — officially the titular director of research and development who has formulated products for food manufacturers across the country, from baby food and pies to marijuana edibles — who employs both art and science in his craft.
“Cooking on the side allows me to really unleash a lot of creativity with fewer limits,” says Berusch. “Six years ago, when I lived in small town Michigan, I worked full time for a baby food company. I didn’t really have any friends, [but did have]lots of fresh produce at my disposal.”
Making baby porridge like your 9 to 5 would definitely leave room for artistic freedom, and she was able to find that with some clever cake decorating. “There’s something really beautifully tactile about baking and especially about decorating cakes where you apply frosting,” she says of the hands-on process.
And it’s not just happening around Berusch Forest in Denver. In Chicago, Emilie Nejad is the best friend with bright colors and Lisa Frank details. Liz Ho from Bakery Birdhouse in Alberta, Canada, employs a much more delicate palette, yet its flavors – hazelnut cake with honey roasted peaches, vanilla bean mascarpone mousse, stone fruit jams and salted white chocolate buttercream – are imaginative. Kayla Waldorf from Seattle swirls and caramelizes meringue ripples reminiscent of Zen garden designs which are then topped with squash blossoms and sprigs of lavender. If you want “weird cakes” then originally from New Orleans Bronwyn WyattThe multi-layered beauties of with serpentine frosting patterns are your baker kinda.
There is even an entire publication, Zine cakededicated to the charming tricks of the cake.
“I think bakers have more fun with it,” Berusch says. “I used to really lock myself in – you have to have smooth sides and sharp edges and if you do a drip it has to be pristine.” The cake was never delicious, but the loosening of self-imposed restraints allowed him and his fellow bakers to change the idea of what cakes look and taste like.
Don’t take it too seriously. Sprinkle with reckless abandon. Put a real flower on it rather than a sweet petal. Let your cake stay a little “bare”. Use the jam your friend gave you that is in the fridge. Berusch used fresh strawberries and their green stems in buttercream (we love zero waste!) and added a day old cake in new dough just to see if she could.
“I turned to pastry, and in particular cakes, because there were always scientific questions that I wanted to answer,” she says. Could she swap toast crumbs or cornmeal for all-purpose flour? What else could replace egg whites? She cooked and experimented, and in doing so, made more than just dessert.
“I think part of this huge burst of creativity and change recently has been the pandemic where things look pretty bleak, but baking a cake is always a happy occasion,” says Berusch. “You bake a cake for someone to celebrate something. There’s joy in that.
Breaking the rules and cooking in a meditative craft that produces joy and, yes, dessert, has been an antidote to melancholy. And damn if that’s not just the most gorgeous thing to appear in our feed.