"Cakewalk" An Extraordinary Cake Book

CakewalkAdventures in Sugar with Margaret Braun New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc, 2001 (Review I wrote for Gastronomica) I’ve always thought it a pity that exquisitely crafted cakes, which are in fact works of art, should be consigned to a medium of flour, water, sugar, and butter, that self destructs like sandcastles at high tide. I’ve questioned whether they didn’t deserve to be made in a more durable medium instead that could last for years in a museum for many more to enjoy. In fact, in Canada, Japan, and no doubt elsewhere, there is a highly practical tradition of making elaborate but reusable wedding cakes with durable decorations on Styrofoam layers with just one small section removed to hold an edible piece of cake that the bride can feed the groom, while the actual cake to serve the guests is only a backstage sheet cake. But I have to admit, that if ever there were a time and a place, or justification for the real thing, devoid of such deceit, it would have to be for a wedding celebration. Perhaps some atavistic pagan fantasy entices us to see this exquisite virginal symbol invaded and cut into to reveal it’s tender and flavorful interior. But whether real or illusionary most would agree: A dream occasion deserves a dream cake. Margaret Braun, in her book “Cakewalk,” presents a collection of breath-taking tiered celebration cakes unlike any I have ever seen. They are such exquisite works of art I’m sure people will wince in pain to see one cut. Just looking at them in print makes me want to sob with delight. Even the publisher (Rizzoli) has risen to the occasion, providing the setting this book deserves. Not only is this a gorgeous four color production with stitched plinth (binding), but the proverbial icing on the cake, and unprecedented for a cookbook, it has guilt edged pages. Even most bibles don’t get this treatment! And the photographs by Quentin Bacon do these edible dream works of art full justice. Yes, this makes a fabulous coffee table book, but it is much more than that. Braun’s designs are uniquely original and she shares many of the detailed techniques to recreate their appearance. This book will provide inspiration to countless cake bakers and caterers ever in search of a “new look.” If you want to reproduce most of the actual cakes in this book, however, you will need a more detailed baking book that contains cake recipes both larger and smaller than the 10-inch ones offered here. Also, the actual instructions for shaping the layers are vague to non-existent. One interesting though labor intensive suggestion is to cut the layers 1/2-inch thick to increase the proportion of filling to cake. Of course this is a matter of personal preference. Cake lovers who appreciate their cake layer lofty and uninterrupted (and there are many) will not be pleased. By the way, don’t be surprised if your caterer cringes in horror at being asked to reproduce any of these elaborate edifices. These cakes are labors of love and require the skill of a devoted and meticulous craftsperson. But even borrowing a few of the beautiful motifs or techniques such as painting a cake with food color, or finishing it with gold dust, pearl dust, or gold leaf, will do wonders to transform a more humble design. And of course for a price you can have Margaret Braun herself recreate them. Sprinkled throughout “Cakewalk” are refreshingly unfamiliar and thought provoking quotations such as this one on symmetry: “The underlying belief was that locating the centre of symmetry meant locating the way, the truth, and the light. Aesthetic custom and theological doctrine went hand in hand. The aesthetics of proportion was the medieval aesthetic par excellence….The principle and criterion of symmetry, even in the most elementary forms, was rooted in the very instinct of the medieval soul” --Umberto Ecco Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages (1986) (p.176). There is not a lot of story telling in “Cakewalk” but what there is reveals great sensibility of style, philosophical conviction, history and poetry—a person well beyond the realm of her cakes, that one would love to know better. I suspect that she richly deserves to have been published in such a regal manner.