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A round layer cake decorated with lavender, pink and beige buttercream, and topped with sparkly pink cherries. Photo and cake by Michelle Cruz

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Desperate Times Call for Elaborate Buttercream

How a new generation of social media-savvy bakers are breathing life into old-school cake decorating techniques

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Scroll through enough social media accounts belonging to women ages 18 to 34 and you might be convinced that, despite the drab sweatpants you’ve been wearing for days straight, there’s never been a prettier time to be alive. “Soft girl” and cottagecore aesthetics have given rise to a wash of dreamy pastels and pastoral fantasy, a celebration of hyper-femininity and domesticity, largely — as is part of the appeal — without the presence or demands of straight men.

Photo and cake by Charlotte Zoller

This highly curated tea party — wherein everyone is dressed in influencer-embraced Selkie puff or Lirika Matoshi strawberry dresses, their makeup laborious in the service of looking naturally rosy from the outdoors, and glowing like the wearer always happens to be sitting in a sunbeam — happens to be catered only with the prettiest of desserts, all of which look like they sprang directly from a Sofia Coppola film. As hobby baker Charlotte Zoller succinctly puts it, “Who among us millennials didn’t see Marie Antoinette and say, ‘Oh, I love cakes now’?”

Enough has been written about why cottagecore and its many aesthetic offshoots are having a moment, which allows us to jump past that and right into the buttery center that is our subject: the sudden ubiquity of flouncy and fussy layer cakes, an evolution of the cute-yet-furious activism and resistance cakes that followed former President Donald Trump’s election in 2016. It’s a trend fueled by quarantine baking, but inspired by everything from the Instagram- and Pinterest-famous bakeries of South Korea to the video game Animal Crossing.

Many of the newly emerging group of dessert decorators rightfully cite 2006’s Marie Antoinette as visual inspiration, but, like much of the movie, anachronisms are at work. Marie-Antoine Carême, considered “the father of French cuisine,” is widely recognized for his pièces montées, masterful centerpieces created from ingredients like sugar paste and nougat, but he was only 9 when the French queen lost her head at the Place de la Révolution. Layer cakes as we know them, according to the Food Timeline, aren’t mentioned in cookbooks until the late 1800s, growing in popularity in tandem with the wedding cake. The lacey and abundant piping style we see today owes itself largely to Joseph Lambeth, the British expatriate and pastry chef whose book, Lambeth Method of Cake Decoration and Practical Pastries, was first published in 1934. In America, Lambeth popularized what’s known as “over-piping,” a centuries-old technique of overlapping lines to create intricate and layered dessert decorations.

While such layer cakes might be a fairly modern invention, there’s a reason why they feel so vintage. Lambeth-method cakes have remained popular for weddings, but the style of overpiping began falling out of fashion in the 1950s, with home bakers gravitating toward the ease of box mix. By the ’70s, “cake was not cake anymore,” food historian Jessica Reed tells me as she walks me through the evolution of cake design. “Wonderful cake artists [were] creating these sculptural masterpieces that don’t look anything like cake.”

The emergence of fondant as a popular decorating method in the ’80s allowed bakers the ability to make cakes that look like anything they wanted, a novelty that the public still can’t get enough of. In 2006, Food Network debuted Ace of Cakes, a reality show in which baker Duff Goldman was challenged by clients to make increasingly deceptive cakes, which took the form of anything from cartoonish hamburgers to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Three years later, TLC premiered Cake Boss, a similar concept starring Buddy Valastro. Both ran in their original format for 10 seasons and have inspired an entire genre of shows about representational fondant cakes, including Ultimate Cake Off, Cake Wars, Nailed It!, and even, on at least one occasion, the Great British Bake Off. Meanwhile, many high-end chefs eschewed putting cake on their dessert menus, either because it was too pedestrian or too simple, instead opting for more outwardly complicated fare. As Melissa Clark opined in the New York Times in 1999, “Layer cake, an American icon, is in dire straits,” adding that “[h]igh-end restaurants, where the layer cake once played such a proud role, have left it for dead, a casualty of the war among today’s dueling pastry chefs.”

Thanks largely to Milk Bar’s Christina Tosi, Clark’s hopes for a layer-cake renaissance eventually came true. Tosi’s naked cakes erupted in the 2010s and were celebrated for their simplicity: With layers of sponge in uncomplicated-sounding flavors like “birthday cake,” separated by fluffy buttercream, and with no decorations on the side, they were the aesthetic antithesis of the sculptural fondant cakes that dominated the previous few decades. They also had the benefit of being actually appetizing. Despite its ubiquity and usefulness, fondant — made from shortening, gelatin, sugar, and glycerol — is more for show than flavor. Naked cakes represented the opposite. By 2016, they were popular enough to merit their own backlash.

That same year, another cultural shift would shake up the American baking scene. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and ultimate election inspired leftist bakers like Butter & Scotch and Ashley Shotwell to infuse their cakes with activism, creating desserts that were witty, scathing, and explicitly political. Emblazoned with messages like “KILL NAZIS,” the cakes were decorated in bright colors and swirls of icing reminiscent of a childhood birthday sheet cake. The irony is inherent — to use something seen as frivolous, domestic, and literally sweet to convey important, angry messaging about how fucked up the world is. Though they’re not without their critics, activism cakes remain a popular way for professional and hobby bakers to combine their passions of baking and social justice. As Arley Bell, a Richmond, Virginia, baker and activist who routinely incorporates the fight for racial justice into her work, puts it, “My hope is to help people connect these things. Yeah, you can celebrate and have fun, and also acknowledge and support Black Lives Matter. To me, it’s important that we don’t compartmentalize those things.”

Now, young, social media-savvy bakers are recalling the Lambeth method (exemplified by the stunning cakes of Hebe Konditori) and combining it with ’70s kitsch (see the delightful shag cakes of Alana Jones-Mann) and feminist, progressive snark. Cakes are being made to celebrate previously unfeted life events like breakups, genders transitions, and abortions. “Let they/them/theirs eat cake,” reads one recent cake by Butter & Scotch. Another simply says “REAL MEN EAT ASS.”

Thin white woman with long brown hair in a brightly-colored sweatshirt, leaning in a sunlit doorframe, holding a spatula dripping with batter over a large bowl Photo via Shelby Eastman

Over the past year, with the novel coronavirus pandemic and its lockdowns ongoing, many people have found themselves out of work, bored, and in search of a hobby. For young creatives, cake decorating has emerged as a virus-safe way to express themselves, connect with people on social media, and, in some cases, create a new business. When digital marketing consultant Shelby Eastman left New York City for her hometown of Houston in March 2020, she assumed it would only be for a couple weeks, but that soon dragged into several months. “I was kind of just getting FOMO. Everyone was baking bread, crafting, or doing TikTok dances,” she says. And so, to help herself adjust to her new reality, she turned to a favorite pastime of her mother’s: “I grew up with my mom making the most incredible cakes. Really going above and beyond with thoughtfulness and refusing to buy us any sheet cake or store-bought cake for our birthdays. I tapped into my mom and was like, ‘Hey, I want to bake a cake,’ she said she’d help, and it really just unfolded from there.”

The first cake Eastman posted was a from-scratch cherry cake with pink frosting and white dollops of whipped cream topped with fresh cherries, inspired by a fabric print. She began hashtagging her baked creations with “shelbcake” and estimates she got 3,500 more followers from the cakes alone. She’s since moved to LA and has turned cake decorating into a side hustle, doing custom work for Lazy Cake (which, twist, is actually a sweatsuit line), Local Eclectic, and Shopbop. “Brands are coming to me for cakes and it’s hilarious and amazing,” Eastman says. “Every time I get like a new collaboration request, I look at my roommate and I’m just like, ‘What is happening?!’”

Charlotte Zoller, a creative entrepreneur who writes Teen Vogue’s “Ask a Fat Girl” column, only started decorating cakes in the last few months. “I feel silly talking to you,” she says over the phone. “Like I’m an expert on this, but I’m having fun.” As someone who shares a lot of her life online, she says she was driven to start baking as a way to get away from her computer and phone screens. Almost immediately after posting her first creations to Instagram, she was asked by Bitch magazine to make a cake for its 25th anniversary. Despite her intentions to keep her cake making mostly to herself and friends, Zoller says, “You know, when Bitch calls, you can’t hang up.”

When I first reached out to Haadiyah — a 24-year-old baker from South Jamaica, in New York’s Queens, who requested we not share her last name — her TikTok account @bakeitupbuttercup had under 100 followers. By the time of our interview a couple weeks later, she had 30,000; by the time of writing, she’s hit 37,600. Not bad for a hobby baker who’s only been posting online, and without a preexisting following, since August 2020.

Haadiyah was inspired to start sharing her cakes after she lost her job, moved to an Atlanta suburb, and was suddenly homebound in a new state because of lockdowns. Cake decorating emerged as an enjoyable escape. “I’ve always loved really cute things,” she says. “I’ve been obsessed with Hello Kitty. I used to play Animal Crossing when I was a kid, too, and I really liked the vintage style of cakes,” she says, also naming vintage Wilton cookbooks and Korean-style cake decorating as big inspirations. Though she says that she’s content to keep cake decorating as a hobby and not a business, opportunities have already started to arrive. On February 20, she appeared on the Trap Nation TikTok account, which has over 2 million followers, to decorate a cake and answer questions.

Furloughed because of COVID, Michelle Cruz, a 28-year-old in San Diego, turned her baking and decorating skills into a part-time cake business called Pinkdish. Baking has long been her “happy place”; her mother was a cake maker in the Philippines, where Cruz grew up. Like a lot of the young women I talked to for this story, her decorating style is inspired not just by her mom, but also fashion and design. “I love clothes,” she says. “I have this really frilly, ruffle-y pink top with glittery buttons, and looking at it, I thought, ‘If this was a cake, what would it look like?’ And so that’s how the ideas start flowing.”

A lot of words used to describe these Instagram-friendly cakes — flouncy, frilly, fussy — suggest trite ideas typically used to diminish girlishness. If anything, though, the current cake trend represents young women taking creative ownership of an art that’s typically only seen as such when it’s a man, like Lambeth, who’s holding the piping bag. Says Reed, “This convergence of what primarily female bakers are doing right now, which is taking all these techniques like the Lambeth method — those were [once used by] all male pastry chefs. Now, it’s female bakers taking back these bright colors. It’s frill, but it’s not frill. Most of [the cakes] have dark elements to them.” Within the flounce, frill, and fuss are layers, and not just the sponge kind. There’s anger, humor, and sadness — all the emotions that together paint just one version of femininity in 2021.

This isn’t the first time that desserts have emerged as a symbol of an era or a movement, nor do these layer cakes encapsulate an ideology or point of view as neatly as the wife cake, tied to recent protests in Hong Kong, or the crescent shape of a croissant (which, according to legend, was molded by an Austrian baker to mock the Ottomans in the 17th century). But the current iteration of cakes are indeed an emblem of these times. Malaise and listlessness are prevalent, and reasons to celebrate are lacking. More optimistically, femininity is less tied to gender than ever before, and hopefully will continue to evolve. “So why not get a frilly celebration cake for nontraditional milestones and non-occasions?” While Cruz makes cakes for all kinds of occasions, she says many of her customers “will have picnics or dress up and the cake is that special touch,” just because. Tens of thousands of people who will never taste Haadiyah’s cakes watch her videos because they’re soothing and her creations are beautiful, so — while it may be ideal — eating the cake isn’t even the most important part.

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