Wednesday, June 29, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Artists take the cake

Special to The Seattle Times

Let them bake cake

A partial list of cake specialists in the metropolitan area:

60th Street Desserts, 7401 Sand Point Way N.E., Seattle; 206-527-8560

Cakes by Sharon and Ginger, 1530 Miller St., Snohomish; 425-327-4212;

Celebrity Cake Studio, 602 E. 25th St., Tacoma; 253-627-4773;

Creative Cake Designs, 20855 108th Ave. S.E., Kent; 253-859-2812;

Empress of Desserts, 1413 N.W. 70th St., Seattle; 206-706-4035;

Mike's Amazing Cakes, Redmond; 425-869-2992;

Morfey's Cake Shoppe, 110 Denny Way, Seattle; 206-283-8557;

New Renaissance Cakes, 117 E. Louisa St., Seattle; 206-920-5322;

Sweets & Savories by Eileen T. France, Poulsbo; 360-779-5713

When I got married, I paid attention to every single detail of the event — from the wording of the vows to the seating arrangement at the reception. The only thing I didn't care about was the cake. I didn't want one. Mom did.

"Cakes are boring. No one ever eats them," I'd argued, lobbying for a fabulous dessert instead.

Mom was adamant. "It's a wedding. You have to have a cake." Since she was footing the bill, I acquiesced. We went to the bakery department of a department store known for its cakes and picked something simple from a book of designs.

When we arrived at the reception, there it stood, adorned with fresh flowers and prominently displayed next to the dance floor — a tilting ivory tower of butter cream. I have no memory of how it tasted, but 14 years later, Mom and I still laugh about the crooked cake.

I've had plenty of experience ordering cakes since then, and no longer think they are boring. Some are edible works of art that often serve as the centerpiece of a celebration. A skilled cake decorator working with butter cream or fondant, chocolate or marzipan, can match the shade of your bridesmaid's dresses or your eyes; replicate your cat or your car; construct castles, carousels and even treasure chests.

For the many occasions in life when tradition demands one, there are cakes to fit every style and budget. But what makes the difference between a $15 quarter-sheet cake and one that costs $25 or more? What makes some wedding cakes cost upwards of $15 a slice? And why do some of the most gorgeous cakes have so little taste?

The cost differences reflect both the quality of ingredients and the labor involved. Most supermarket bakeries employ personnel to frost and decorate cakes to order. Some stores bake those cakes on the premises; most outsource frozen cake rounds and sheets from local wholesale bakeries or distributors. Some chain stores maintain a central commissary where cakes are baked and then shipped frozen to the stores to be decorated.

In addition, many supermarkets also carry a line of more upscale cakes, from lofty layer cakes and mousse cakes to tortes and cheesecakes, almost always sourced from local wholesale bakeries.

Check the ingredients label. Cakes made with real eggs and butter usually taste better than cakes made from a mix that may contains preservatives. Likewise, premade commercial "butter cream" frosting made with vegetable oils or shortening doesn't have the same flavor or mouth-feel as real butter cream.

An artisanal product, on the other hand, made individually by hand with fresh ingredients, will be more expensive if only because it takes more time to make.

Good cakes are hard to find because cake is a product that can be mass-produced and has been for years, says Jim More, owner of Morfey's Cake Shoppe. "The equipment they have today is amazing. They now have machines that can ice cakes."

More is the fourth owner of this cakes-only Queen Anne bakery, in business since 1960. "We're working on our third generation of brides," he says. "We've got a niche market. We make a good cake and that's all."

Morfey's offers 15 flavors and 15 fillings, and they frost with true butter cream. A quarter-sheet cake that feeds 16-24 people starts at $24.95.

"We can't compete with Costco on price but we can on quality," says More. "People don't understand what it takes to do a good cake. It's a talent, a skill that's learned over time. You've got to put in your time and develop your skill."

He doesn't have to recruit employees; they find him. "We use a technique that's not taught in culinary schools. People come to us to acquire and hone their skills."

But if you need a cake for your child's soccer team, More says, "Don't come to me. It's going to be more than you want to spend and the kids won't really care. "There's room out there for different products that suit different events."

Town & Country Markets goes after both kinds of cake customer. While the chain's Central Market stores in Poulsbo, Shoreline and Mill Creek keep costs low by using premade commercial frosting to decorate their cakes, Town & Country Market in Winslow makes real butter cream, fondant and chocolate frosting. They also do chocolate and marzipan sculpting.

"We made a decision about five and a half years ago to go in this direction. We thought this was a niche we could fill," says Virginia Bobro, bakery manager at the Winslow Town & Country Market.

In that time, specialty cakes have grown to be 30 percent or more of the store's bakery business. Two years ago, they began doing wedding cakes, and demand quadrupled in the second year.

Bobro says cakes are becoming the focus of many events. Recently, her staff created a cake for a "Pirates of the Caribbean"-themed costume party: an opulent treasure chest overflowing with gold coins, jeweled crowns and necklaces, everything completely edible. Meant to feed 50 people, the cake cost $250.

Wedding cakes are often in the $3-$5 per slice ballpark, depending on how elaborate the decoration. But other amenities are often built into that cost. At New Renaissance Cakes in Seattle, for example, the average wedding cake costs $4.25 per person — but that includes an initial tasting, a consultation, two small sample cakes, help with fresh flower placement on the cake, delivery and set-up, and a fresh 6-inch cake for your first anniversary celebration.

"A lot more people are making the cake a priority at their events," says Odette D'Aniello, who comes from an extended family of bakers. D'Aniello owns Celebrity Cake Studio in Tacoma, a retail shop and wholesaler that supplies all the cakes sold at Metropolitan Markets. Ballinger, Bellevue and Renton Thriftway stores also sell Celebrity Cakes. What makes her cakes so good? "Quality ingredients and a high ratio of butter," she says.

D'Aniello credits magazines like Martha Stewart Weddings and InStyle with boosting the profile of cakes. "Cakes have become food art. The designs are published in bridal magazines, and when InStyle published the prices that some people were paying, it became a status thing."

It's not uncommon for people to spend hundreds of dollars on a cake for a child's birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese's, says D'Aniello, and she has even had a customer order a birthday cake for her cat with the animal's likeness sculpted in frosting.

"Cakes are getting bigger," D'Aniello says. "Often the cake is given as a gift or it's the centerpiece of a party. You want something people won't forget."

Or you hope they won't. D'Aniello made a huge birthday cake shaped like a castle for her daughter's birthday. "But she was only 2 and she doesn't remember it."

Providence Cicero:

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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