Ron Ben-Israel Comes to Bakepedia
The first time I heard of Ron Ben Israel was from a stunning image in a Martha Stewart magazine many years ago. It was a wedding cake covered in sugar paste lace and it had the same quality as the genuine article…fabric-like. Elegant. Old-world. Feminine and just flat out gorgeous. And yet there was something new and contemporary about it at the same time, in that I had certainly never seen a cake like that before! It was one of those images that you just can’t help staring at and the longer you gaze the more detail is revealed. I became a fan. As the years went on I could easily recognize a Ron Ben-Israel cake. Whether it was in a magazine, book or newspaper, his style was so solid, so singular that it would jump out at me. It didn’t matter whether it was another lacey creation, a sparse monochromatic design, one bursting with vivid color or metallics or even a graphic style – they all had his stamp. If I had to qualify it I would say it lies in the precision of approach. And also, while some are quite elaborate and even covered with texture over every square inch, there is still a sense of restraint. It shows style. A chic-ness. Well, it was about time Ron and I chatted so that I could bring him to you. We had so much fun talking, we could have gone on for a couple of hours easily…
Dédé Wilson: Ron, it is so good to connect with you and to be able to bring you to our Bakepedia community!
Ron Ben-Israel: Dédé, thank you!
I feel like I have “known” you all these years even though we haven’t really had contact. Rose (mutual friend Rose Levy Beranbaum) was telling me how she used to get her big bags of superfine sugar from you when she couldn’t find it anywhere else in NY!
Ah, yes, she used to live in the Village and I was in Soho…but we recently moved to a huge place on West 38th street, right in the garment district. You know at one point 95% of what Americans wore came from this area…there was much manufacturing…zippers, leather, you can find it all…
Oh, my favorite store for feathers and imported tulle is around the corner from your new place…
I used to come here all the time for lace to make my own silicone molds and to get trims and ribbons…
It’s one of those, “only in NY” things. You can find everything here!
Ron, how would you describe your style?
It can be monotone, romantic or bold…there is not one way, but they have to well executed…I am not a food snob. I will eat Pringles with caviar…and for baking I don’t shy away from doing vanilla cake…recently a client flew me and a cake first class to Paris. On the one hand I am celebrated by French society and I am on top of the world…the next day I use sprinkles and call it “funfetti”.
But of course you are starting with good ingredients…
I am always interested in the many different ways of baking…how well is it made? Whether it is a church bake sale or for home it has to be made well…and I am not spouting empty words, blah blah blah…if you only use vegetable shortening, then, well…it is how you approach it…I read books like detective books…Rose is crazy in a wonderful way (we both laugh)…I take it with a grain of salt…and way back we had Maida (Ed Note: he is speaking of Maida Heatter).
Oh, Maida! She was my earliest inspiration…and I love that you say you read baking books like detective novels because it is so true that you can get so much from the words. Maida’s books never had any photography and yet her writing was so evocative…she made me want to make every single recipe!
Yes! And even before then someone gave me a hand-me-down of The Joy of Cooking…and then it is changed and I think the older (versions) the better…they tell you how to make a machine to make yogurt…the history of wedding cakes…we didn’t start from nothing…. there is something there. We make cakes today, but we are connected…
This is so true. And there is so much to learn from history and from the classics.
Of course your web presence is totally different, but there is so much unreliable information out there…they jump around from this topic to that…where is the basis for experience? The reason for expertise?
In order to get to quality of execution you have to get to the sources…I can tell by looking at recipes that they aren’t going to work…
I have been lucky enough to be part of the Food Network and they test recipes. And my team, we have a test kitchen…we don’t want to be snobs but I say, “Know Thy Recipe”.
You know I hear all the time from people who follow a recipe and it doesn’t work and they think that they failed. It doesn’t even occur to them that a recipe can be at fault. There is an art and science to developing and testing recipes that not many people understand.
You have to get a tried and true recipe and follow it!
Rose told us the number 1 trait she wants from home bakers is obedience (laughs)! She knows her recipes work, but if folks don’t follow them to the letter…well, then they can’t complain!
I can tell people to go to the Food Network site and find my recipes…these I can recommend…I come from my Mother…she wasn’t just a baker; she was a home cook and fully employed…but she drew maps by hand, so she was very accurate…I would watch her in her schnitzel…they way she would set it up…like a test kitchen…all the bowls had to be the same size…set out the flour, egg and bread crumbs, lined up left to right…and she would work like this and cutlets had to be pounded the same way, every one of them…and she taught me how to wash my hands first and prepare and I just loved it. It gave order in my own world…this is how I found baking so exciting!
Let’s talk about something fun…trends in the wedding cake world…
Let me explain trends. Some people think it is what they see that a celebrity had and then they think it is a trend and they come to me and say, “I want a Great Gatsby Cake” because the movie had just come out. A real trend takes months even years to develop…we always work with gold and silver and around the time that movie came out there was a lot of silver and black, so, we could accommodate.
So what do you see for 2015?
Just like fashion we make a collection…gold is going to be very strong…
What do you attribute it to?
I don’t really know why…it’s in fashion…and it works really well with the Pantone Marsala (Ed. Note: the Color Of The Year)…a lot of people like cakes in red and burgundy…I can tell people will like that…another thing I notice is trims. A lot of trims added. You see it in invitations, too. And additional linear things…swags and lines and crisscrosses and diagonals…and I am very happy to report the cakes are getting bigger and bigger…we are getting away from a recession.
What is big for you? 500?
That is big! Manhattan, 200…it’s not Texas! But more important than number of servings is they want height…they say they want it over their head!
Okay, Ron you mentioned that you were preparing for this chat and that you had some things you wanted to say.
Yes, I have Tips for the home baker…as you asked!
I can’t wait to hear!
Number 1: Get a good recipe for the cake…one you can understand…read it…know where it comes from and test it. Do a trial run just to be familiar with it.
Number 2: Put a timeline down on paper. This is extremely important…the idea is to be like any military – they will know how they will achieve the results! The way I do it, I sketch the cake or you have a photograph of a cake you want to achieve, then you go backwards…cake has to be delivered…calculate. If the cake is served at 5 o’clock, when does it need to be on display?
What vehicle? Do I need dry ice and as you do this it will open up more and more questions. This is good! This is the time to figure this out! Will I do decorating there? And I think people underestimate how important delivery is!
Oh, I couldn’t agree more. I go on and on about that in both of my wedding cake books. I always put a sign on the vehicle that says “Wedding Cake on Board” and people understand why I am driving slowly with blinkers on!
I never like to do it last minute…finish the day before and refrigerate the cake overnight. That way it rests and the cake can stabilize and be chilled and you can rest and not go crazy…then, again, backwards…decide when you will ice it, when you will make fillings. Before that you bake the cake…in the timeline figure out what can be done ahead…always good to have extra time…make all buttercreams ahead and and refrigerate well covered…fillings can often be refrigerated for a week or more…cake layers can be frozen if well covered…these are the big questions!
Number 3: Gain knowledge and experience…there is only so much you can learn from books and videos. Classes are better but it is best to find someone to mentor with.
Mentor is a big word and a big concept…
It could be local bakery…go and help out…it could be classes but has to be hands on…or even getting together with a colleague and friend and practicing together.
That’s a great idea…
Number 4: Know your tools and ingredients…
Let’s talk about buttercream and fondant…
Unfortunately there is a very popular type of American buttercream and as an American I am ashamed to have my name attached…it is not a buttercream…it is easy to make and not perishable…but with a terrible mouthfeel, vegetable shortening, powdered sugar, no butter. It really should not be considered…and it is too sweet and airy. And too thick, like toothpaste! You need to understand how beautiful French, Swiss and Italian meringue buttercream are and explore those…so versatile and delicious…I push you to do that! The nice thing is that buttercreams can be refrigerated…you can build a cake…learn how to ice the cake…refrigerate overnight…and then we can drape with a very thin layer of fondant. I love Satin Ice. It is shelf stable…it can be rolled very thin and then you have a beautiful look. A non-greasy look.
How thin do you roll your fondant?
Very thin. One-eighth of an inch but you can even roll it thinner! Satin Ice is available in the USA and very consistent.
So what is new for you right now?
The move! The move was major…months in the making…obtaining current permits and regulations…but it is all very exciting – and scary…we now have over 4000 square feet.
I started as a single person in a tiny place…now we have parties, classes…I don’t want a store front…and I did not want to be in a basement…so we have the whole 13th floor of a commercial building. Terraces and light. Ideally you work with daylight.
Well, it is an artistic endeavor…makes perfect sense.
I planned the move like I plan a cake! Knowing everything you need to know…people are jealous. Pastry chefs come see it and they cannot believe it! And all while we were moving we had to continue producing cakes.
How the heck did you manage that? Moving is so stressful and the cakes demand attention!
We have 8 full-time, and then always add interns. They spend time with us, anywhere from 3 to 5 months…and some become future employees.
Ron, I picture it like Santa’s workshop! (We both laugh). A hub of activity where magical things happen.
I cannot thank you enough for your time. This has been one of the most thoughtful and insightful interviews and I know our community will love it.
Thank you, Dédé. I enjoyed this talk as well.