Throwback Thursday: Pretty Cakes

Pretty Cakes #TBT!

For this week’s Throwback Thursday  #TBT we are doing a cookbook review on pretty cakes, going back to 1986. The book is Pretty Cakes. I was a fledgling pastry chef and being self-taught, cookbooks were a major source of information and inspiration. Pretty Cakes, The Art of Cake Decorating, by Mary Goodbody with Jane Stacey was, by far, the most influential book in my formative years and helped build my resulting style. My first-edition copy has a torn cover, dog-eared corners and butter stained pages –all sign of book love. A few specific aspects drew me back to this book

.Chocolate Cake

Happy Birthday Cake

The pictures really spoke to me. Three different pastry chefs created the bulk of the entries: Jane Stacey, Ellen Baumwoll and Cheryl Kleinman. Ellen’s style is classic and she shows her range in cakes such as the Strawberry Cream Cake ringed in piped, pink whipped cream; her wedding cake The Lohengrin, covered with pristine white fondant, teeny tiny Swiss dots and about 200 marzipan flowers. Cheryl has a way with a piping bag. I would stare at her Victorian Rosebud Cake for hours with its beautiful “Happy Birthday”writing in the most exquisite script (above). Her White Chocolate Buche de Noel (below) fascinated me with its wide, thin, delicate white chocolate “bark”, that resembled the most delicious birch tree and her gilded Christmas Gold Cake might have been the first time I saw edible gold covering a cake.

white chocolate buche de noel

All of those cakes fueled my imagination. It was with the work of Jane Stacey that I truly connected with. Look at the image at the top. They title this Our Favorite Chocolate Cake. Wow! Most chocolate cakes with a title like that would have been slathered with chocolate frosting and look very similar to the one’s my Mom used to make. This was structural. Architectural. The little bits of hazelnut praline, with their sharp shapes, contrasted to the luxurious quill-like chocolate curls. The chocolate génoise is brushed with a choice of cognac, rum or Kahlua and covered with a chocolate butter ganache. Just reading the description and looking at the image made me want to make and eat this cake.

Orange Cake with Iced Fruit

Or look at the very first picture in the book –the Orange Cake with Iced Fruit –seen above. Sounds simple enough, right? Read the description:

“Orange Layer Cake flavored with Cointreau or Grand Marnier, filled with Orange Buttercream and marmalade, frosted with Orange Buttercream, and decorated with fresh fruit and Candied Orange Peel”.

In some ways it is simple, but what drew me in then and still does, is that the description is filled with flavor and texture and combinations that dance in my head. I can taste the cake. I can feel the textures on my tongue. It is enticing. And the fact that she uses the flavors of the cake to embellish it as well –such as the candied orange peel –really attracted me. The look of the cake, just as with the chocolate cake, is connected to the taste of the cake. Her approach is about flavor and taste. This is food. It has to taste good. Even in my early days I didn’t want to make pretty cakes for the sake of prettiness. Flavor had to be paramount and Jane Stacey was speaking my language.

garlands of flowers cake

Above is an example of a wedding cake of hers called the Garlands of Flowers Cake. I was immediately drawn to her naturalistic style, from the fresh flowers and very simple but romantic piping to the fact that you can see swipes of her icing spatula. This might seem like a funny thing to point out but to me it shows the handiwork. That this was crafted with love by a real person. I actually don’t like frosting that is so perfect it looks fake. At that early stage of my career I thought being perfect looking was the goal, because that’s what I always saw as examples of professional work. Jane Stacey’s examples in Pretty Cakes opened my eyes to a new aesthetic and it was the style that I would adopt as well. And believe me, I have had arguments with chefs and teachers and judges at competitions about this very topic. There are those that say this approach does not show technique. I scoff at that. This is an aesthetic choice and it is as valid as any other. I like my food to look like food and to echo where it came from and what ingredients were used.

In addition to the pictures and the thorough, mouth-watering descriptions the book also has a front section that is an incredible resource for the serious cake baker. It begins with a chapter on Ingredients, Equipment and Techniques complete with line drawings showing everything from various decorating tips, how to make a parchment cone, beveling a cake, rolling out fondant or marzipan, to various piping techniques and even helpful hints on transporting cakes. Then there is a Recipes chapter that has several cake, frosting, filling, buttercream and decoration recipes, such as candied peel. And then there are variations. The Génoise for instance has a basic recipe and 7 variations including chocolate, coffee, lemon, nut and others. The complete cakes further along in the book work with these building blocks. This was such a novel concept to me at the time. Of course this is what pros do but most cookbooks, especially in 1986 when this book came out, weren’t laid out this way. It opened my mind to a new way of thinking about how to create “new”cakes. I was working at my first pastry chef job at the time and now I had a way to mix and match and develop new combinations that I could call my own.

I chatted with my old friend and the author Mary Goodbody about how the book came to be. The concept was to bring together Jane and Ellen and Cheryl and create easier, moderate and complex cakes so that they would appeal to many levels of home bakers. She said her daughter and her cousins have memories of snuggling up with the book and pouring over the pictures again and again declaring which cake should be the next birthday cake or a wedding cake. This is the way the book has been for me. A book to take to bed and create dreams.

The book can be found on-line and for very little money. If you like to bake cakes, whether you are making wedding cakes at home or just a few birthday cakes per year, I highly recommend this book. May your copy of Pretty Cakes show some book love in the years to come.

Images used courtesy of photographer David Arky



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