Mastering the Art of Cake Decorating

For her latest culinary escapade, Reggie Nadelson pays a visit to Ron Ben-Israel for tips on crafting a dessert almost too pretty to eat.

Elton John’s people just called and asked me to make his birthday cake—what should I do?" says Ron Ben-Israel when he calls to postpone my cake-decorating lesson. For Elton, I let him off the hook. A few weeks later I’m in Ron’s Manhattan loft where he designs and makes voluptuous, witty works of edible art—bowers of flowers, replicas of designer shoes. In the sunny SoHo studio, three women are bent over long tables painting sugar orchids. They remind me of seamstresses in a couturier’s workshop, stitching exquisite details by hand on a glorious bespoke creation. The place is silent with concentration and intensely sweet with the smell of sugar and butter and baking.

"So here is your cake," says the ebullient Ron. A large heart-shaped confection with pale lilac frosting sits on the counter. He hands me a ball of fondant (a sugar-water mixture), also lilac, which I begin to turn into a thin sheet that will wrap over the cake. It is silky and sensuous in my hands, like potter’s clay that smells like candy. While I’m working on it, Ron explains that he’s already made and frosted the cake because I’m here to decorate, not bake. The inspiration for my design is a piece of jewelry I love: a huge heart-shaped amethyst pendant from Taffin surrounded by multicolored antique Venetian glass beads.

Ron peers at the photo of the jewel, then at me, as if trying to divine the essentials, the meaning, the things that will make the soul of a great cake, of my cake. "Elton John is very romantic," Ron says. "He adores flowers and keeps his own florist; we based his cake on that. Of course, it was Elton, so I couldn’t resist adding a little bling, a few edible sapphires and diamonds." I begin to see that this is not about squeezing buttercream flowers out of a pastry bag or sticking on some marzipan roses at random. There is craft in this sugar.

There are two things all girls want to do: dress up their dolls (or babies) and fool around with cake decorating. I have been known to while away weekends watching competitions on the Food Network, obsessed by all those Elvis tribute cakes and elaborate Christmas carousels. I can never understand why many of these contestants, a lot of them pros, are so lame that their creations seem to fall apart before they get them to the judging stand.

"It’s very time-consuming," Ron says. "Repetitiveness and discipline are the secrets of cake decorating; the art comes from the meticulousness of the technique. Like how it is for a dancer." He himself was a dancer in Israel, where he was born and raised. "I was into folk dancing," Ron says. "Then I discovered modern dance—I fell in love. I bought my first pair of tights." Ron is a cross between George Balanchine and Sacha Baron Cohen. There is a steely perfection about what he does, and there’s always a joke. After he quit dancing, he tried dozens of jobs, then he discovered cake. "I could always bake," Ron says, surveying the purple mound in front of him.

"First you need to assemble your ingredients," he instructs. By this he means not just the filled, frosted cake and the edible flowers or lace—you can buy rubber and silicone molds for them—but also the gold and silver dragées, the sprinkles, the fondant.

"You can begin to roll it out," Ron says. I place the fondant on the granite countertop (and only granite will do). He hands me a long rolling pin made from a PVC pipe, nontoxic and very light. "Okay," he says to me. "Roll."

Many of Ron’s creations are elab-orate works of architecture. He often builds a base out of wood to hold them up. "I once had to find a way to support the Brooklyn Bridge," he recalls. "It was a fiftieth birthday cake called From Brooklyn to Park Avenue, a graph of a guy’s life. I put all the landmarks in, including the bridge.

"The cake I made for you is vanilla because it’s summer," Ron continues. "Real vanilla is complex and amazing, unlike the stuff in alcohol you usually buy. You don’t smell it until you bite into it. The frosting—which has to both taste great and hold the fondant and the decoration—is critical."

I tell him I hate most buttercreams. They taste as though you just put a gob of butter in your mouth. "That’s because of the egg yolks," Ron explains. "I only use pasteurized egg whites, which keeps it much lighter. Then they’re whisked and whipped a long time. After that you fold in French-style butter, which has high butterfat content so you use less. For this cake I’ve made a reduction of passion fruit with a little lime juice for the filling, and I might serve it with a bit of blueberry sauce. Nice, yes?"

Yes, yes, very nice, and Ron’s vanilla cake and the frosting are knockouts (he lets me taste some samples): light and moist and sweet, sure, and now I’m rolling fondant like crazy. But when do we get to play?

"I wouldn’t give up your day job," Ron says, taking the fondant from me and rolling it into an enormous thin sheet with quick, graceful gestures, turning it into something that’s almost fabric. Decorating is, in the end, about the sugar—in glazes, for flowers, in the fondant. Marzipan, which is sugar and ground almonds, is often used to craft blossoms, vegetables, and figures.

It was the availability of sugar from the New World that really made fancy cakes possible in the 17th and 18th centuries. Still, it remained precious stuff for a long time, and methods for using it were the province of imperial kitchens. (Think of those fabulous masterpieces in the movie Marie Antoinette by Sofia Coppola.) Marie-Antoine Carême, the great French chef of the 18th and early 19th centuries, was the first great master of theme cakes; his legendary pièces montées, some of them four feet high, were modeled after pyramids, temples, and architectural ruins.

When the lilac fondant sheet is finally ready, Ron picks it up easily, lightly, like a pizza chef about to toss the dough over his head, and drapes it over the heart-shaped cake. He tucks and snips so that the fondant fits as perfectly as a couture dress on a model. I try patting some down and tear it. Ron does magic mending with a pin. "You just prick the tear and pat it down," he says.

We go to work on the "glass beads," rolling more fondant into balls the size of tangerines so they’ll be in proportion to the cake, which is to serve 50 people. Now we assemble our "palette."

"You make little sausages of fondant in different colors; if you roll one over the other, when you cut through it you get a multicolored slice, like sushi," Ron explains. We then apply these like stickers or decals to the balls, and when we’re finished they are fantastic, wonderful sugar replicas of the old Venetian glass beads. Ron shows me how to use a travel clothes steamer to get them to shine. "It takes out the moisture and makes them glisten," he says. We place the beads around the heart.

"You think the top looks a little plain, don’t you?" inquires Ron. When I answer that I do, he suddenly decides we need to write something on it to make it pop. Out of little pieces of the bright fon-dant, we construct some letters. Once it’s done my cake not only is a version of the heart-shaped amethyst pendant but also a kind of seventies hippie cake, beads glittering as if in the light of a disco ball, the word "love" blazing across it. I can practically hear the Bee Gees.

Most cooking is a means to an end, but with Ron’s cakes it is different. The concept, the crafting of the pieces, the assembly, the sheer choreography of it all is what finally makes them a celebratory, deliciously ephemeral indulgence. Even five floors down from Ron’s studio on my way home, I can still smell the sugar.

White Chocolate Passion Fruit and Buttercream Frosting

Makes enough for one cake for 50 people

  • 9 large egg whites, room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 1/2 lbs unsweetened butter (6 sticks), softened
  • 6 oz white chocolate, melted and cooled to room temperature
  • 1/3 cup passion fruit puree (or any fruit nectar)

1. Place egg whites and sugar in large metal mixer bowl, set over simmering water.

2. Whisk constantly until sugar melts and mixture is very thin and warm.

3. Remove bowl from heat and whisk on high speed until stiff peaks form, about five minutes.

4. Continue beating on low speed until cool, about 15 more minutes.

5. Add in small pieces of soft butter on low speed. The mixture will curdle before coming together.

6. Gradually beat in the white chocolate, then add the passion fruit purée.

7. Occasionally re-beat while frosting cake, to maintain smooth texture.

Ron Ben-Israel Cakes, 42 Greene St.; 212-625-3369; weddingcakes.com