A sweet dream job: Dressing up cakes

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Nina Asadoorian of Truli Confectionary Arts at work in Rilling's Bakery. The former makeup artist has been tapped by the "Today" show to make the cakes for an on-air wedding.

In her 20s, Nina Asadoorian tried several different outlets for expressing her artistic talents, including dabbling in clothing design.

She worked successfully as a makeup artist.

And in time turned to making fanciful desserts.

That led to cakes:

Carrot cake with pineapple compote and cream cheese filling. Butter pound cake with lemon curd and raspberry preserves. Chocolate fudge cake with chocolate ganache, bits of Reese's peanut butter cups, and chocolate-peanut butter buttercream.

Not your typical wedding cakes, to be sure.

But the basis for the decorative cakes that won their creator Asadoorian, now 41, top honors this month on the Today show.

"I want my cakes to taste as good as they look," she says.

Fifteen years ago, Asadoorian was busy building credits as a makeup artist in Los Angeles working mostly on music videos and shows, with some success but little real satisfaction. She came home in 1994.

While she was in L.A., her parents in Philadelphia bought the popular Rilling's Bakery from the original owners, transitioning from the clothing business to baking. (Though her mother still helps out with the baking, Nina's brother and brother-in-law now run the business.)

In time, between makeup gigs here, Nina began helping out at the bakery's second location (since closed) in Warminster. Later, in 2000, she produced a line of individual, plated desserts for area markets.

It would be another two years before Nina (then married and the mother of one son and with twins on the way) stumbled onto what would become her true calling: cake decorating.

In theatrical "understudy" style, the regular decorator for Rilling's broke her foot and a very pregnant Nina was called in at the last minute to help out.

"It was an emergency, we had a lot of commitments, so I filled in," Nina recalled.

"And I really, really liked it."

So much so that several months after her twin daughter's, now age 5 1/2, were born, Nina began on her path toward becoming a decorating diva by taking a three-day class with a professional in Lancaster.

"That's when I decided I loved it. I drove home with a big grin on my face," she recalled.

By the time her daughters' first birthday rolled around, she was ready to produce a special cake for the occasion, one that prompted family and friends to insist she start doing more.

More classes followed in New York City. She won a city-wide charity cake competition in 2005 and started taking orders for cakes, including one for a wedding at the Four Seasons that ended up being so well-received that it prompted the hotel to place a few orders of its own.

"At 37, I found my niche and things sort of snowballed," said Nina. Now she focuses on creating unique, artistic (and pretty costly) cakes for special occasions.

Truli Confectionary Arts was born as a division of Rilling's, with Nina at the helm, and has grown to a staff of six including two decorating assistants.

And her credits include the cover of the Knot's "Best of Weddings 2008" issue now on the stands. (She was asked to submit cover contenders after being featured in the magazine last year, and says she didn't know she had won the coveted spot until she saw the magazine on a rack at Wegman's.)

Most recently her cakes, the luscious ones aforementioned, were chosen for Today's on-air wedding and reception airing June 25.

In addition to the main, three-tier cake for the bridal couple, smaller (4- to 5-inch) individual cakes - 200 of them - will be served to each guest at the reception.

Such mini cakes, she concedes, are "a total indulgence" for a bride.

"It's expensive. Doing smaller cakes is a lot harder work and takes more time," Nina explained, citing a starting price of about $35 per cake. With the large handcrafted gumpaste flowers that have become part of Nina Asadoorian's signature style, the price goes up from there. And yes, those big orchids and roses on the cakes shown here are all handmade and (technically) edible although many prefer to preserve them in airtight containers or show them off under glass domes.

"They dry hard and can last a lifetime with proper care," says Nina.

For more traditional large wedding cakes with varying degrees of decoration, she notes, prices typically run from $6 to about $15 per person (or serving). She estimates her average cake being $8 to $10 and serving 125 guests (that's $1,000 to $1,250). On a higher plane, a seven-tier cake with handpainted designs, flowers, drapes and swags was among her more expensive contracts at $6,500.

While more orders are coming in from her own and bridal Web sites, most of her cakes are for private clients and are local jobs for delivery within reasonable driving distance, which has stretched to include New York.

"And we had one cake delivered to Belize, by air," she noted.

Along with her custom-designed cakes, Nina does simpler party cakes that go into the cases at the family bakery every week.

But her interest is in custom work. Even if a customer asks for a particular design from the Truli Confectionary photo gallery, Nina encourages personalizing each cake.

"We rarely repeat ourselves. I just love making creative, beautiful things."

Her inspirations can come from anything and everything - invitations, pieces of jewelry, gardens, textures, patterns, fabrics.

She has replicated a Marine cap for a groom's cake, a saddle and boots for a horse-lover's birthday, and a poker table so realistic that the recipient tried to pick up the winning hand of slick gumpaste cards.

Among her favorites: a five-tiered square cake with stenciled designs and huge lifelike peonies, and a scaled down cascade of Niagara Falls complete with a mini Maid of the Mist.

Between cakes and caring for now four children (the youngest is 2), Nina is compiling a book on cake decorating that she expects to complete next year.

"I'm doing it for charity, either Smile Train [for children with cleft palates] or St. Jude's.

"It will be tips and tricks of the trade, with decorating instructions and recipes from 13 of us, myself and 12 other decorator's from around the country. My decorators' dozen. We each have different styles and each will do one or two cakes for the book."


Truli Confectionary Arts
2990 Southhampton Road
Philadelphia 19154
215-856-9206
www.truliconfectionaryarts.com

Contact food writer Marilynn Marter at 215-854-5743 or mmarter@phillynews.com.