Mount Airy bakers' attention to detail is icing on the cake

Tracy Phillips (left) and Sunshine O’Donnell decorate one of their CakeLabStudio creations at Phillips’ Philadelphia home.

Ten years ago, a chance meeting on a playground and a conversation about croquembouche brought CakeLabStudio founders Tracy Phillips and Sunshine O’Donnell together.

“Most people have never heard of croquembouche, but Tracy, meanwhile, was planning to make one with incredibly delicate spun-sugar work,” O’Donnell says.

And the rest, as they say, is confectionary history. With their mutual love of food and dedication to aesthetic perfection, it was decided that the two craftspeople would have to join forces. The first CakeLabStudio collaboration, dreamed up in Phillips’ Mount Airy kitchen, was a stunningly convincing sculpted Buddha cake, covered in gold-tinged draped fondant. It was a stunt bake that not only pulled off their ambitious vision but gave them the drive to keep trying out new ideas, at first just for friends, family, and charity events, and later by commission.

“We developed a kind of specialty in religious iconography,” O’Donnell says. “We made a Ganesh with Hebrew inscription for a Jewish/Hindu couple’s wedding anniversary, a Buddhist temple, and a Lady of Guadalupe figure.”

Though O’Donnell and Phillips are practiced at painting and sculpting (among other art forms), their lack of formal culinary training has allowed them to take risks with concepts and material in their cakes.

“Because we don’t have a professional background, we’re always trying things for the first time,” Phillips says. “There’s a lot of research and also the worry that when you take on a big project it might not work. But it always does.”

Now that Phillips has perfected her chocolate cake and mocha buttercream recipes — their most-requested flavors— the focus is squarely on the look and the engineering of these elaborate showpieces.

“One of the first things, when you have a big idea for a cake, is to create the armature of the structure. Otherwise, nothing would stand up. We’ve had that happen — and we stayed up until one in the morning to try to keep a cake upright. We’ve learned to use a lot of wires,” Phillips says.

They’ve given themselves the added challenge of trying to keep everything on their cakes as edible as possible without relying on bakery standbys like Rice Krispie treat stuffing.

As their process has evolved, they have moved away from fondant to include more chocolate molding and painting, as with the knight’s suit of armor cake they made for a child’s birthday party, with a finish that resembled rusted metal. They often create their own molds out of found or bought objects (in the case of the knight cake, a dollar-store Halloween costume) that they form with food-grade silicon. Not having to produce a bakery’s output of goods allows them to obsess to their hearts’ content about colors, textures, and shapes, tracking their ideas on Pinterest as they confer about the best way to create cake “moss” or a patina finish on a metallic coated chocolate.

Camera icon MARK BISHOP
CakeLabStudio’s stone angel statue cake, featured on the Alton Brown show “Ridiculous Cakes.”

With only occasional demand for incredibly time-consuming, labor-intensive cakes, CakeLabStudio was something of a best-kept secret — until the Food Network came knocking last fall. The show Ridiculous Cakes,   hosted by Alton Brown,  wanted to showcase Phillips and O’Donnell and their masterful stone angel statue cake.

Filming was a bit of a challenge, as both women work full-time in addition to raising children. (By day, O’Donnell teaches English at Abington Friends School — she’s also a novelist and found-object artist. Phillips works as a massage therapist and furniture artist.) Over the 12-hour shoots, they ended up making two identical cakes as the cameras caught their real and sometimes exaggerated moments of baking drama.

Even with all the televisual trickery in reality show production, there was no faking the artistry and care involved. The cake’s wings, for instance, were made from edible rice paper, hand-dipped in edible gold paint, which Phillips painstakingly attached, faux feather by faux feather, to the structure. If there’s a signature to their baking, it’s a passionate concern for realistic detail.

Camera icon JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Tracy Phillips decorates a CakeLabStudio creation.

“I’ve never met anyone else who understands this perfectionist drive to this degree,” O’Donnell says. “One time, we were working on a mehndi pattern and Tracy was piping it in and I was following with a pot of gold paint and a teeny, tiny brush. It went on for hours like that, and we were in heaven.”

Phillips and O’Donnell especially love that, unlike their other creative output, the baking doesn’t take up space or gather dust. It’s meant to be enjoyed and give people pleasure, both in the viewing and the devouring.

“Our goal is to make pieces of art that look like art, but you can eat them. One of the things we love is that it’s not meant to last,” O’Donnell says. “People always see our cakes and say, ‘I can’t eat this!’ But we say, ‘Go ahead and dive in.’ ”


Chocolate Cake

Serves 12

INGREDIENTS

3 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped

1½ cups hot brewed coffee

3 cups sugar

2½ cups flour

1½ cups unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch-processed)

2 teaspoons baking soda

¾ teaspoon baking powder

1¼ teaspoons salt

3 large eggs

¾ cup vegetable oil

1½ cups buttermilk

¾ teaspoon vanilla extract

DIRECTIONS

  1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line two 9-inch cake pans with parchment paper. Grease bottoms and sides and then lightly coat with flour, tapping to remove excess.
  2. Add chocolate to a bowl and combine with hot coffee. Let stand, stirring occasionally, until chocolate has melted and the mixture is smooth.
  3. Sift sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt together. In another bowl with an electric mixer, beat eggs about 3 minutes. Slowly add oil, buttermilk, vanilla, and melted chocolate mixture to eggs, beating until well combined. Add sugar mixture and beat on medium speed until just combined.
  4. Divide batter between 2 cake pans. Bake about 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.

— CakeLabStudios


Mocha Buttercream Frosting

Makes about 7 cups

INGREDIENTS

2 cups sugar, divided

¾ cup water

6 large egg whites at room temperature for 30 minutes

2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon instant espresso powder

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

½ teaspoon cream of tartar

¼ teaspoon salt

6 sticks unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon pieces and softened

6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled to lukewarm

DIRECTIONS

  1. Bring 1¾ cups sugar and water to a boil in a heavy 3-quart saucepan over medium heat, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Wash down any sugar crystals from side of pan with a pastry brush dipped in cold water. Boil, without stirring, until the syrup registers 220°F to 225°F, about 15 to 20 minutes.
  2. At this point, while continuing to boil syrup, add egg whites, espresso powder, vanilla, cream of tartar, and salt to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Beat at medium speed until they just hold soft peaks. Add remaining ¼ cup sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating until whites hold stiff peaks.
  3. When syrup reaches soft-ball stage (238°F to 242°F), immediately and very carefully pour it in a slow stream down the side of the mixing bowl into the whites (avoid beaters) while beating at high speed. Beat until completely cool, 25 to 30 minutes. With mixer at medium speed, add butter 1 tablespoon at a time, beating well after each addition  until buttercream is smooth. (Mixture may look curdled before all the butter is added but it will come together at the end.)
  4. Stir in chocolate. If buttercream is too soft to spread, chill it, stirring occasionally before spreading on the cake.

— Adapted from Epicurious.com


Marshmallow Fondant

Yields enough to cover a 9-inch layer cake, about 12 servings

INGREDIENTS

16 ounces white mini-marshmallows

2 to 5 tablespoons water

2 pounds powdered sugar

½ cup Crisco shortening

DIRECTIONS

  1. Combine marshmallows and 2 tablespoons of water in a large microwavable bowl. Place the bowl in the microwave for 30 seconds, stir, microwave for 30 seconds more, and continue doing this until melted.  It usually takes about 2½ minutes total.
  2. Knead the fondant dough:  Place ¾ of the powdered sugar on top of the melted marshmallow mix. Grease your hands generously with Crisco (palms, backs, and in between fingers), then heavily grease the counter you will be using and dump the bowl of marshmallow mixture in the middle.
  3. Continue to knead it like bread dough. If the mix tears easily, add water (about ½ tablespoon at a time) and  knead it in. Continue kneading until you have a firm, smooth elastic ball that will stretch without tearing when you apply it to the cake.  It is best if you can let it sit double-wrapped overnight, but you can use it right away if there are no tiny bits of dry powdered sugar. If you do see some, you will need to knead more and maybe add a few more drops of water. (Add food coloring to fondant at this stage if desired.)
  4. Prepare the fondant icing for storing by coating it with a good layer of Crisco shortening, wrapping it in  plastic, and putting it in a resealable plastic bag. Squeeze out as much air as possible.
  5. To add fondant to a completely cooled cake: Give the top and sides of the cake a thick coating of frosting. Roll out fondant, sprinkling cornstarch on your work surface and rolling pin, to a 20-by-16-inch rectangle, then drape the rectangle over the rolling pin. Quickly place the fondant icing at one bottom edge of the cake and unroll the rolling pin, holding it about 2 inches over the cake. Your fondant icing will then fall into place. You should also have a bit of overhang on the edges. You might need a little cornstarch at this stage, but use it sparingly. Lightly sprinkle the cornstarch over the surface and use a gentle buffing motion with your hand to move it around and to level the surface. This seals the fondant icing to the buttercream, works out the bumps in the icing below the surface, and removes flaws from the joined areas in the cake surface below. Use a pizza cutter or sharp knife to trim excess fondant. Store fondant-covered cake up to two days in a sealed box until serving.

 

— Adapted from What’s Cooking America