You’re familiar with sculptures of metal and clay, but what about sculptures of cake? Susan Crisler first tried her hand at this medium in 2006, and in the short time since, has become quite an artist.
Her business, That’s a Cake?, grew out of Joe Brews Espresso, a coffee shop in Germantown Hills. When the economy took a turn for the worse, so did Joe Brews’ sales. “When people have to choose between buying a cup of coffee every morning or buying gas for their cars, they’re going to choose gas,” Crisler explained matter-of-factly. So, to supplement declining sales, she decided to utilize the full commercial kitchen on site and begin offering cakes as well.
At first, Crisler told us, it took three or four hours for her to bake and decorate a single sheet cake. But after experimenting with Wilton cake-decorating sets, reading numerous books and watching shows like the Food Network’s Ace of Cakes, she eventually got the basics down and was completing her cakes more quickly. Making these cakes “is a continuous learning process,” she said. It took six months for Crisler to master sheet cakes, but in just two years, Crisler has become extremely proficient in sculpting unique cakes.
When the cake side of the business started taking off, Crisler changed its name to Joe Brews Espresso & Cakes. But as coffee sales continued to drop, she was forced to close the second location, which had opened in the OSF Center for Health on Route 91. Then, last July, Crisler reluctantly decided to shutter Joe Brews completely and focus solely on the cakes, which produced “more bang for the buck.”
From Sketch to Sculpture
While Crisler will still make basic sheet cakes, she specializes in sculpting. “I’ll do anything a customer requests—there is no set standard,” she said. Whether making basic birthday cakes, sculpted cakes, decorated cupcakes, hand-designed cupcake bouquets or designer cookies, Crisler is always willing to take risks and try something new. “I want it to look specialized no matter what it is,” she noted. She encourages customers to be creative when placing orders and takes all orders over the phone or by appointment so she can better understand customers’ desires. She then sketches proposed cakes and takes them back to the clients for approval.
Depending on the specifics of each cake, completing them—baking, frosting and designing—can take from two hours to five days. For instance, Crisler’s signature purse cakes can take anywhere from three-and-a-half to six hours to make. Because the process is so time-intensive, a part-time person works with Crisler on the production side. “She focuses on the foundation part,” said Crisler, “baking what needs to be baked and making the buttercream and cake boards.” This allows Crisler to concentrate her time on sculpting and decorating her masterpieces.
The Edible Details
From reading books and watching shows like Ace of Cakes, Crisler was introduced to one of the most important ingredients in cake sculpting—fondant, a sugar frosting which many describe as “an edible play dough.” It comes in all colors, has a smooth texture and can be sculpted into any shape, from airplanes and calculators to flowers and golf clubs.
The majority of the ingredients used in Crisler’s cakes are edible. She has made tennis shoes out of Rice Krispies and monster truck tires from donuts. She keeps graham crackers, chocolate chips and various candies on hand, as they frequently make their way onto sculpted cakes as decorations.
Some inedible objects, such as toy motorcycles, wine bottles and cowboy boots have made their way onto cakes, simply because it would be too expensive to create everything from scratch. The cost of labor alone would be more than most customers are willing to pay, but Crisler works within her clients’ budgets to make the cakes affordable.
For example, in the Harley Davidson wedding cake (at right), Crisler said it would have been very time-consuming to create an edible motorcycle with numerous small parts. She asked her clients where they wanted to spend their money—in creating a motorcycle or in the bride and groom figures and details which matched the groom’s bike. They chose the details over the motorcycle.
That’s a Cake?
At first glance, many don’t realize that these works of art are actually cakes. Crisler made note of several close calls, when people nearly ruined cakes by trying to pick up what they thought were purses or baskets of flowers. “No! That’s a cake!” was a common refrain.
One of the last “sculptures” to leave the Germantown Hills location, an armadillo-shaped birthday cake, was instrumental in selecting the name for the new business. As it was sitting out, waiting to be picked up, patron after patron would wonder, “That’s a cake?” Crisler recounted a friend’s suggestion that the business be named after the exclamation of so many customers, and the rest is history.
“When customers smile—when I can make someone else smile—that’s when I’m the happiest,” she remarked. It’s clear from watching Crisler at work in her garage-turned-kitchen, that cake sculpting, which she would never call art, cannot be called anything but art, for who but an artist could sculpt cake? a&s