A Piece of Cake {Behind the Sweet Scene}

Wedding Cake by Karen Portaleo

There’s no doubt about it, the Highland Bakery is one of our favorite spots in town. It’s the place we bring our families and meet our friends. Instead of date night, we have Highland Bakery date brunches. We even chose our first apartment in Atlanta based on it’s proximity to this bakery. Priorities.

I can’t emphasize enough how ecstatic I am to bring you this blog post and interview with the woman behind Highland Bakery’s Decorative Cakes: Karen Portaleo. If you’ve been to the bakery you’ve probably seen her work and wondered with jaw dropping bewilderment how someone could accomplish this and how on earth it could be edible…

zelda cake

Zelda the Flapper.

Her decorative cakes are, for all intents and purposes, pieces of art. She’s a celebrity in the cake decorating world and an artist in every sense of the word. Karen’s unique style is characterized by bold colors, whimsical characters, and incredible attention to detail. It’s no wonder her work is so widely admired and her client list so vast.

peacock feather cake

There’s nothing this Renaissance woman cannot conquer: Ballroom dancing, jewelry design, set and prop design, clay work, pen and ink, leather work, and the list goes on. For more info on her incredible life and career as an artist, check out her fun and fantastical website. (She drew all the characters herself!)

Between the bakery, weddings, charities, and television appearances, Karen is a very busy woman. She is also a very kind and extremely eloquent woman, and took a moment out of her day to chat with me about her craft.

So here’s a peek behind the sweet scene with one of the top cake decorators in the industry:

Presenting Karen Portaleo

PROCESS. PROCESS. PROCESS.

“I like when I have the freedom to let it evolve…once I see a face on a figure, I can decide what she’s going to wear”

With such an impressive body of work, my first question for Karen is about her process: how she moves through a project from start to finish:

“I’ll start thinking immediately from my first meeting…I do a sketch, but usually it’s a very very crude sketch. I like when I have the freedom to let it evolve. Once I see a face on a figure then I can decide what she’s going to wear. A lot of times it stays wide open the whole time…the only thing I need to know from the beginning is structure. Some of my cakes are over two hundred pounds by the time they are done, so they need serious support…”

And just how do you create a structure that supports that much weight? Galvanized pipe, medical grade tape, wooden dowels, and foam core among other materials.

Once the building and decorating begins it takes about 2 days…that’s it.

Karen usually hits the finish line at full speed. If she has to work through the night she will. Two days is the deadline for a cake that looks good and also tastes fresh. It’s very important to Karen that not only does the cake look incredible but that it tastes delicious too.

I CAN EAT THAT LACE?!

“To make everything edible, I think, brings the whole art to another level. That’s what I love doing”

It’s hard to believe when you look at the colorful, sculpted head of Zelda the Flapper, or the beady eyes of the Orangutan below: but, these characters are almost completely edible.

“I try to make sure that everything but the structure is edible…I think it’s part of what fascinates about the cake. You could make something fabulous if you could use real jewelry or if you could use ribbon, but then it’s not edible…to make everything edible, I think, brings the whole art to another level. That’s what I love doing.”

Zelda and Company. Sculpted from Chocolate.

Take a close look at the lace on Zelda’s headband and you’ll think she snagged a piece of grandma’s handkerchief; but, it’s actually a new product called sugar veil. An edible latex that comes in mats. Even Karen is in awe of  it’s delicate, ornate, and realistic look.

Lace, Beads, Color.

The only inedible piece on Zelda is the string in the beads. “That was my one concession!” The beads were cast from sugar and the head, like most of her figures, is sculpted from chocolate. Sculpting is one of Karen’s favorite artistic mediums and Chocolate, her favorite material to work with.

INSPIRATION.

“For me to sit on my porch with my favorite books…that’s what inspires me.”

Where does she draw her inspiration from and how did she develop her style? Let’s start with books:

Some of her favorite artists: Alfons Mucha, Aubrey Bierdsly, Fragonard, William Morris.

“I have a bit of a problem with book collecting.  For me to sit on my porch with my favorite books, that’s what inspires me…

My grandfather was a pastry chef so we grew up in bakeries. It never occurred to me to follow that path…it didn’t even really occur to me until I had been here for a while that I was following in that path. And my mom is an artist, she paints and she sculpts. I grew up around these two things, so I feel very comfortable being in a bakery and doing art work because both of them were there my whole life.”

 

STYLE.

“Deadlines are a good thing for me, because I’m not one who knows really when to stop.”

What are the defining aspects of her style that are most important to her? The sculptural nature of her cakes and the ways in which she experiments with color from hand painting to air brushing to coloring fondant and chocolate. But what she enjoys most: The level of detail.

“… I usually have to stop because the cake has to go out. I could work on any cake for another day and just keep adding and adding. It’s good that someone imposes deadlines on me, or I will sit and mess with the cake forever.”

Finishing Touches to her latest Wedding Cake.

I tend to be drawn to Rococo imagery… I like the very ultra feminine, layers of detail and lace and all kinds of baroque imagery…”

 

GOALS AND ASPIRATIONS

“I’m one of those people who thinks ‘Whatever I know you’re welcome to‘...I’m big on that. I think the more everybody knows, the better everything goes.

Here’s where Karen gets really passionate: Educating, sharing, and bringing her craft to the culinary world, and, most importantly, to everyone at home who has an interest.

“I really enjoy teaching, and I enjoy the food network appearances. Ultimately, if I could do anything, it would be to combine the two. Something more educational on television. {She champions Martha Stewart, her education efforts and her influence on design} I think the audience…wants to learn how to do things, they want to understand the process…there is a hunger, no pun intended, for this kind of information. I’m one of the people who thinks whatever I know you’re welcome to…I’m big on that, I think the more everybody knows, the better everything goes.”

Now those are word to live by, eh?

AND FINALLY….THE TIP OF THE DAY

This question comes from my fabulous photographer Jamie.

“For those moms making birthday cakes at home, how do we get the cake to stay together while frosting? A lot of the time it completely falls apart while I’m frosting it, what can I do to keep it together and looking good?”

Karen recommends putting your cake in the fridge, or freezer, for a bit to make sure it’s cold when you ice it. This helps it stay intact.

“Use your freezer. Your cake is full of butter, which is a fat, so if it gets cold it firms up. Let your cake firm up. For you first layer of buttercream, spread a thin layer, capturing all the crumbs in there,  put it back in the freezer until that buttercream gets firm. Then you’re gonna frost it. Your cake’s gonna be firm, all your crumbs are gonna be captured, so your outside layer will be nice and clean.”

Many Thanks to Karen, Ellen, Jamie and everyone at Highland Bakery. Want to see more of Karen’s work? Check out her impressive Flickr page!

Please check out my photographer JamieKatzPhotography.com She does incredible work with families, babies, actors, pets, and food.

 

 

wedding cake nature

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