Sweet Celebrations: The Art of Decorating Beautiful Cakes (Canada, UK)
By Sylvia Weinstock
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: Oct. 1999
Sweet Celebrations is a lovely coffee-table book. Unfortunately, I don’t think that is what it’s meant to be. It is meant to be an instructional book on making and decorating party cakes, but it sets out to turn mere human beings into great artists. And that, I think, is beyond the reach of any book.
Sweet Celebrations is the work of Sylvia Weinstock, a pastry chef in New York who has a business turning out fabulous cakes for television stars, corporate clients, and the merely rich. Her cakes are works of art, and someone a publisher, no doubt finally convinced her to write a book about her work. Our children, including an eight-year-old boy who always wants to run out and play, couldn’t tear themselves away from the stunning photos in this book. They couldn’t believe that many of these creations were really cakes. Their parents couldn’t and still can’t see themselves trying to make any but the absolutely simplest of them.
The book includes basic recipes for cakes, icings, fillings, and syrups; instructions on working with sugar dough and using it to make flowers, ribbons, and bows; a section on piping techniques; and instructions for making and decorating 25 “specialty cakes.”
First, I love the recipes in this book. While there are wonderful cake books on the market and books with substantial cake and icing sections, I always seem to be looking for basic, delicious cake recipes, and icings and fillings that taste great, but don’t turn to goo at room temperature. There are seven fundamental cake recipes (yellow, white, spice, chocolate fudge, carrot, almond, and hazelnut) and equally few recipes for icings and fillings. Together with the nine flavored syrup options used to moisten the cakes before filling and icing, it is possible to come up with almost unlimited combinations of pure, clean flavors that work well together. I’m sure I’ll use Weinstock’s recipes regularly, even if I never try to fashion a sugar-dough calla lily.
And it is the calla lilies (and roses and irises and hydrangeas, etc., etc.) formed from sugar dough and the wonderfully colored marzipan fruits where Weinstock loses me. She does not pipe flowers from icing, because they have “have no resemblance to real flowers.” She makes flowers by hand, petal by petal, with sugar dough, that “can be made botanically correct, with petals as thin as and the exact shape of real flowers.” (In fact, Weinstock takes some pride in having fooled a florist with some of her sugar flowers mixed in with a bunch of real irises.) They are stunning; no question about that.
But Weinstock herself studied long and hard with an actual living teacher to master those flowers. And while she provides “basic” flower instructions and recommends again and again the need to purchase flowers and fruits to use as models as you color and shape the sugar dough and marzipan, not one person in 10,000 is going to be able to master the techniques to approximate her cakes. Her suggestion that you start making the flowers 10 to 12 weeks in advance of baking the cake helps put that in perspective.
The piping of icing which in many dessert books is the most challenging work looks simple compared to the creation of those flowers. Piped decorations range from simple and abundant (for the shaggy dog cake) to elaborate, fussy, and intricate (the Cornelli Heart Cake).
To be fair, the author ranks the cakes in this book by level of difficulty, ranging from 1 for the easiest to 3 for the most difficult. Some of the level 1 cakes could be managed by a reasonably competent home baker. Some of the level 2 cakes could be completed by people who have substantial experience working with a pastry bag. Realistically, the level 3 cakes are out of reach for all except trained and experienced pastry chefs and fine artists.
Obviously specialized equipment is necessary to make many of these cakes, certainly including an almost universal collection of cake decorating tips, and various sizes of cake pans. The book includes a list of companies that sell baking equipment, sugar dough, and marzipan by mail order.
Frankly, I would appreciate serving suggestions in the book as well, because avoiding the dowels, skewers, floral wire, cardboard cake rounds, and other equipment that support the structure of some of these masterpieces looks challenging.
Sweet Celebrations is clearly an inspiring book, and will be meaningful and useful to someone with the time and commitment to master the art of cake decorating an aspiring pastry chef, perhaps, or a caterer who wants to raise his or her skill level several notches. For the rest of us, it’s a beautiful (not inexpensive) book with stunning pictures, great recipes, and a number of useful ideas. But if we take leave of our senses and start to think that we can create some of these masterpieces, Sweet Celebrations may also become a sour lesson in frustration.