When Did Cakes Become so Sexy?

Bakers are breaking from the stuffy confines of confection decoration.

Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

In a world where cakes are molded into the facsimile of a Chinese takeout box bursting with chow mein or perhaps a realistic rendition of a bowling ball, it’s soothing when cakes are simply cakes. And yet, the uber-cloying, frosted rose-bedecked versions aren’t quite the order of the day either.

Bakers across the country are putting down the fondant and opting for farmers’ market-fresh ingredients. They’re foraging for herbs and verdant roughage as adornments. Cakes have become a canvas of utmost whimsy and creative experimentation—and just downright gorgeous.

Take Elana Berusch, who posts her elaborate creations on Instagram under the handle @lanibakes, is one of those bakers. Berusch is a food scientist—officially title director of research and development who’s formulated products for food manufacturers around the country, from baby food and pie to marijuana edibles—who employs both art and science in her craft.

“Baking on the side lets me really unleash a lot of creativity with fewer boundaries,” Berusch says. “Six years ago, when I was living in a tiny town in Michigan, I was working full time for a baby food company. I just didn’t have any friends really, [but did have] lots of fresh produce available to me.”

Photo by Elana Berusch

Making baby mush as your 9 to 5 certainly would leave room for artistic freedom, and she’s been able to find that through artful cake decoration. “There's something really beautifully tactile about baking and especially cake decorating where you’re slapping frosting around,” she says of hands-on process.

And it’s not just happening in Berusch’s neck of the woods in Denver. In Chicago, Emily Nejad is best friends with bright colors and Lisa Frank-like details. Liz Ho of Birdhouse Bakery in Alberta, Canada, on the other hand employs a much more delicate palette, and yet her flavors—hazelnut cake with honey roasted peaches, vanilla bean mascarpone mousse, stone fruit preserves, and salted white chocolate buttercream—are imaginative. Seattle’s Kayla Waldorf swirls and caramelizes meringue ripples reminiscent of zen garden designs that are then topped with squash blossoms and sprigs of lavender. If you like “weirdo cakes” then New Orleans native Bronwyn Wyatt’s multi-layered beauties with serpentine icing patterns is your kindred baker.

There’s even an entire publication, Cake Zine, dedicated to the charming wiles of the cake.

“I think bakers are just having more fun with it,” posits Berusch. “I used to really lock myself in—you’ve got to have smooth sides and sharp edges and if you do a drip, it has to be pristine.” Cake has never not been delightful, but the loosening of self-imposed constraints have allowed her and her pastry peers to shift the idea of what cakes look and taste like.

Don’t take it so seriously. Sprinkle with reckless abandon. Pop a real flower on there rather than a sugary petal. Let your cake stay a little “naked.” Use the jam your friend gifted you that’s in the fridge. Berusch has used fresh strawberries and its green tops in buttercream (we love zero waste!) and tossed in day-old cake into new batter just to see if she could.

“I gravitated towards baking, and particularly cakes, because there were always science questions I wanted to answer,” she says. Could she swap toast crumbs or cornmeal for all-purpose flour? What else could replace egg whites? She baked and conducted experiments and, in the process, made something much more than dessert.

“I think part of this huge burst of creativity and change recently has been the pandemic where things feel pretty dark, but making a cake is always a happy occasion,” Berusch reasons. “You make a cake for someone to celebrate something. There’s joy that goes into that.”

Breaking with the rules and baking as part of a meditative craft that produces joy and, yes, dessert, has been an antidote to melancholy. And damn if it isn’t just the most gorgeous thing that pops into our feed.

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Rosin Saez is the senior editor of Food & Drink at Thrillist.