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Bonita & Estero Magazine

Extreme Cake Artistry

Nov 16, 2022 12:46PM ● By Jeff Lytle

Chocolate caramel clock by Sean Dwyer.

When Joanne Davis goes to work in her kitchen in Bonita Springs, she can crank out a great-looking pizza. Peer inside the authentic delivery box, and there is a pizza with traditional-looking crust, tomato sauce, pepperoni, and shredded cheese.

But wait. This pizza is different. There is no pizza aroma. And it is cold.

That is because it is cake. Everything on it is pure, edible confection. Davis’s creation was for a 16-year-old who wanted pizza for his birthday party. “His mother thought a pizza cake would surprise him,” Davis recalls, “which it did.”

Davis has been honing her hobby for more than a decade. She is joined by a cadre of professionals who take classic cake artistry to the next level—beyond gorgeous, tiered wedding cakes with edible faux flowers.

Extreme cake artistry even has its own TV show these days. Is It Cake? on Netflix features professionals making items such as bowling balls, beach bags, and tacos out of cake. Hosted by comedian Mikey Day from Saturday Night Live, contestants try to fool a panel of judges tasked with identifying which items are real and which are cake. The show is so popular that it has been renewed for a second season.

Few cake chefs produce whole lines of merchandise as eccentric as tacos because the market is too small and specialized. But local chefs wield skills as fine as the TV contestants’ and put them to work on more conventional fare, while taking on occasional specialty requests from customers. You never know what can be done until you ask. The lovely treats in bakeries’ display cases can be just the beginning.

For Davis, a retired electronics sales executive from Ohio, the list of cake showpieces she has done for friends and family include a golf ball, hamburger, fish, cat, and a dog that the recipient liked so much she dreaded to cut into it. A cake with a simple photo of the family pet had been requested, but as Davis says, “Any grocery store could do that.”

Her creative tools reside in a toolbox that looks more like it belongs in a garage than a kitchen. Inside are a level, paint brushes, and tools for squeezing icing into the shape of flowers and into the heart of cupcakes. For her, as well as the professionals who do this for a living, icing is the glue for assembling the building blocks.

How does she mimic cloth for items? Davis explains she makes her own fondant, much like cookie dough, from marshmallows and powdered sugar. She rolls it out and cuts it to shape. Voila. 

Sean Dwyer, a Le Cordon Bleu graduate and pastry chef at Naples’ Hamilton Harbor Yacht Club, takes his art to the next level by combining cake, brownies, chocolate, mousse, and candies in his works that range in appearance from lighted cigars to luscious fruits. He calls the combinations “pretty rare in Naples”—part of his passion for something different. Featured on his website are videos of him cutting into the center of creations to show what’s inside.

Many of Dwyer’s specialty confection customers are members of the yacht club on Naples Bay at Gordon Pass (now owned by a company involved with the upcoming Four Seasons resort at the former Naples Beach Hotel site). He recalls once creating a nautical compass that fit into the heart of a wooden captain’s wheel on a yacht.

Elizabeth Mikkelsen, who guides an eponymous Bonita Springs-based pastry shop with her husband, Paw, says Is It Cake? and other TV chef shows are a double-edged sword. Yes, they do promote specialty creations, but they give the wrong impression about how fast they can be made.

“Some of the shows are on for 30 minutes,” observes Paw Mikkelsen, a native of Denmark and second-generation chef. “People do not realize it’s being taped for a week or two and then being edited to that half-hour.”

“Our cakes don’t just happen,” adds Elizabeth Mikkelsen. “They don’t just appear like on I Dream of Jeannie.”

That timetable, plus the manpower to create each special order from scratch, make many wishes impractical, Paw explains, though the shop tries to work with customers to offer workable alternatives—all fashioned from the staple building blocks of cake, marzipan, chocolate (including a variety known as plastic chocolate with special hardening properties), butter cream icing, fondant, and even Rice Krispies held together with gooey marshmallow as a stuffing.

One of the Mikkelsens’ memorable projects from the past was a re-created vintage car from the Revs Institute car museum in Naples.

A challenging request came into the Mikkelsens’ shop as this story’s writer was visiting one afternoon. A mother and teenage daughter walked in and asked for a birthday cake that dispenses real paper money—wrapped in plastic—out the top, which they had seen in a video.

Elizabeth says these video- and Pinterest-inspired requests, such as cakes that spill candy when cut, come into the shop frequently. Less frequent are orders for cakes as tall as eight feet, which Paw explains are built in sections with sturdy infrastructure, so one tier does not implode the foundation.

Bess Charles, co-owner of LadyCakes Bakery in Cape Coral, concurs on the impacts of Is it Cake? “It certainly has shed new light on the cake industry and how realistic cakes can be,” she says, though adding, “Custom cakes as a whole are very time consuming and truly test even the most skilled pastry chefs. They are true works of art!”

Charles, who lists her credentials as “renowned cake designer, author, cake whisperer, wife, and mother, declares, “Some of our most amazing creations are simply too beautiful to eat.”

Adriana Florez of Wonder Cake Creations, based in Sarasota, says the most unusual orders for lead cake artist Moreli Hernandez have included a Las Vegas-style white tiger, a helmet from the Mandalorian TV series, and a computer to celebrate the sale of a technology business.

“Our passion is to put a smile on the faces of our clients,” Florez says. “We take their ideas and translate them into amazing designs.”

Jeri Suzette Price of The Cake Suzette in Naples says, “Our cakes do make you say, ‘Wow’.” Price, who interned with TV’s Cake Boss in her native New York, says a signature of her 90 percent organic specialty cakes are intricate flowers made of butter cream.

She also offers a tip for aspiring cakemakers: “When making pound cake, place a cake plate on the top of the cake pan upon removal from the oven until it cools. This will trap in the heat and provide a fabulous and moist pound cake!”

The cake movement is embraced by Norman Love, the area’s premier chocolatier and co-creator of Food Network Challenge, which debuted in 2001. (That is the same year he opened his first retail store in Fort Myers after working as a pastry chef for Ritz-Carlton. He now has six shops from Naples to Sarasota.)

His merchandise includes chocolates that look like fruit—big with Northerners shopping online for a taste of Florida—and exotic cakes made of “varying flavors and ingredients, assembled into layers, encased in mousse, glazed, and topped with decorations.”

A new boxed collection of candy is named Five Layer Birthday Cake, with the 25 multicolored pieces arranged in rows to simulate layers of cupcake, chocolate cake, German chocolate, carrot cake, and strawberry shortcake. Plus, a new white chocolate bar is named Birthday Cake.  

He marvels at cake art that you cannot tell is real, or not, until you cut into it.

Love says over the years he has produced special-request creations for designs including eyeballs (for an eye doctor), a football, and high-heeled shoes.

Still, fancy or plain, sweets are comfort food, he says. “They take you back to your childhood, and every American understands.”

 Jeff Lytle is the retired editorial page editor and TV host at the Naples Daily News.