Conventional wisdom has it that TV food shows have spurred an interest in cooking, so does it follow that shows such as "Ace of Cakes" on the Food Network and TLC's "Cake Boss" have stirred the same sort of passions for cake decorating?
Yes, but in a different way. Valley bakers who specialize in the extreme cakes pictured on the shows say there's definitely more interest on the part of their customers.
"Ever since 'Ace of Cakes' came out, they've been wanting more different shapes, different drawings -- a lot of whimsical cakes," said Alicia Davila, a pastry chef at Leopold's Bakery.
"They want something really incredible," agreed Max Jacobson-Fried, general manager of Freed's Bakery.
"It opens the door for more creative things, more ideas," added Todd Philbrook, owner and executive pastry chef at Marie's Gourmet Bakery. "Does it drive the industry? Maybe yes, maybe no." But the shows, he said, have "exploded the interest of the general population."
And increasingly, designs are customer-driven.
"We are getting almost every day requests like we never had before," said Flora Aghababyan, cake artist at Wynn Las Vegas. Most of the designs by her department, which produces cakes for the resort's weddings and other special events, are unique, she said.
For example? A life-sized skeleton cake, for a party for a surgeon. And a perfect size 81/2 Valentino shoe cake.
"I never imagined I was going to get orders like that," Aghababyan said.
Philbrook noted that the trend toward nontraditional cakes isn't exactly new.
"We were doing this six years ago," he said.
"Tilted cakes," said Jeanne Forrest, owner of Layers Bakery. " 'I want it leaning.' They're still asking for them." But, "more and more we are getting people who want something special and very unique. They're a lot of fun for my staff and I because they're outside the norm of what we do."
Jacobson-Fried said Freed's, which is marking its 50th anniversary this year, did "an enormous mock-up," about 3 feet long and 2 feet high, of the Baja truck of a local motorsports enthusiast. For the birthday of Carroll Shelby, they did a tiered cake with Shelby's eponymous car atop, and photo panels depicting the cars. For the upcoming 100th anniversary of Cragin & Pike insurance, they're working on a design incorporating photos from the company's history in an edible filmstrip winding around the cake.
Some cakes have special effects, too. While Jacobson-Fried said fountains haven't been popular since the early '90s, "people are looking at having motorized pieces in their cakes now, round pieces rotating, lights. Edible signs with lights around the edges.
"Generally we've found people like to do fireworks on their cakes, large sparklers."
While Aghababyan said that, for the most part, all elements of her cakes are edible, she'll make an exception if a customer requests one, such as a recent cake's rotating top tier with a scale-model Maserati on it.
Forrest said customers frequently ask for items to be incorporated into a cake. One person, she said, ordered cakes for three friends celebrating landmark birthdays, and asked that bottles of Captain Morgan's rum, Tuaca Italian liqueur and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale be prominently featured.
Davila recently did a 40th-birthday cake shaped like a Viagra pill, and a rolled-fondant American flag draped over a cake. She also uses flowers with lights inside, and lighted stands.
"We're finding a lot of brides like to send us photos of their gowns," Jacobson-Fried said; the cake designer can replicate ruffles or lace patterns. "It's a new way to incorporate their wedding into the cake."
"I'm seeing just very unusual colors," Forrest said. "Nontraditional colors, especially with brides and grooms: oranges and reds and purples and silver. They really like shiny stuff. We're doing a lot of curlicues that bounce around. I think it adds dimension to the cake and makes it a little more special."
Philbrook, Forrest and Davila noted that birthday cakes are taking on the tiered style formerly reserved for wedding cakes -- a trend Forrest said has picked up in the past year.
"Fondant stripes on them, fondant ribbons, fondant circles, dots -- stuff like that," Davila said. "A lot of cakes that look like gift boxes."
Dominique Garel, owner of The Gourmet Cake Factory, said there's a drawback to the shows -- at least for customers wanting to duplicate fantasy cakes they see on TV.
"Those shows, when you see all of those elaborate cakes, a lot of people don't realize that it gets very pricey," Garel said. Like most businesses, the price is based on the time involved. Elaborate cakes can run anywhere from $600 to $5,000, he said.
"I think a lot of time," Forrest said, "they're shocked by what goes into making those cakes."
"When you see a roulette table (cake), that cake must have been thousands of dollars," Garel said.
Which, Forrest conceded, is "a lot of money to spend to eat cake." That said, "for some people, they want a certain look, they want a certain statement, and they are willing to pay."
Which is not to say cake-buyers on a budget need abandon all hope for an extreme cake, Garel said.
"We will do something similar, but maybe not as fancy," he said. "And it works fairly well for us. We simplify."
Philbrook cited another drawback of the shows.
"Three-dimensional cakes have to be really solid," Philbrook said. "Our cakes look good; they taste even better."
He's also not a fan of technology: "I'm old-school, if you will. I don't like something that's been touched a million times. That's why I'm not a big fan of 'Ace of Cakes.' "
Philbrook said he has seen some dropoff during the recession, "mostly in wedding sizes." Weddings that would have had 100 to 125 guests shrunk to 15 to 35, he said.
"They're coming back again, though," he added.
Forrest said Layers has been limited in producing extreme cakes because it has been operating with a 600-square-foot kitchen, but that's about to change. She's planning to move to a 3,000-square-foot commissary facility in October, and to move her retail operation to a 39-seat restaurant and full-service bakery after the holidays.
"It's definitely a fast-paced industry," Philbrook said. "Things change all the time."
Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at email@example.com or 702-383-0474.