COLUMBIA — Edith Hall spent more than 400 hours — the equivalent of 10 work weeks — assembling her entry for the Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show & Grand National Wedding Cake Competition at the end of September.
The theme was "Headgear, Hats and Headbands," and Hall's cake was a four-tier creation in silver, black and white. It had a woven-basket effect for the base, dozens of two-dimensional gum paste flowers circling the layers and an elaborate floral crown.
Her cake placed in the top 20 in the national competition, alongside cakes that looked like frilly lace handkerchiefs, stacks of royal coronets and a Tiffany lamp.
Hall is a certified master sugar artist in Columbia who has been making and decorating cakes professionally for more than 30 years. She competes nationally in cake competitions, including TLC's "Ultimate Cake Off," and often places in the top five.
Learning to sculpt
In the beginner's class, she shows students how to ice cakes and make borders, shells, ruffles and flowers. The advanced class learns how to use fondant and make cutouts of roses, calla lilies and bows.
Sugar art, a main element in cake decorating, is the molding of sugar or gum paste to create flowers, ribbons and fragile strings or piping. The decorations can be used to trim a cake or stand alone as an elaborate centerpiece.
Television shows such as "Ace of Cakes," "Ultimate Cake Off," "Last Cake Standing" and "Cake Boss" highlight the time and effort that goes into decorating cakes. Hall agrees that it does take stamina, patience and perseverance to turn sugar into a work of art.
Evolution, forms of sugar art
Modern cake decorating became popular in the mid-1800s, according to CakeDecoratingArt.com.
A popular technique at the time, called dimensional overpiping, where multiple layers of icing gave a three-dimensional look to a cake.
Through technological advancements such as the temperature-controlled oven, the ease and popularity of making and decorating cakes began to boom.
Wilton Industries, a food crafting company, was one of the earliest to introduce cake decorating classes in 1929. The classes proved so successful that Wilton began producing its own baking and decorating products.
Extreme cake decorating remains popular today, as evidenced by at least a half-dozen television series, online forums about TV cake reality shows and celebrities such as Kaysie Lackey of Seattle, who won three Food Network cake challenges in 2011.
Sugar can be transformed by a number of techniques to achieve the effects chefs use to create their spectacular cakes.
It can be hard-boiled into syrup and stretched to create different shapes. This pulled-sugar technique is particularly effective in making ribbons and flowers. Spun sugar can be boiled until it reaches the "hard crack stage" at 300 to 310 degrees, to make a web of fine strands or strings for wrapping a cake.
In her string work, Hall uses a double zero pastry tip, which is smaller than a mechanical pencil lead. This kind of precise detailing appeared on her 2010 and 2012 entries in the Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show.
An unpredicted family tradition
She has taught the craft of sugar art to her youngest daughter, Wendy, 21, who swore she would never decorate cakes for a living.
As a kid, she said she helped her mom, but "it just wasn't something I was interested in."
She pursued an interest in culinary arts, completing two years of classes at the Columbia Area Career Center. After high school and a variety of jobs in kitchens and child care centers, Wendy Hall said she unexpectedly found herself working for her mom.
"I thought I'd kind of hate it because working for your mom is supposed to be taboo," she said. "But in the kitchen, it goes from a mother-daughter relationship to a boss-employee relationship."
Wendy Hall primarily works on birthday party cakes for her mother's business. She has made a cake shaped like a rubber duck, one shaped like Thomas the Tank Engine and one shaped like a nurse's smock with stethoscope, syringe and prescription bottle.
Her mother wants to continue to share her talent with the community, whether through teaching or creating, and to challenge herself. But she is looking to her daughter to continue the family tradition.
"Hopefully, I can learn everything my mom does," Wendy Hall said. "I want to keep taking the business further and for people to still say 'That's an Edith Hall cake.'"