This is a photo of Scarlett’s Versailles, an edible version of the iconic French palace. This cake is an ode to the last fourteen years of my annual cake creation for my daughters, Saffron and Scarlett. Like a child’s doll-house, we constructed this as a cross-section of the palace, surrounded by the golden royal fence, so you can peer into all the rooms and marvel. But the story of how we got here begins with a teapot! So read on…
In my family of origin, when it came to birthdays, the presents were secondary to the birthday cake. My mother had studied the art of sugar-craft and the concept of actually buying a cake from a store was scandalous. Every year, we would choose a special theme and create a cake around said theme. The excitement and delight was as much about looking at the cake, beholding the magic of it as it was about eating it afterwards.
I have strong memories of watching my mother taking wedding-cake classes with Mrs Swanepoel, the doyenne of everything to do with cake at the sugar-craft icing guild. My mother ended up making our very own wedding cake which was a perfect match of my wedding dress; a very meaningful culmination of her years of dedication to sugar-craft. There was a hallowed kind of silence, a deep respect as my mother sat among a group of serious, mostly Afrikaans, industrious housewives all of them disciples in the art of sugar-craft. I would tag along with my mom, a wide-eyed little girl, taking it all in.
Then I became a grownup and went to law school and fought cases in court and birthday cakes became a lovely memory from my childhood. That was, until I had my first daughter, Saffron. As we approached her first birthday, I knew that like my mother, I would not be buying Saffron a cake. I bought some books on sugar-craft and looked around for a teacher. Rachelle Meskin was her name. Rachelle and I laugh retrospectively that when I came to her, she assumed I wanted to start from the beginning with butter icing and a shaped cake pan. She didn’t realize that my imprint of what constitutes a cake from childhood was more Princess Di’s wedding cake than a Mickie Mouse pan. Although I was already a cook and a baker, under her tutelage, I found my hands as an artist. At Saffron’s first birthday, we had a delightful tea party and the piece de resistance was a birthday cake in the shape of a decorative teapot. Mind you, this was no ordinary teapot. It was modeled on a porcelain, collector’s item. The teapot was covered from lid to base in petals and flowers in a variety of shapes and hues. Each flower had been hand sculpted, painted and dusted by yours truly. China espresso cups, which I had adorned with sugar paste and icing to match the teapot surrounded the cake. I was playing with fantasy and reality: each espresso cup was filled with coffee aka chocolate mousse. Eventually we lit the candles and sang happy birthday and amidst some cries of protest, we cut and ate the artwork. I might add that little Saffron ate her organic, mashed banana, none the wiser. With this teapot, I had entered the world of sugar-craft.
In the making of this teapot, two very significant things happened for me. Firstly, I realized that my daughter Saffron was my muse. She inspired me to create something extraordinary, magical and beautiful. Secondly through the world of sugar-paste and icing, I had found my artistic medium. Between the muse and the medium, I had discovered a passion which burns in me till today.
What is it about cakes that they are able to delight and mesmerize? The visual images of the display window in your favourite patisserie makes you want to sing. It’s the colour and design, it’s the promise of what’s inside, it’s the playfulness of food that is art, art that is food.
Having conquered the antique teapot, I set my heart and mind to more challenging cake conquests. My daughter was a little older and interested in stories. Inspired by the exquisite Le Cirque De’Hiver in Paris, I envisioned a baroque circus marquee, replete with figurines, from a monkey riding an elephant to the circus lion. Then, Scarlett was born, and I started to look towards countries for party themes. The first country was Japan, then Hawaii, followed by the Sherwood forest, and then Paris and the Moulin Rouge. Each cake required almost a year’s worth of research, design and creation. When my girls were babies, I could spend hours at night while they slept, over months at a time carefully crafting the figurines and adornments that would become part of the cake’s world . But by the time of the Paris party, I had a five year old and a three year old. It was difficult with two little ones, and a full time career as an advocate to turn the entire magnificence of the Moulin Rouge into a cake installation. Halfway through the cake, I realized that I had taken on such detail and scale that I might not finish on my own. That was when I met my next teacher, Maxi. Maxi can only be described as a genius in the world of sugar-art. We met like this: I happened to be at the local church fair where there was a baker’s guild show and I was drawn to the sugar-paste nativity scene. Something about the scene and its dynamism really moved me. I inquired, ‘who made this?’ A humble woman stepped forward and as I set my eyes on Maxi, I knew had found a mentor. A strong Christian woman with a passion for her work, Maxi brought her skills to my imagination and we became excellent partners. Now that I had someone to help me build, the cake possibilities were limitless. There was nothing we couldn’t do with some icing, a colour palate and the world of history and culture at our fingertips. Maxi would talk to our sugar paste characters. She taught me to breathe life and movement into our characters and challenged me to imagine beyond still-life statuettes to sugar scenes imbued with action and stories. At the same time, I shared my knowledge with her of global design, I taught her about the architecture of the Moulin Rouge and we mastered proportions, looked at theatre designs, and tested colour palettes. Ours was a special relationship. We were partners traveling together through a sugar-paste universe. I brought the grand-scale visions which together we would translate into sugar. Together, we could transform the world into cake, one sugar-paste installation at a time. And so the Moulin Rouge came to Johannesburg.
The day of the party was a time to ooh and aah at the cake as it held its place as an installation in the heart of the party. Then, six months of love, care, and attention to every detail dissolved as we sang happy birthday and cut the cake. This intense labour of love and art followed by cake carnage is part of my journey with every cake. I am able to let go of the cake because each one is captured in photos before the party begins and before little hands begin to touch and grab. The pictures become part of a legend and a legacy that I can hand to my daughters. I know that on the day of the party, children will want to take mementos from the cake, a piano, a microphone, a little character that has come to life, the red curtains of the stage… a lot of it goes. At the end of it all, I surrender the cake as art to what I consider a mere secondary delight of cake – actually eating the thing.
By the time it came to my younger daughter Scarlett’s bat mitzvah (November of 2017), I was lucky enough to create a cake that I actually wanted to live in. This cake wasn’t a six month affair. When I think about it, I have been learning about and planning Scarlett’s Versailles cake my entire life. Before I took Saffron and Scarlett for our bat mitzvah reconnaissance trip, Maxi and I had a series of high-priority cake meetings in our country’s capital, Pretoria and laid out the blueprint of the 14th century chateau with its historical characters which we would pay homage to through the cake.
In the blueprint, I showed Maxi that when you enter the palace gates, you walk towards an exquisite black and white tiled courtyard around which is an impressive U-shaped structure. We envisioned a cross section of this structure, much like one might peer into a doll’s house. In this section were the king’s apartments to the right and the queen’s apartments to the left, music rooms, dining rooms, libraries, a copper kitchen. When I think back, Maxi and I spent more time on the architectural intricacies of this cake than the architect Louis Le Vau spent on the original chateau. When I think about it, I wanted to make Louis XIV proud but I wasn’t aiming for perfect mimesis. I wanted to insert whimsy. I chose the rooms that I loved and made sure the princess room was connected by stairs to the hall of mirrors. Inspired by the fifteenth century castle, I envisioned something beautiful yet playful, true to the spirit of the place but with my own artistic license and little loves such as food on the plates and small shoes. It was going to be Scarlett’s Versailles.
Dolls dancing at the ball on the signature black and white marble court which is at the centre and entrance to the palace.
This close up view of the palace roof reveals the oeil-de- boeuf, windows reminiscent of Louis the XIV’s genius.
In the original Versailles there is one staircase in the foyer but I took artistic license and created a double staircase leading to the different upstairs areas. Don’t be tempted to eat the portraits on your way up!
The king’s bedroom, complete with the balustrade behind which the courtiers would be to wait on him from the moment he awoke.
Marie Antoinette’s couch in her bedroom. On the table you can see one of her sculptured busts. These busts became a central artistic image at Scarlett’s bat mitzvah but with a bit of whimsy. We caricatured the busts and gave them an air of our princess of the night, Scarlett.
To make Marie Antoinette proud, I needed to do justice to her dressing room. Notice the clothes draped over the chair, the fans decorating the closet and of course the hats and the shoes. This was how I imagine it was in her day.
A close-up of Marie Antoinette’s dressing room. I took such delight in the hats and shoes all made in sugar paste. I mean, what’s a girl to do.
The music room. Without the backbreaking work routine of the working class, the royals had the time to become proficient in music. Note the rug on the floor and the ‘Chinese-style’ Secres vases on top of the fireplace.