I recently talked to cake virtuoso and pastry chef Ron Ben-Israel about his creations for weddings and special occasions, his background, and how he works with clients to craft the cake of their dreams. (You can read the first installment of our interview here.) Next up, we chat inspiration, his recent project with Martha Stewart Weddings, and how he and his team make those incredible — edible! — sugar flowers. (Remember: never say “gum paste”!) Plus, more photos of more cakes!
Where do you find inspiration?
The first thing I would say is the celebrant — whether it’s a single celebrant for a birthday or a couple getting married — it’s about them. We interview them: what is their family background, what kind of ceremony are they are going to have?…I ask all the basic questions. What time will guests arrive? What kind of lighting, what kind of flowers they are going to use? It’s a big deal because we are known for our sugar flowers. I also like to know about the menu. Usually the menu will influence the inside of the cake, but if a wedding takes place at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, they will use a lot of ingredients from the organic garden, so maybe the decorations on the cake will have an organic feel…We try to find out what the couple is wearing. There is tons of information [I can use by looking at] today’s dresses because there is so much going on with the fabric and texture.
Can you talk about making your signature flowers? Are some more challenging than others?
Orchids have risen in popularity enormously…I think the availability of all [fresh] orchids has grown. Orchids are available more year round [now], there’s more variety, and they are more accessible price-wise. Exotic orchids that were almost unavailable years ago are now being presented at weddings.
Orchids are wonderful to make in sugar but they are very complex. There’s a lot of colouring and special shapes. Certain flowers like the rose — which is eternal and romantic and has many emotional facets to it — you don’t need a lot of tools to make roses. You do a lot by hand, cutting by hand, pulling and tugging. But with orchids I need a lot of different shapes and cutters. I need to make silicon molds from real petals to be able to get the texture. Some orchids are very complex in their colourings and you can spend hours coloring dots and creating each petal by hand.
Do you have to make those fairly well in advance? Do they have to set?
Yes, they have to set. We make many flowers at the same time, so you can’t measure how long it would take to do a single flower. An orchid has six main parts. I couldn’t tell you the botanical names, but all of them have six parts. You have to cut them, shape them, and then trim the edge and let them dry overnight. Then you do the coloring and assembly. So a typical orchid will take a process of three days. Some orchids are very, very tiny. There’s a type called dancing ladies; even after each blossom is finished they are the size of a penny.
What are you most proud of?
I will tell you my biggest achievement. When I went to the small school to study how to make flowers and decorate cakes, we called the flowers “gum paste” flowers. I was horrified by that term. [It is derived from the fact that] the sugar dough used to make flowers contains small amounts of natural vegetable gum, which acts as a stabilizer. The term “gum paste” — I thought it was wrong…So I kept saying to students and clients and magazines, “Sugar flower” “Sugar flower,” time and time again: “Never call it gum paste.” And now a lot of people are using that term “sugar flower”…It caught on, so that’s very exciting for me.
Do you have any favorite materials, styles, or flavors?
Before coming here I lived and worked in France and I loved passion fruit. I introduced passion fruit and butter cream and it didn’t catch on in the beginning…Then people started having it in some restaurants…and now that’s a big standard with us…We introduced a filling that is called “Mexican hot chocolate.” It has some cinnamon, chilli peppers — just a little kick in it…In terms of designing I really like to work with sugar paste, the dough that we use to make the flowers. It became my job at the bakery to make specific flowers. I make all the roses, for instance. But really anything to do with cakes and sugar, I like. I will tell you what I don’t like: I don’t like making little people out of sugar. I don’t like making cakes in the shape of a person or the head of a person…I will not make a cake that’s shaped like a dog; I don’t want to cut into your beloved dog.
Do you listen to anything while you’re working?
Yes, a lot of different styles [of music]. I prefer Broadway tunes. I like to listen to the whole score, and that doesn’t always go well with my bakers so we listen to a mix. I can go crazy during the holiday season but in general we agree who’s going to be the DJ for the day. I still think that for doing cake production, the best way to get people motivated and working well is to play 70’s disco. Everybody loves it. The cakes are happy.
Do you have a recent favorite project?
A recent project that I really loved was for the summer issue of Martha Stewart Weddings, making cakes inspired by heirloom handkerchiefs. It was ideal in many respects because everyone [on my staff] participated on it. We had to make a lot of the tools to achieve those techniques. The pieces of fabric were so unique, so everybody had something to do — from sketching, to baking, to making the molds, to assembling the cakes. It’s a project my crew was very happy with. When you work on a magazine commission you create prototypes. We had not done them before; they hadn’t been seen before. There was a sense of inventing something…hopefully that will become the new trend.
What’s the secret to making a cake taste as great as it looks?
I don’t really know. I would bottle it if I knew the secret. I think you have to be crazy [to do what I do.] You don’t get up in the morning to be normal. You seek the challenges. You want to find what’s unusual…[My work] makes me complete, so it’s not your regular job in the office. Some people are really good bakers and all I can do is teach…There’s procedure and books that we write on how to do things, but still you get some people who are good bakers and some who are not…Here’s the secret: If the cake rises consistently then you’ve got what it takes.
The minimum order for cakes by Ron Ben-Israel is $500. Pricing for wedding cakes begins at $16 per person. Novelty and sculpted cakes usually start at $1,500. Visit Ron Ben-Israel Cakes for more info.
Unless otherwise noted, all photos courtesy Ron Ben-Israel Cakes.