Ten years ago, a chance meeting on a playground and a conversation about croquembouche brought CakeLabStudio founders Tracy Phillips and Sunshine O'Donnell together.
"Most people have never heard of croquembouche, but Tracy, meanwhile, was planning to make one with incredibly delicate spun-sugar work," O'Donnell says.
And the rest, as they say, is confectionary history. With their mutual love of food and dedication to aesthetic perfection, it was decided that the two craftspeople would have to join forces. The first CakeLabStudio collaboration, dreamed up in Phillips' Mount Airy kitchen, was a stunningly convincing sculpted Buddha cake, covered in gold-tinged draped fondant. It was a stunt bake that not only pulled off their ambitious vision but gave them the drive to keep trying out new ideas, at first just for friends, family, and charity events, and later by commission.
"We developed a kind of specialty in religious iconography," O'Donnell says. "We made a Ganesh with Hebrew inscription for a Jewish/Hindu couple's wedding anniversary, a Buddhist temple, and a Lady of Guadalupe figure."
Though O'Donnell and Phillips are practiced at painting and sculpting (among other art forms), their lack of formal culinary training has allowed them to take risks with concepts and material in their cakes.
"Because we don't have a professional background, we're always trying things for the first time," Phillips says. "There's a lot of research and also the worry that when you take on a big project it might not work. But it always does."
Now that Phillips has perfected her chocolate cake and mocha buttercream recipes — their most-requested flavors— the focus is squarely on the look and the engineering of these elaborate showpieces.
"One of the first things, when you have a big idea for a cake, is to create the armature of the structure. Otherwise, nothing would stand up. We've had that happen — and we stayed up until one in the morning to try to keep a cake upright. We've learned to use a lot of wires," Phillips says.
They've given themselves the added challenge of trying to keep everything on their cakes as edible as possible without relying on bakery standbys like Rice Krispie treat stuffing.
As their process has evolved, they have moved away from fondant to include more chocolate molding and painting, as with the knight's suit of armor cake they made for a child's birthday party, with a finish that resembled rusted metal. They often create their own molds out of found or bought objects (in the case of the knight cake, a dollar-store Halloween costume) that they form with food-grade silicon. Not having to produce a bakery's output of goods allows them to obsess to their hearts' content about colors, textures, and shapes, tracking their ideas on Pinterest as they confer about the best way to create cake "moss" or a patina finish on a metallic coated chocolate.
With only occasional demand for incredibly time-consuming, labor-intensive cakes, CakeLabStudio was something of a best-kept secret — until the Food Network came knocking last fall. The show Ridiculous Cakes, hosted by Alton Brown, wanted to showcase Phillips and O'Donnell and their masterful stone angel statue cake.
Filming was a bit of a challenge, as both women work full-time in addition to raising children. (By day, O'Donnell teaches English at Abington Friends School — she's also a novelist and found-object artist. Phillips works as a massage therapist and furniture artist.) Over the 12-hour shoots, they ended up making two identical cakes as the cameras caught their real and sometimes exaggerated moments of baking drama.
Even with all the televisual trickery in reality show production, there was no faking the artistry and care involved. The cake's wings, for instance, were made from edible rice paper, hand-dipped in edible gold paint, which Phillips painstakingly attached, faux feather by faux feather, to the structure. If there's a signature to their baking, it's a passionate concern for realistic detail.
"I've never met anyone else who understands this perfectionist drive to this degree," O'Donnell says. "One time, we were working on a mehndi pattern and Tracy was piping it in and I was following with a pot of gold paint and a teeny, tiny brush. It went on for hours like that, and we were in heaven."
Phillips and O'Donnell especially love that, unlike their other creative output, the baking doesn't take up space or gather dust. It's meant to be enjoyed and give people pleasure, both in the viewing and the devouring.