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Eats and Drinks

The Cake Guy

Patty Cake, Patty Cake, Baker Man, Make Me a Cake Just as Fast as You Can

Michelle Gienow

By Michelle Gienow | Posted 9/18/2002

I can't remember the last time I was excited about cake. The cakes I've encountered lately come from the grocery store. They're rectangular, flat, and sheathed in icky hydrogenated icing, and the cake itself just kind of lies there. We, as a nation, have seriously mislaid our pastry priorities if we're settling for this kind of food to mark our special occasions. "Let them eat cake!" no longer holds the power to raise revolution, only a collective shrug. No thanks, we'd rather have pie.

At least, that was my opinion before I met Duff Goldman, baker/owner of Charm City Cakes. This is a guy who's thought a great deal about cake. One look at his Web site and all the elegantly freaky designs therein leaves no doubt. With a shaved head and baggy shorts, Goldman looks like the kind of guy who plays in an indie-rock band, which he does, or who uses blowtorches to sculpt scrap metal, which he also does.

It's hard to connect the dots between young, edgy Goldman and the rococo gilded fleur-de-lis wedding cakes (to name but one style in his broad repertoire) he's becoming increasingly famous for producing. But when the white chef's jacket goes on, he's all pastry professional. A graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, Goldman has worked in big-time kitchens like Napa Valley's renowned French Laundry. At 23, he became executive pastry chef at Colorado's Vail Cascade hotel, cranking out dessert for 1,200 people at a time. Goldman's fascination with multitiered monster cakes was born there.

"Basically, I had no choice because the hotel did a lot of weddings," says Goldman, who quickly realized he had a talent for it. He even made a wedding cake for the lead singer of the rock band Clutch. The catering manager at the wedding was so impressed that he suggested Goldman do it professionally. "For the first time, I began to think it might be cool to have a business doing just cakes," Goldman says.

But before that could happen, celebrity chef Todd English (Iron Chef America!) hired Goldman to help him open his Washington, D.C., restaurant Olives. Tiring of the 20-hour workdays that come with restaurant work, Goldman left Olives in March 2000 to be a personal chef in Baltimore. At the same time, he started Charm City Cakes, relying at first on word of mouth. "It was exciting," Goldman says. "But I definitely couldn't have made a living at it." Eventually cake orders picked up, and in March 2002 he quit his day job. Now he does two cakes a week, 70 percent of which are for weddings.

Goldman, now 27, says his goal is not to make more cakes but to make better, more interesting ones. "I'm pretty confident in my ability to make cool cakes," he says, "things people haven't seen before." To demonstrate, Goldman offers to make one while I watch.

When I arrive at his Charles Village studio/bakery, he's already baked the actual cake layers. This is the least creative part of the process, despite the innovative flavors--Thai iced coffee, green tea and ginger, lemon curd and raspberry--that are his trademark.

Next Goldman designs the cake using a sketchbook and colored pencils. He draws a round Crayola-colored three-tier cake with vivid green, blue, and yellow layers accented by sculpted geometric shapes in fiery reds and oranges. The effect is something like an elegant art-deco hat Audrey Hepburn might have worn to the 1964 World's Fair.

"So much of the art of cake making is being able to think on your feet," Goldman says, casually sketching in wild waterfall shapes that spear through all three layers of the cake. "You never say no--you can always do what a client wants, even if you've never done it before--so you say, 'Sure, I can do that.' Later you figure out how."

Goldman has made a last-minute birthday cake decorated to look like a computer chip ("I had, like, six hours to do that one, and I had never even seen a computer chip"); a freestanding, three-dimensional castle complete with moat and dragon; and a giant blue crab, anatomically correct down to the yellow "mustard" filling.

"It was a groom's cake for a bachelor party," Goldman says. "His fiancée ordered it. I didn't tell her about the mustard part, it was just this last-minute idea. But she called me later, laughing, to tell me she loved it." The only cakes Goldman shies away from are traditional white wedding cakes. "But people don't come to me for that," he says. "They can get those anywhere."

To transform our cake from drawing pad to serving tray, Goldman covers the layers in fondant icing, which looks like white Play-Doh. He grabs a lump and kneads it, adding droplets of food dye to create the custom colors of his imagination--no measurements, strictly by eye. He rolls the lump into a flat circle, then gently drapes the circle over a cake layer, painstakingly smoothing it until nary a bump nor wrinkle shows. He repeats the process twice in increasingly larger layers and explains that, in cake making, "bigger is always easier."

Next, Goldman puts the layers together. "This is the fun part," he says with a twinkle in his eyes. "This is where we get to use power tools." He constructs supports to keep the layers from sinking into each other using plastic plates and slender wooden dowels he buys at Home Depot. Apparently, there's as much architecture as art in creating a cake of this magnitude.

In the next step, time is of the essence. Goldman must sculpt the cake's embellishments out of pastillage, a fast-drying sugar paste. "Hardening is good--it's what makes the decorations stand up--but you gotta be quick," he says. Despite the time crunch, Goldman's creativity becomes truly apparent as he sculpts the freestanding geometric shapes--spindles, waves, a large, curving sail--freehand, eyeballing dimension and shape by instinct.

While creating the bright orange sail shape Goldman runs into trouble. It's larger than the form he was going to use to support it while it dried. (The decorations must set for 12 hours before they can stand on their own.) Undeterred, he jerry-rigs an armature out of an old fondant tub, using electrical tape to hold the pastillage figure flat. "Tools of the trade" he says holding up the tape. Once the shapes are set to dry overnight and the workspace is scrupulously scrubbed clean, it's time to quit for the day.

On Day 2, Goldman airbrushes the pastillage pieces with edible food paint and fits them into the cake. The process is much more structurally intensive than I'd thought: The bottom of each pastillage form has to be wrapped in plastic before it's inserted into the cake, to prevent the sugar paste from absorbing moisture, softening, and falling over, or off. It's also more intuitive. Like a sculptor, Goldman turns the cake in front of him, looking first at the pastry and then the adornments. "You have to remain open while creating a cake. You want it to look like your original concept, your drawing, but you can't get stuck in it," he says. "Sometimes the cake is going to go a different way, and you just have to let it."

Occasionally, a cake veers off the map. "I'm lucky my customers usually seem happy even when the cake is different from the original plan," he says. "They're willing to give me artistic license, which is I guess why they come to me instead of going to Giant for a sheet cake in the first place."

Goldman breaks a visible sweat while gently easing the fragile pastillage shapes into place. There's a breathless moment as one of the long, delicate wave-shaped pieces is fitted to span the cake's three tiers. Goldman carefully lowers it into place. Then, fingers aloft, he glides backward away from the cake; the form holds. Goldman explodes happily, "Damn! That looks bitchin'!"

The moment has come. Goldman declares the cake done, snaps a few digital pictures for his Web site (fourth row, fourth column, if you're curious), and presents me with the cake. It looks delicious (I can't wait to carve myself a big hunk of each vari-flavored layer), but it also looks like a work of art. It seems a shame to disturb its pristine integrity, its flawless realization of the original design--a process that took more than 13 hours, start to finish.

When I take the cake back to the office, my co-workers demolish two days' worth of Goldman's labors in minutes. It's like watching hyenas take down a wildebeest, but hey, I've got chocolate smears on my face, too. Can't talk. Eating cake.

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