Saturday, February 20, 2010

Ace of Cakes: Inside the World of Charm City Cakes by Duff Goldman and Willie Goldman

If you don't know Duff Goldman, star of Food Network Reality Series "Ace of Cakes", you must be living under a rock somewhere. A rocker who loved food, he spent much of his life learning about food. He went to the CIA and bummed around working in different restaurants, criss-crossing the country.

When he came back to Baltimore, he was asked by a friend to make her a wedding cake. The Wedding coordinator was so blown away by the cake he made, that she asked him for his business card. Unfortunately, he didn't have one, but he did get a lot of requests for cakes. And when he found out how much he could charge for a cake, he went into the cake-making business, first out of his home, and then moving into a professional kitchen.

The fact that Duff didn't look like a baker saved him at least once. When a man came to see if he was breaking the law by using his home kitchen as a professional kitchen to bake cakes, Duff said, "Do I look like a baker?" and the man said, no, he didn't, and went away. But Duff quickly moved to a "real" professional kitchen.

As Duff's business grew, he hired friends of his: Geof Manthorne, Mary-Alice Yeskey... Every decorator, cake baker, and even the guys who generally drive the delivery truck are covered by this book- because some of them do a little cake decorating, too. But even if they don't, their lives and their work at Charm City Cakes are covered in pretty amazing detail. The upshot of most of this is that Duff and his crew are rarely just cake bakers- they are artists (or, in Geof Manthorne's case, an architect) rather than people raised on just how to decorate cakes. And it's this that allows their cakes to be, quite frankly, amazing.

This book, it tells you right at the outset, isn't a "how-to" guide to baking cakes or cake decoration- it's more of a celebration of what Duff and his team of decorators at the bakery do. There are plenty of pictures of the cakes that have been featured on the show- tiny pictures crowded onto 3 or 4 fold-out pages, but most of the book focusses on the people who work there, from the Vegan cake baker to Mary-Alice's assistant. And if you've already seen the episode where they showed the decorators making styrofoam cakes for display, just for the book, you will already have seen many of the cakes that this book profiles, from the "Teeth Grill" cake to the "Bust of Marie Antoinette" cake to the Matryoshka cake(s).

Also included are a list of Frequently asked questions, like "Do you ever wash your hands, you filthy people?" (Yes, but that part always ends up on the cutting room floor)- every time they switch fondant colors, they have to wash their hands, so assume it's going on even if it isn't shown! And "How much do your cakes cost?"- Answer, if you have to ask, you can't afford it! The truth is, if you go to their website, an "average" cake is about $1000, but most range from $500 to $2000. When you order a cake, you get 5 samples of the 47 falvors they flavor to try- this costs $100, but is deducted from the cost of your finished cake. And the flavors are listed in the book, and they sound delicious- everything from "Peanut Butter and Jelly" (yes, cake!) to "Brownie", "Ginger and Green Tea", "Caradmom and Pistachio", "Blackberry Sourcream" and "Red Velvet" is covered, along with a host of others- "Bananas Foster", "Tiramisu", "Strawberry Shortcake"- the list seems endless!

And yes, the cakes do taste good. If they didn't, no one would order them, no matter how good they looked. When a cake is covered in fondant, it acts as a moisture seal, ensuring the cake will be fresh for at least 3 or 4 days. This is the charge leveled most often at the bakery- but as people who have ordered a cake can attest, it's without merit.

I was enthralled by this book when it came into the library as a return. I delayed checking it in and read it over my lunch- completely forgetting about the book I had actually brought in to read. I watch Ace of Cakes all the time after I come home from work, so this was one I really looked forward to.

In a way, having seen the episode where they prepare the cakes that are featured in the making of the book made the whole cake-making part a little less interesting, but where it shone was in showing us the people who work at Charm City Cakes- who they are, where they come from, and their own personal stories. Duff got his nickname because when he was born, his older brother couldn't say "Jeffrey", it came out "Duffy" and soon, the name stuck. Duff and Mary Alice met when she lost her grandmother's pearls down the sink at her dorm. Duff was the RA acting as the dorm handyman, and he pulled the U-shaped pipe beneath the sink and got them back for her. It's these stories that make the book so unusually fascinating to read.

This is a coffee-table book, and while the pictures of the cakes are interesting (and will take a magnifying glass to be able to enjoy), it's the history of the business and the people who work there and run it that will keep you coming back for more. Highly recommended.

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