The Latest Trend in Baking? Making a Mess
A new generation of pâtissier is eschewing the primness and precision of traditional cakes and creating confections as delightful as they are subversive.
By Alicia Kennedy
Photographs and Video by Jennifer Livingston
Styled by Haidee Findlay-Levin
Nov. 8, 2021
Billie Belo will never write “Happy Birthday” on her cakes. As the baker behind Cakes for No Occasion, she sees her offerings more as sculptures than comestible commodities: The tiered monstrosities ooze and drip. Her neon or pastel buttercream is often pocked with bulbous orbs that Belo, 38, doesn’t define as, say, truffles or cream puffs; in her decorating language, they’re simply balls, in flavors like lychee or raspberry, and they make her desserts seem not just alive but unwell. After studying painting at New York’s Grand Central Atelier, she began baking for her friends’ restaurant, Lil’ Deb’s Oasis, in Hudson, N.Y., a few years ago, then started her online business — each one-of-a-kind cake is sold by email from her Manhattan apartment — in 2018 after refining an impasto style that betrays what she calls the “tight” Victorian look of traditional cakes, where lines are clean and excess frosting is swept away. “There’s just so much caution in [that] realist style, and I felt imprisoned by it,” she says. “With cake, I want it to explode.”
Belo is part of a school of Instagram-native bakers espousing a messier, bespoke confectionary style: Among them are the self-taught Brooklyn ceramist Alli Gelles, 34, who launched Cakes4Sport last year to sell shimmering, swirling masses, and recently collaborated on hats with the outré downtown fashion brand Puppets and Puppets; Hannah Mandel, a 31-year-old archivist at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College in upstate New York, whose Forsythia Forsythia cakes are slightly less chaotic but still tend toward whimsical buttercream blobs, as well as pools of curd in tangy flavors like pineapple and blood orange; and Julie Saha, a 24-year-old vegan cheese affineur in Philadelphia, who, as @foodbebo, orients her practice less around finished products than her own spontaneous spirit of play, in which her decorating will change based on how she feels — rarely is the final product the same as the initial concept.
A spread of kooky layer cakes, including, from left, Alli Gelles’s buttermilk sponge cake with apricot jam and fig leaf buttercream, from $150, via @cakes4sport on Instagram; Julie Saha’s matcha cake with sweet strawberry compote, vanilla peanut butter frosting and moon grape buttercream, $100, juliemadeyoudinner.com; Gelles’s coconut sponge cake with coconut buttercream, passion fruit and hardy kiwi; Billie Belo’s sour cream cake with guava compote, rose syrup, salted Swiss meringue buttercream and rose-water gel, from $150, cakesfornooccasion.com; Saha’s chocolate cake with raspberry mint jam and vanilla rose buttercream, $75; and Hannah Mandel’s malted strawberry cake with pickled mixed-berry jam and basil tomato leaf cream cheese frosting, from $85, forsythiaforsythia.com. On model: Kwaidan Editions coat, $3,610, tights, $570, and shoes, $880, ssense.com; and Tableaux Vivants gloves, $175, tableauxvivantslatex.com.Credit…Photograph by Jennifer Livingston. Styled by Haidee Findlay-Levin
While their work is aesthetically distinct, these bakers are unified not only in their zany, maximalist approaches but in their rejection of their discipline’s traditions, whether it’s the recent fondant-covered smoothness evangelized on TV by so-called (and often male) cake bosses, or the standard fare of the suburban American bakery, where piped filigree and buttercream rosettes were popularized over the course of the 20th century. Nor are they making the naked cakes of recent rustic wedding dominance, with their carefully combed-away frosting perimeters — in fact, what most sets these new pastry chefs apart is their complete disavowal of neatness, which has defined American cake making since the first recipes migrated from France by way of English colonists in the late 1700s. Instead, these cakes allude to the millennial childhood aesthetic of Nickelodeon slime and neon signs, of brightly beaded anklets and painted macaroni necklaces; in that way, they reflect a kind of colorful, seemingly synthetic 1990s postmodernism that has likewise influenced many of today’s rising furniture and jewelry designers.
That veneer of silliness doesn’t mean, however, that these bakers shouldn’t be taken seriously. Though the cakes may seem at first glance like joyous follies, ready to topple under the weight of their own Rainbow Brite frosting, the women behind them say they’re rallying against nostalgia and perfection in part because there’s no use looking back, because things are neither clean nor ideal as a pandemic rages on and fires or floods overtake America’s coasts. We must still take sweetness where we can get it, of course, even if these cakes also provide a way of expressing rage at — and taking respite from — the uncertainty and disappointments of the modern world. And because these bakeries are all side jobs, they provide their owners a much-needed sense of control: “I’m not beholden to someone being like, ‘I want a cake that looks like Cookie Monster,’” says Mandel, “because I get to curate what I make.”
Ultimately, though, a cake’s appeal rests in its ephemerality — that moment before it’s cut into and forever destroyed — particularly at a time when young artists in all mediums are reckoning with human consumption and the material waste their work may produce. “We’re still finding pottery from whatever B.C.,” Gelles says, discussing the crumply vases she also produces. “Am I just making more incredibly permanent trash?” Yet with her cakes — which she describes as “grotesque” — there’s no concern that they might outlast their maker or buyer, which is partly the idea. “It doesn’t matter, at the end of the day,” Belo says. “It’s going to be eaten, and it’s going to be good.”
At top: Kwaidan Editions jacket, $570, dress, $1,380, tights, $570, and shoes, $880, ssense.com. Supriya Lele skirt, about $494, and socks, price on request, supriyalele.com. Tableaux Vivants knickers, $125, tableauxvivantslatex.com. Kwaidan Editions shoes, $765. Kwaidan Editions coat, $3,610, skirt, $850, tights, $570, and shoes, $880. Tableaux Vivants gloves, $175.
Director of photography: Matthew Schroeder. Model: Valéry Lessard at Parts Models. Tailor: Lars Nord. Digital tech: Hans Eric Olson. Photo assistant: Matthew Labarbiera. Fashion assistant: Zhane Santisteban. Prop stylist’s assistant: Kayleigh Snowden