The devil is in the sweet details: Q&A with cake master Bonnie Gordon

Intricate, detailed and fussy. That’s how master cake artist Bonnie Gordon loves her cakes. Over the years, as a cake instructor and decorator, Gordon has paid her dues, putting in serious time with precision pastry cutters, paint brushes and her trusty turntable. Now serving as the director of the Bonnie Gordon College of Confectionary Arts, it’s Gordon’s turn to have her cake and eat it too.

On Sunday (May 15), the college will host its annual Cake Show at the Artscape Wychwood Barns in Toronto’s St. Clair and Christie Neighbourhood. The event will be a battling ground for ardent cake artists to showcase their sweet stuff in various competitions. One competition, the Cake Star Face-Off seems especially grueling – 3 contestants (accomplished cake decorators in their own right) will have 6 hours to create a cake that evokes the four seasons. For the faint of heart, another competition will feature 3 designers who will be given one hour to create a mere 6 cupcakes.

On a recent afternoon, Gordon invited OurFaves to visit the college for a behind-the-scenes peek into a real cake factory. With furrowed-browed students working carefully on their final cake projects in the background, Gordon let us in on the cake the brought her out of her self-imposed cake-making retirement, her favourite dessert (it’s not cake!) and the first baking cookbook she ever owned.

How did you get your start?

It’s the Bonnie story. To summarize it very quickly, I have a background in fine arts and I went into the education field. I have a Masters in education. And I specialized in the museum field. So I worked in museums for a number of years and then I left the museum field after my second child was born and I was trying to think about what I could do. I wanted to get back to my creative roots. Studying painting and sculpture in university and then becoming a manager in a museum, I really felt like I was no longer creating and I felt like I had to create and I didn’t know what that creative outlet was.

I went to chef school and then the second year, I took the cake decorating class and that’s when I was hooked because I realized that cake decorating is essentially, for an artist, another medium. It’s still an art form.

So this is like an art school.

That’s it. I always tell people, our school is called College of Confectionary Arts and this is an art school, absolutely.

What would you say is the philosophy behind this school?

Just going back to what you said, we are an art school. It’s about nurturing individual creativity and expression and it’s not about teaching people to be cookie cutter. You try to nurture the individual’s skills and talents. We really want them to find their inner voice.

For the hobbyists, it’s different. For them, it’s come out and have fun. Take a class in cookie decorating. Take a class in mini cakes. Not everyone has to be a professional cake designer. Lots of people just take a pie class with Wanda because they want to bake pies.

What makes a good confectionary artist?

The best are able to do both: to be able to bake delicious cakes and also decorate them beautifully. When you look at beautiful cakes, everyone will tell you the story of going to a wedding and it was such a pretty cake but once they tasted it, it didn’t taste very good. And so the hallmark of a professional is the cake tastes as good as it looks.

What is the most memorable cake you’ve ever created?

I would say that the cakes where my clients give me complete control are the most fun because it allows me to express myself. I don’t do cakes anymore. I’m the director of a college and I did one cake this summer only because it was for a favourite client. My cakes now are created by my students and alumni. The joy and the pleasure I get is from the current and new generation of cake designers. If you look at the people around town who are doing very well professionally, the majority of them started with me.

Can you name some names?

Alexandria from Cake Opera. Sarah and Bobbitt at Bobbette & Belle, they both studied with me. Roxycakes also studied with me. For the Love of Cake’s Genevieve Griffin, she was a student. I Do! Wedding Cakes. The Wedding Cake Shoppe – they’ve all studied with me or worked with me over the years.

I’m interested in the cake you did over the summer. Can you talk a little bit about that?

It’s always a challenge to come up with something that’s totally unique and differet that’s not like any other cake I did before. It was very organic in the decorative elements were very art nouveau-influenced – very organic sculptural elements representing vines and leaves and flowers. It was also crowned by gum paste flowers.

Did you have a team?

I always work with a team because cakes that are this large and this elaborate require weeks and weeks of labour. At one point, we had 7 people sitting, making flowers and components on the cake. It’s always a team. It’s my design and I’m ultimately the one who has the final say on the design, but on these large cakes you often have a number of people because you can’t do it all.

What flavour was it?

It was pistachio with a rosewater filling. The family is from Iran so we tried to really meet their culture.

Where do you go for your favourite piece of cake?

I’m actually a pie eater. I like pies. I like a good butter tart. Of course, I’ll go down to Wanda’s. Wanda teaches pie baking at the school.

I love butter tarts. Where is a good place to go for butter tarts?

It’s hard because I’m always on the search for the perfect butter tart. It’s rather what do I like in butter tarts because some people put in raisins and some don’t. I don’t like raisins in mine. I do like pecans because I like pecan pie. I don’t like when the crust is too thick. A lot of places make a crust that’s too doughy. I like a thin crust. Charmaine, who’s our baking and pastry chef, she makes a killer one but she doesn’t sell it.

So where can we go for a really great one?

Honestly, I don’t know. I can think of where I buy them, but I don’t buy them often and usually, if I’m going to buy a treat for myself, it’s going to be an almond croissant. I love almond croissants. I die for almond croissants.

I’ve had some good ones from Rahier. Where do you get yours?

I was going to say Rahier on Bayview is good. They’re classic Montreal.

If anyone could bake you cake, who would you want to make it for you?

It would have to be one of the teachers who worked for me who also worked on the cake for my client. Her name is Isabelle, she’s one of the teachers at the school and she also went to the Cordon Bleu and Isabelle is a fantastic pastry chef. I would definitely ask Isabelle to bake me a cake.

How did you learn to bake and from whom?

I started baking on my own when I was young as a child. Cake mix. I had no one to show me how to bake. And then I started taking chef classes and I took a baking class at one of the local college and the baking class I took was very much geared towards production baking and I wanted to learn how to make more artisanal specialty cakes. So after taking some classes that showed me basic kitchen techniques, I taught myself. I think one of the first books I bought was The Cake Bible about 15 years ago. And over the years in the business, the more I learned. The more you make, the more you learn.

What are some dessert trends you see for 2011 and beyond?

Cake pops. They’re huge. God knows where they’ve come from. It’s like they resurrected the rum ball. Essentially, it’s the same idea as the rum ball without the artificial rum flavouring in it. And it’s the same thing – it’s a great way for companies to use leftover cake, cover it with chocolate or ganache. A lot of people don’t want a huge piece of cake. And because it’s covered with poured chocolate or ganache, you can do a lot of things with them. Put little flowers on them, pipe them.

People are still eating macaron but they’ve been around for a while. You see bakeries with them everywhere.

We have to create a new trend. With cake pops, someone just came up with an idea and everyone grabbed on to it. Especially people who do production because there’s just so much leftover cake.

What is a new dessert trend that doesn’t impress you?

I don’t eat dessert (whispers). I’ve been in the industry so many years. You ask any cake designer in the industry if they eat cake and most of them will tell you, not all of them, don’t eat cake. Because after a while, there’s only so much cake.

I think that’s what going to be popular are things that can be packaged. So for example, cupcakes are packaged. One of the reason cupcakes are so popular is that they have a paper on the bottom and they fit neatly into a box.

What is one piece of kitchen equipment that you can’t live without?

My KitchenAid mixer. Absolutely. When you’re making cakes or if you’re making butter cream, you have to have a mixer that has a strong enough motor to really withstand the wear and tear. With the buttercreams, the cake batters, the fillings, you really want to be able to get that volume, that rise.

And a turntable. Everyone needs a turntable.

When you were creating cakes, did you prefer simple or elaborate styles?

Always elaborate. That was my style. I was known for very intricate, very detailed, very fussy cakes. I love decorative arts, so I loved anything elaborate and would allow me to explore the materials and let me have fun with them.

You are the director of this school, but what is one class you’d want to take?

The pulled sugar class. We have 14 different teachers at the college and we have so many different classes and the one I’ve never tried is the pulled sugar class and I always think I’d like to but I’m always running around. I’ve always been fascinated by the pulled sugar class so that’s one that intrigues me.

Who is your favourite dessert partner?

My husband because he shares. He’s very good at saying let’s split or order two different ones and split each one. I don’t want to eat with anyone who doesn’t like sharing.

Interview and photographs by Maria Cootauco

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One response to “The devil is in the sweet details: Q&A with cake master Bonnie Gordon

  1. Grace Flaminiano

    Simply Amazing!

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