It’s a pet lover’s paradise in the bakery department at Marketplace Foods. Customers can bring in a photo of Fido, Whiskers or any other furry, feathered or finned friend, and Katie Knowles will bring it to life in the form of a 3D cake.
Her customers are in good hands. After all, Knowles, a cake decorator at a Marketplace store in Minot, N.D., won the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association's Annual Cake Decorating Challenge last year. (This year’s cake decorating challenge will take place during the June 10-12 IDDBA show in New Orleans.)
Decorating a pet cake takes patience, skill and creativity. Knowles employs several innovative decorating techniques to make the cake look lifelike. For some of her animal cakes, that means using food coloring on spaghetti to recreate whiskers. Depending on the animal she is creating, she will also use a paint brush, comb or paper towels to texturize the frosting so that it has a strong resemblance to fur.
“The goal is to get it to look as close to their pet as possible,” said Knowles.
The truth about cats and dogs
Pet lovers of all kinds are requesting edible recreations of their companions. The trend comes at a time when more than two-thirds (68%) of all U.S. households owns a pet, according to the 2017-2018 Pet Owners Survey by the American Pet Products Association. A whopping 81% of pet owners say their pets are beneficial to their health and 71% say pets bring their families closer together. Their love for pets is so strong that some pet owners are even making provisions for pets in their wills. This includes leaving money for the pet’s care or naming a caretaker.
Pet owners spend plenty of money on their pets. Along with buying premium food and designer clothes for their dogs, about 78% of dog owners have purchased a gift for their dog. Interest in pet-themed cakes makes sense, as 23% of Millennial pet owners throw parties for their pets, according to the APPA survey.
Knowles spends a great deal of time and effort on her pet cakes. While creating a fur-like covered body takes time and skill, the face is the most challenging aspect of the project. It can take up to several hours to create a pet cake — that can sell for as much as $200, depending on how much time goes into it.
What makes it even more challenging is that requests aren’t just limited to household pets. Knowles has had requests for everything from a dinosaur to a monkey and an octopus. She’s even been asked to create a hedgehog and armadillo. Ladybugs are also popular. That colored spaghetti comes in handy again, as Knowles uses it to create antennas for her ladybug creations.
“We get all types of random requests for animal cakes,” she said.
Cakes of mythic proportions
The unicorn is another animal, albeit a mythical one, that is on-trend in the bakery department. The ubiquity of these always popular creatures soared last year when Starbucks launched its Unicorn Frappuccino. Now there’s demand for everything from unicorn-themed clothes and pool floats to manicures — and cakes.
“Unicorns are a popular animal cake,” said Abby Hathaway, a cake designer at a Hy-Vee store.
To create a unicorn cake, Hathaway uses a decorating technique known as “striping the bag.” This is when gel stripes of different colors are put into the piping bag, along with the frosting. The result is frosting that has a multi-tone, ombré effect that is ideal for the unicorn’s mane. Hathaway uses DecoPac materials for the horn, eyes and ears.
Unicorns are also popular at Harp’s Food Stores in Springdale, Ark., said Meghan Rolls, a cake decorator who earned second place at last year’s IDDBA cake decorating challenge. Her store creates at least one unicorn cake each week.
Rolls uses luster dust decorating powder to add sparkle and texture to her unicorn creations. Since metallics are popular, Rolls mixes gold luster dust with a small amount of an alcohol-based liquid so that it turns into a paint-like substance. (Luster dust is not water soluble, so it will not fuse with water.) She then paints it on the unicorn’s mane to create a metallic effect.
As for the unicorn’s horn, Rolls creates it either completely from fondant, or she’ll use an ice cream cone. To create texture, she uses new playing cards to smooth out and shape the cake.
Sidebar: Thinking out of the (cake) box
In addition to animal cakes, decorators have been busy creating other types of highly textured baked goods.
Meghan Rolls of Harp’s Food Stores uses an angled spatula to create shabby chic wedding cakes that are in demand. She puts the cake on a rotating turntable and frosts it with the spatula until she gets a less-structured look that is in demand for casual weddings.
“It creates a texture that’s not perfectly smooth,” she said.
A variety of texturizing tools are also needed for cakes designed to resemble open pages from a book, commonly used for christenings, bar mitzvahs and other religious celebrations. To create a book cake, she will ice a sheet cake and texturize the sides so that they look like pages from a book. Fondant is used for the cover. Next, she types out words or phrases from the featured book, prints them on paper, and scans them onto a DecoPac edible image.
Another type of cake that puts a decorator’s creativity on display is the so-called “naked” cake. These are cakes that have frosting on top, but not on the sides, leaving the layers exposed. This creates a colorful effect if, say, a fruit filling is used. Naked cakes are especially popular for rustic weddings.
“Naked cakes are a big trend with brides,” said Katie Knowles, a cake decorator at Marketplace Foods. “It’s a very simple, pretty look.”