I was deep into a mother-of-the-bride role, marching with military determination to Kleinfeld Bridal on 20th Street and Avenue of the Americas in New York. I was joining forces with my two daughters, Alessandra Plump, the bride-to-be, and my younger daughter, Gabriela Plump. Our goal was to find the perfect wedding dress for Alessandra that day.
Then, along the way on West 22nd Street, I happened on a store called NY Cake.
“We do customized dummy cakes,” read a sign in the window.
I knew this was a day for action, not distraction, but I couldn’t resist. I stepped inside to find a baker’s paradise: cookie cutters; candy molds; icing tools; edible glitter; pastry fillings; cake stencils; sprinkles; ribbons; blocks of fondant icing; and sugar paste sculptures of garlands, cherubs, fruits and flowers.
And cakes, dozens of cakes, all constructed with Styrofoam and decorated by hand: an “I Love New York” skyscraper cake, a bright red Chanel handbag cake, a many-layered black-and-white striped wedding cake with blue flowers, a theme cake from the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” a stiletto shoe cake. Some had been made years before.
“Can anyone make a fake cake?” I asked Richard Mansour, one of the managers, whose 48-year-old sister, Lisa Mansour, founded and owns the business.
“Of course!” he said.
“How much does it cost to make one?” I asked.
“You can make one for a couple of hundred dollars,” he said. said. That would cover the materials; a lesson, which is required if you make the cake onsite, would be more. (Groups classes start at $100 for the basics up to $400 for advanced decorating; private lessons are $300 an hour.)
It was a sign. I have never loved traditional, tiered wedding cakes. The portions can be skimpy, the slices slapped carelessly onto plates. By the time cake is served, many wedding guests have long finished eating and are deep into dancing.
Even worse, wedding cake often tastes stale. That’s because a lot of bakers make and freeze them, ice them frozen, then let them sit and harden for a couple of days so that they won’t fall under the weight of the layers or crack during transport. Even dowel rods installed inside the cake are no guarantee.
And boy, are wedding cakes expensive: anywhere from $6 to $15 a slice depending on the number of tiers, types of filling and frosting, and custom decorations in a city like Washington, where Alessandra’s wedding was taking place. That meant $1,000 to $2,400 worth of cake for a party of 160 or so, even though the menu at the wedding location we had chosen came with dessert.
By the time I got to Kleinfeld Bridal, I had a plan. I told Gabriela that she and I could have a mother-daughter bonding day decorating a dummy cake that we’d then take to the wedding in Washington.
“Mom, we’re here to buy a wedding dress, not to discuss cakes,” Gabriela said dryly.
Alessandra is an efficient shopper and we bought her dress that day. Soon afterward, Gabriela and I were scheduled for a daylong cake decorating session with Lisa.
We turned up one Saturday morning and Lisa escorted us into a glassed-in kitchen with stainless-steel tables at the back of the store.
Since our cake was not edible, I thought we were going to decorate it with pearls and rhinestones stuck on with Super Glue. After all, I had seen that in 2017, an eight-tiered cake decorated with more than 4,000 diamonds by a bakery in Chester, England, had been valued at $52 million.
No way, said Lisa. “It’s dangerous to decorate with rhinestones and pearls,” she said. “People will try to eat them.”
She showed us decorated models, including a silver-gray and white marbleized fondant-covered cake with silver sparkles; and a sleek geometric Art Deco confection in shimmering gold. We decided on a round, four-layer cake using pearlized fondant and rose-gold paint.
“Are you ready to get dirty?” Lisa asked.
We put on white pastry chef jackets, and said we were.
To start, each layer needed to be covered with edible glue so that the fondant icing would stick to the Styrofoam. Lisa told us to slather the layers with the “glue” — a.k.a. Crisco.
Then she opened a five-pound sealed block of white fondant, essentially an edible sugar paste with the consistency of Play-Doh. She lightly dusted an aluminum counter with cornstarch and sliced the fondant into smaller pieces with a serrated-edged knife. She showed us how to knead the fondant with our hands and roll it out with stainless steel rolling pins.
Gabriela passed the fondant slab several times through an electrical rolling machine to flatten it to a thickness of one-quarter-inch. Lisa helped her center the fondant over a round Styrofoam form and over its sides, taking care to prevent folds by lifting the fondant away from the cake and easing it down with one hand. She used a pizza cutter to trim off excess fondant at its bottom.
“You have to gently feel where the bottom of the cake is, like a caress,” Lisa said.
After we prepared four layers in different sizes, we stacked them into tiers. Gabriela sprayed the layers with an edible pearlized paint that gave it a silver glow. We chose rose-gold paint powder, mixed it with lemon extract, picked up paintbrushes and went to work.
There was not enough time to learn how to make flowers out of sugar paste (that would have to come on Day 2), so we used two bunches of white roses made in advance. We painted parts of the flowers in rose gold, leaving the leaves green. We pinned the flowers on the cake, and edged the bottom of each layer with satin ribbon. For the final touch, we sprinkled our masterpiece with ultrafine edible glitter.
“This was very therapeutic,” Gabriela said with a smile.
“That’s what my mom always says,” Lisa replied.
The story of NY Cake began in the Mansour family home on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn in the 1970s. Lisa’s mother, Joan had learned candy-making skills from her mother, a schoolteacher who had made hand-dipped filled chocolates, pecan logs and toffee in a makeshift factory in her basement in Salt Lake City.
In those days, cake decorating was not yet in vogue in the United States; Joan wrote away to England and South Africa for books on the subject. Soon, she was making and decorating birthday cakes for friends and family as a hobby while she raised seven children. Lisa’s father, Joseph, ran a sundries and cosmetics store in Rockefeller Center.
“All my friends would say, ‘These are so nice. Can you make one for me?’” she said. “But I didn’t have time. So I said, ‘Come over and I’ll teach you. One thing led to another.”
Soon, Joan Mansour was giving cake decorating lessons to neighborhood women gathered around her dining room table in the evening. “My father would come home tired and there’d be all these women deep into butter cream and piping and sugar roses,” Lisa said. “Finally, he said, ‘Enough.’”
When the pharmacy at the back of her father’s store moved out in 1980, her mother moved in. They put a small sign for the business, which was called the Chocolate Gallery, in the corner of the front window; advertising at first was done by word of mouth.
In 1989, the Mansours were forced out of their space when the lease came up for renewal and the rent was about to triple. Joseph Mansour retired; Lisa, a business major at Brooklyn College, decided to quit school to go into business with her mother. They found a space on West 22nd Street. “There wasn’t a soul on the street in those days,” Lisa recalled. “We went from Radio City to a street where a lot of people were sleeping on the sidewalk. It was all we could afford.”
Five years later, they moved to a larger, 4,000-square-foot space where they were located when I met them.
Over the years, NY Cake has become a cake-decorating mecca. On the day I was there, decorators from Argentina, Jamaica, Virginia and Texas came into the shop. Every year, Lisa Mansour organizes a NY Cake Show in which thousands of people from all over the world come and decorate cakes.
In early June, NY Cake moved out of its space at 56 West 22nd. It will reopen in a 7,000-square-foot space in early September a block away at 118 West 22nd. The new space will have a cafe with custom-decorated cakes and cupcakes, a wider range of products, a kitchen with ovens, refrigerators, freezers to make real cakes and a formal Cake Academy that will teach a range of baking skills, including how to make croissants. Lisa’s younger sister, Jenny Kashanian, who runs the wholesale, mail order and website services, will move to the new site from the Yonkers warehouse.
“We’ll be altogether again,” Lisa said. “Just like when we were kids.”
Gabriela and I put the cake we had decorated into a secure box; a cousin drove it to Washington. It was on display throughout the wedding, and people who weren’t in the know had no idea it was not real. When it came time for the cake cutting, Alessandra and her husband, Mathew Brailsford, held a knife over the top of the faux cake and then cut into designer cupcakes frosted in white.
And we did have a real cake. My close friend Carol Giacomo contributed two carrot sheet cakes made from scratch. They weighed more than 20 pounds, but she hand-carried them safely from New York to Washington on the Acela. She iced and layered them with thick butter cream frosting on site. Everyone said her cake was delicious.
As for the fake cake, it now sits in the living room of the newlyweds’ one-bedroom apartment.
Elaine Sciolino is the author of “The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs.”
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