For her latest culinary escapade, Reggie Nadelson pays a visit to Ron Ben-Israel for tips on crafting a dessert almost too pretty to eat. By REGGIE NADELSON “Elton John’s people just called and asked me to make his birthday cake—what should I do?” says Ron Ben-Israel when he calls to postpone my cake-decorating lesson. For Elton, I let him off the hook. A few weeks later I’m in Ron’s Manhattan loft where he designs and makes voluptuous, witty works of edible art—bowers of flowers, replicas of designer shoes. In the sunny SoHo studio, three women are bent over long tables painting sugar orchids. They remind me of seamstresses in a couturier’s workshop, stitching exquisite details by hand on a glorious bespoke creation. The place is silent with concentration and intensely sweet with the smell of sugar and butter and baking. “So here is your cake,” says the ebullient Ron. A large heart-shaped confection with pale lilac frosting sits on the counter. He hands me a ball of fondant (a sugar-water mixture), also lilac, which I begin to turn into a thin sheet that will wrap over the cake. It is silky and sensuous in my hands, like potter’s clay that smells like candy. While I’m working on it, Ron explains that he’s already made and frosted the cake because I’m here to decorate, not bake.
The inspiration for my design is a piece of jewelry I love: a huge heart-shaped amethyst pendant from Taffin surrounded by multicolored antique Venetian glass beads. Ron peers at the photo of the jewel, then at me, as if trying to divine the essentials, the meaning, the things that will make the soul of a great cake, of my cake. “Elton John is very romantic,” Ron says. “He adores flowers and keeps his own florist; we based his cake on that. Of course, it was Elton, so I couldn’t resist adding a little bling, a few edible sapphires and diamonds.” I begin to see that this is not about squeezing buttercream flowers out of a pastry bag or sticking on some marzipan roses at random. There is craft in this sugar. There are two things all girls want to do: dress up their dolls (or babies) and fool around with cake decorating. I have been known to while away weekends watching competitions on the Food Network, obsessed by all those Elvis tribute cakes and elaborate Christmas carousels. I can never understand why many of these contestants, a lot of them pros, are so lame that their creations seem to fall apart before they get them to the judging stand. “It’s very time-consuming,” Ron says. “Repetitiveness and discipline are the secrets of cake decorating; the art comes from the meticulousness of the technique. Like how it is for a dancer.” He himself was a dancer in Israel, where he was born and raised. “I was into folk dancing,” Ron says. “Then I discovered modern dance—I fell in love. I bought my first pair of tights.” Ron is a cross between George Balanchine and Sacha Baron Cohen. There is a steely perfection about what he does, and there’s always a joke. After he quit dancing, he tried dozens of jobs, then he discovered cake. “I could always bake,” Ron says, surveying the purple mound in front of him. “First you need to assemble your ingredients,” he instructs. By this he means not just the filled, frosted cake and the edible flowers or lace—you can buy rubber and silicone molds for them—but also the gold and silver dragées, the sprinkles, the fondant. “You can begin to roll it out,” Ron says. I place the fondant on the granite countertop (and only granite will do). He hands me a long rolling pin made from a PVC pipe, nontoxic and very light. “Okay,” he says to me. “Roll.” Many of Ron’s creations are elab-orate works of architecture. He often builds a base out of wood to hold them up. “I once had to find a way to support the Brooklyn Bridge,” he recalls. “It was a fiftieth birthday cake called From Brooklyn to Park Avenue, a graph of a guy’s life. I put all the landmarks in, including the bridge. “The cake I made for you is vanilla because it’s summer,” Ron continues. “Real vanilla is complex and amazing, unlike the stuff in alcohol you usually buy. You don’t smell it until you bite into it. The frosting—which has to both taste great and hold the fondant and the decoration—is critical.” I tell him I hate most buttercreams. They taste as though you just put a gob of butter in your mouth. “That’s because of the egg yolks,” Ron explains. “I only use pasteurized egg whites, which keeps it much lighter. Then they’re whisked and whipped a long time. After that you fold in French-style butter, which has high butterfat content so you use less. For this cake I’ve made a reduction of passion fruit with a little lime juice for the filling, and I might serve it with a bit of blueberry sauce. Nice, yes?” Yes, yes, very nice, and Ron’s vanilla cake and the frosting are knockouts (he lets me taste some samples): light and moist and sweet, sure, and now I’m rolling fondant like crazy. But when do we get to play? “I wouldn’t give up your day job,” Ron says, taking the fondant from me and rolling it into an enormous thin sheet with quick, graceful gestures, turning it into something that’s almost fabric. Decorating is, in the end, about the sugar—in glazes, for flowers, in the fondant. Marzipan, which is sugar and ground almonds, is often used to craft blossoms, vegetables, and figures. It was the availability of sugar from the New World that really made fancy cakes possible in the 17th and 18th centuries. Still, it remained precious stuff for a long time, and methods for using it were the province of imperial kitchens. (Think of those fabulous masterpieces in the movie Marie Antoinette by Sofia Coppola.)