Editor’s Note: It’s finally time to take a crack at making your holiday desserts, or sneak off to the store for one. As we all know, cakes are fundamental in all celebrations, and we at My Athens love remembering how much talent is behind Athens’ locally made treats. This story from this past spring is a great place to start taking notes before family starts knocking on your door!
Words and Photos by Christy Rogers.
Before you bite into a giant slab of cake, take a minute to stop salivating and pay to its presentation. From pies topped with latticework to artful swirls of frosting, pastry perhaps has the strongest tradition of combining visual art with sugar crash-inducing deliciousness. And with the use of natural ingredients, seasonal garnishes and an eye for beauty, Athens bakers are redefining what it means to make a specialty cake.
One of the major players in Athens’ specialty cake game is 5 & 10’s Mike Sutton. Starting as a busboy for the restaurant in college, Sutton moved his way into the kitchen, wholeheartedly embracing the chaotic world of pastries in relation with the restaurant’s seasonal menu.
Not only do the recipes and flavors change frequently, but so do the cakes themselves. Because they are made in-house, no two are the same, and each has its own unique flair. Reflecting the restaurant’s emphasis on small farms and local ingredients — sources that don’t usually produce picture-perfect produce — Sutton doesn’t worry about making his cakes uniform. Instead, he focuses on making the them look organic, embellishing them with an array of edible flourishes.
Sutton says these additional pieces aren’t just for looks — they also bring different textures and flavors together. “You know, a lot of things can just be creamy but you need something crunchy,” he said. “So we just try to figure out which of those elements we need to bring together.”
Johanna Nicol, who makes specialty cakes in her own home, adds an earthy twist to her treats. After working as a pastry chef for restaurants like The Branded Butcher and Heirloom, Nicol decided to put her own spin on her cakes by using natural garnishes and less refined sugar. To top a vanilla birthday cake, for example, she dyed vanilla frosting pink with beet powder. Nicol’s natural substitutions create a minimally processed dessert without sacrificing flavor.
While Nicol understands importance of the creative process, she considers cakes an entirely different medium. This type of art “has been fun because it’s disposable, essentially, so I don’t think about it as hard as you do carving a linoleum block for four days. You just do it and it’s done, do it and it’s done,” she says. The quick nature of cake decorating allows her to put time into planning the design and freehanding the rest, depending on what looks good.
As much as she loves to bake and decorate, Nicol’s favorite part about the process revolves around the customers themselves. “I really like to make a cake for people and think about them eating it. You gotta think when you’re stacking things… or when there’s all this frosting and all these flavors, ‘What’s this going to be like to eat?'” Nicol said. “And then where are they going to put a candle or where’s Clarice going to sit when they take a picture?” Through putting herself in her patron’s place, Nicol gets a fresh perspective.
As much as Nicol and Sutton love to bake and decorate, neither of them claims a sweet tooth. But luckily, that leaves more for the rest of us to enjoy.