The Center for Advanced Pastry Studies (CAPS) at ICE is designed for current industry professionals looking to expand their skill sets. These single- and multi-day continuing education workshops are taught by master chefs and critically acclaimed artists from around the globe.
ICE is excited to welcome back Karen Portaleo to teach the upcoming CAPS course Carved Cake: Ballerina Pig on June 2. Karen is a celebrated cake and chocolate artist who creates fantastical cakes at Highland Bakery in Atlanta, Georgia. She has appeared on numerous television shows including Food Network’s Cake Challenge and Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, and her work has appeared in various publications like Cake Central Magazine and National Geographic. Karen’s client list includes Sir Elton John, Usher, Jane Lynch, T-Pain, Demi Moore, AMC’s The Walking Dead, CNN and The W Hotel.
In anticipation of Karen’s class, we chatted with her about her work in the pastry world and what she has in store for students in her cake carving class at ICE.
You’ve worked as a jewelry designer, a clay sculptor and a set designer — what inspired you to enter the world of cake?
Originally, it was desperation that motivated me to begin working with cake. I was recently separated and a newly single mom. The prop and set design company I had run for 17 years was suffering from the effects of a bad economy and shrunken budgets. A friend opened a bakery and I decided to ask if I could decorate and sell cookies there. This would give me the flexibility to stay home with my young daughter. Initially they said no, but persistence paid off. Soon I was frosting cupcakes, then cakes and it all took off from there. I call it my accidental career. But it just goes to show: opportunity can show up in very unexpected places.
What would you say is your signature style when it comes to designing a cake?
I would say my style is whimsical and very sculptural. I rarely make tiered cakes anymore — I’ve paid those dues already! My work is often described as “dark,” but that’s not my general aesthetic. I think my work falls into the category of cakes that don’t look like cakes.
If you’re given “carte blanche” to create a cake, where do you look for inspiration?
Usually I’ve had an idea rolling around in my head and am just waiting for a paying customer. There’s not always a rational explanation for the inspiration. For example, I woke up a few weeks ago and thought it might be fun to make a Humpty Dumpty cake. While I wait for an event, I get to dream up all the details and structure to make the piece exactly as I want it to be.
Tell us about the most challenging project you’ve worked on recently
I recently travelled to Palm Beach to create a very large cake for a client. As is sometimes the case, I can’t disclose the name of the client or details about the cake. However, I can say that it involved 40 full sheets of cake, 120 pounds of buttercream, 110 pounds of fondant and 64 pounds of modeling chocolate. There were a number of challenges with this cake. For one, the structure was very complex. Also, when creating a huge cake, you still have to bear in mind that it has to fit through doorways and into a van. This often means that the cake is made in big sections and then assembled onsite. Every large event involves a bit of chaos in the hours immediately preceding it, so showing up with large cakes that need to be assembled can be stressful for everyone. That’s why a lot of planning goes into the structure, as it must all fit together well and quickly. Not to mention, the cake needs to be fresh, moist and delicious, so this usually means a few sleepless nights of mad stacking, carving and fondant work. Delivery is always a tense time and this cake, in all its pieces, had to be carried quite a distance over walkways, stairs and ramps. But one of the most challenging things about this cake is that for all the planning and hard work, I can’t share any pictures! Still, it was pretty fabulous.
What would you say are the most important skills for your craft?
I think the skills I rely on most heavily come from my background in art. I went to art school and have had many previous careers in the visual arts. My grandfather was a pastry chef and I grew up in bakeries, but I have no specific culinary training. My reputation springs more from the visual aspect of the cake than the cake itself. That being said, I’m extremely demanding about flavor and quality. I encourage my students, especially those who are in culinary school, to spend some time in art classes as well. Understanding how to successfully sculpt a three-dimensional object, as well as a solid understanding of color theory, are a few really valuable skills in today’s cake world.
What new techniques can students expect to learn from your upcoming course at ICE?
In my course, students will learn to create a structure for a seemingly gravity-defying cake. They will also learn to make and sculpt with modeling chocolate, how to create “clothing” with fondant, painting on chocolate, painting on fondant and creating small details that add a higher level of visual interest to a cake. I encourage my students to get creative with the design of their piece. I will be teaching the skills, but I like my students to create their own design using their own vision. I believe that this encourages a higher level of learning and creativity, as students need to do a bit of problem solving on their own. I’m a firm believer that taking risks and figuring out how to execute certain details is an excellent way to really learn on a deeper level.
Because CAPS classes require individual attention to each student’s project, class sizes are limited — click here to reserve your spot today.