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.

ballerina pig

photos courtesy of

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.

Karen Portaleo

Karen with one of her whimsical creations

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.

By Caitlin Raux

If a tree falls and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If a celebration happens and there is no cake, is it really a celebration? While the first question is debatable, the answer to the second is clear: no cake, no celebration. And with hand painting, air-brushing, sugar flowers and more, celebratory cakes are more elaborate than ever. In anticipation of the upcoming start date for ICE’s Professional Cake Decorating program, which kicks off on February 13, we’re taking a closer look at one popular technique — piping buttercream roses.


I recently had the chance to sit in on one of Chef Toba Garrett’s hands-on cake decorating classes in which she was instructing students on this topic. As it turns out, a lot of books on cake decorating contain dated techniques and cryptic instructions. ICE’s Professional Cake Decorating program demystifies popular cake decorating techniques. “When you become a cake decorating professional, you learn that there are better ways to do things. We’ll teach you those better ways,” said Chef Toba. As she piped gorgeous, buttercream flowers and gave the class step-by-step instructions on how to do the same, I soaked up the following sweet tips from ICE’s resident cake decorating master:

  1. Soften up your frosting. Before the icing even hits the piping bag, it’s important to make sure it’s not rock hard. Starting with a couple of cups, use a small offset spatula to mix the icing. Keep mixing until the frosting is workable but not too soft — the frosting needs to be on the stiff side in order to pipe the details. Try piping some on parchment paper first to test the consistency. Once the frosting is ready, it goes into a pastry bag fitted with a petal piping tip, which has a thin, slightly triangular slit at the end.
  2. Necessary tool: A flower nail. I had never seen this nifty little tool before, but it makes the piping process much more doable. Hold the nail part between your thumb and forefinger, then pipe your rose onto the flat top, turning the nail as needed. Later, when you finish your rose, use kitchen shears to carefully snip the flower base and slide the rose onto your cake. Piping_roses_1
  3. Start with the base. You need a base to support your rose petals. Begin by piping a base — a small mound that tapers at the top and looks more or less like a Hershey Kiss. Speaking of which…Piping_roses_2
  4. Try a chocolate (surprise!) base. Don’t forget that at the end of the day, someone is going to be eating your beautiful creation. Adding in delicious details, like a Hershey Kiss as the base of your rose, will make the eating experience even more enjoyable.
  5. Roses aren’t replicas. When piping flowers with less petals, like lilies and daffodils, you can attempt to pipe the exact number of petals usually found on the flower. But for roses, which at their full size can have 20-40 petals, you’re better off not trying to replicate them exactly. Start by piping one petal for the base, then, in a rainbow-like shape, pipe three petals around the base, then five petals around them, then seven petals around them, for a total of 16 petals.

Piping Roses

Though Chef Toba made piping buttercream roses look like a cinch, it definitely wasn’t as easy as it looked. The only way to become a piping pro is lots of practice and listening to expert tips on how to do things better.

Want to decorate cakes like a pro? Click here for more information on ICE’s cake decorating program.

Interview by Carly Evans

Chef Kate Sullivan of Cake Power is New York’s pick when it comes to imaginative, sculpted cakes. Named one of the “Top 10 Cake Artists of North America” by Dessert Professional, the Brooklyn-born baker’s gorgeous cakes have appeared on The Martha Stewart Show, The Today Show and Food Network Challenge.

We caught up with Chef Kate to chat about her signature style and her biggest cake challenge in anticipation of her upcoming CAPS course at the Institute of Culinary Education. In Cake Carving: The Polar Bear Cake, participants will practice key cake carving techniques to create their own sculpted cakes.


You worked as a photographer at magazines such as Parenting and Smart Money — what inspired you to switch to baking?

Photography has always been a passion of mine and I loved working for magazines. My main job was to hire the photographers and produce photo shoots, but ultimately I had a craving to do something more hands-on.

What is your “signature” cake or dessert?

Most of my cakes have some sense of fantasy and animation, using bold colors and shapes.  The designs and details are usually painted or sculpted by hand.  As for wedding cakes, one of my signature designs is a simple tiered cake adorned with a cascade of peonies, dahlias and tiny white chocolate animals as well — bunnies, foxes and even alpacas (which I once added in honor of the bride and groom’s own alpacas).

I’m sure you receive all types of requests for cakes. What is the most challenging sculpted cake you’ve ever completed?

It’s hard to choose. One of my criteria for choosing a project is the excitement of not being quite sure if I can pull it off. One that comes to mind is a replica of the new Whitney Museum. The building is really complicated with angles going in every direction. The cake was for an art installation at the museum and they wanted an exact replica, down to the railings piped onto the balconies on the outside of the museum.



Have advancements in technology changed your craft over the years?

One of the requests for the Whitney Museum cake was that it be as architecturally correct as possible. I was able to find an amazing architecture student who researched the building online and scaled down the design for us with a computer-assisted program. Using the three-dimensional printer in our studio, we were able to print out a three-dimensional version of the building. Having a 3-D model to work from makes a huge difference.

What is one piece of general advice you would give pastry students? 

These may seem contradictory but, in the beginning, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Just play with your food and decorating supplies—happy “accidents” happen all the time. However, once you’re taking on a trickier project, a more precise approach using a 3-D model or figurine is the way to go. It’s also a good idea to make templates of your subjects scaled to size in advance to keep your sizing consistent.

Ready to try your hand at cake carving? Click here to register!

By Orlando Soto, Pastry & Baking Arts Student

On our first day of class in Kitchen 501, Chef Gerri Sarnataro shared several indispensable truths about the food industry. One of them really struck me as odd: “There’s always a back door.” Meaning, there’s always more than one way of doing things, especially in cooking. I thought this was ironic, given my initial perception of pastry: we follow recipes to the gram in an effort to deliver consistent results. But of course, Chef Gerri’s words rang true throughout the program, and never more so than in cake decorating.


Professional cake decorating elevates the common, spongy dessert from ordinary to memorable. It’s an opportunity for the pastry chef to tune directly into the desires and expectations of a client. A cake is a canvas to delight the sense of sight, as much as the sense of taste. Not surprisingly, it’s the details make or break a cake. If you want to create flowers, for example, you aim to make all the petals, leaves and buds look like nature intended. Subtle color gradients and textures bring to life what was once plain, pliable fondant.


But before you can begin to decorate your cake, you need a plan. A simple scheme for the tiers, colors and the placement or distribution of ornaments is essential. This plan is not only a powerful tool to help keep the decorator on point, but will also provide a preview of sorts, for the client. In the classroom, we presented our cake diagrams and planned the preparation of the decorating elements accordingly.


With a plan in mind, we proceeded to design our cakes. This was when Chef Gerri’s words echoed through the classroom. Yes, there is the way that we were taught to create a rose, but if you looked around the room, everyone was doing their petals just a bit differently. The diverse results would prove that there’s more than one way to translate an idea into a consistently beautiful product.


In truth, cake decorating has been most challenging part of our program for me. I can’t sit still for very long, even if I’m working on a beautiful sugar flower. However, the words of Chef Chad stick with me: “I understand, Orlando, but a true Pastry Chef must be able to tackle any project.” As if he were predicting the future, one of my family members was so excited about the cake I was making, she and her fiancé signed me up to make their wedding cake a year from now (no pressure!).


Several days later, we arrived at the end of our classes. We decorated our cakes and showed them in our final ceremony. As my class heads out to our externships with many skills at hand and lessons in mind, I can see that we have, individually, begun to find our culinary voice. Of course, bearing in thought that “there’s always a back door.”


Click here to read more stories about Life as a Pastry Student.

By Carly DeFilippo

It’s not every cake designer who gets recruited by the likes of Martha Stewart, InStyle Weddings and Oprah Winfrey. Building on her former career as a photo editor/director, love of art and infatuation with chocolate, Kate Sullivan brings more than 20 years of creative innovation to cake decorating. This summer, ICE’s Center for Advanced Pastry Studies (CAPS) is thrilled to host an exclusive two-day workshop with Sullivan, highlighting such techniques as hand-painting and tie-dyed cakes.


What was one of the most challenging cakes you’ve designed?

The most challenging request I’ve ever gotten might well have been for a Rubiks Cube wedding cake. The bride and groom were so great and totally wonderfully geeky about the whole thing! The cube was huge and balanced on one point, and I loved it when it was all done!

If you could bake for anyone in the world, who would it be?

I’m so lucky on this one. I’ve gotten to bake for some really amazing people that I’m totally blown away by (with my family being at the head of that list, those are definitely the most memorable moments for me). Its kind of crazy—I’ve been completely tickled to make cakes for some rock and roll legends, masters of design, and famous artists. I’ve also gotten to present cakes to some truly inspirational kids in hospitals; they really take your breath away. The whole experience has already exceeded my own expectations.

Who are your mentors?

Colette Peters is the person who started me on the road to making cakes with her amazing books.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

Where do you find your inspiration for design?

The cake inspirations come from everywhere; everything I see is fair-game. [But more specifically] definitely fashion, and I love going to museums & galleries. I’m particularly inspired by Alexander McQueen and other designers whose work is somewhat fantasy-based. I also love the other cake designers out there; the bar is continually being raised in terms of creativity.

What do you do when you aren’t creating works of art?

I enjoy as much time with my husband, son and dog as possible—I LOVE THOSE GUYS! I’ve also been working to learn all about 3D printing and possible food applications. My one big fat guilty pleasure is that I’ve also been obsessively binge-watching every episode of Parks & Recreation on Netflix recently.

Why do you enjoy teaching cake painting?

I think that, when I’m lost in painting a cake, it might just be the most pure experience of flow that I’ve ever had. I love the feel of the brush and textures of the colors as they move across the canvas of the fondant. Teaching new ways to transfer a pattern onto a cake and to bring that pattern to life is really rewarding.

To learn more about ICE’s Contemporary Cake Painting workshop with Sullivan, click here.


By Carly DeFilippo


As we gear up to launch our new Techniques and Art of Professional Cake Decorating program on May 2nd, we are very excited to share one of Chef Toba Garrett‘s cake and icing recipes.

Cake Decorating-030

Almond Paste Cake

Tools: 5 or 6 Quart Mixer

Yields: 2, 10” cake layers or 3, 8” cake layers


  • 9 oz (255 g) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 6 oz (170 g) almond paste
  • 24oz (680 g) granulated sugar
  • 6 large eggs
  • 1 ½  tsp almond extract
  • 12 fl oz (340 g) whole milk
  • 18 oz (510 g) cake flour
  • 1 ½  Tbsp baking powder
  • ¾  tsp salt


  1. Preheat oven to 350°F (175-177˚C).  Vegetable spray and parchment line three 8” (20.32 cm) cake pans.  Set aside.
  2. Cream the butter, almond paste and sugar for 4 minutes.  Stop, scrape the bowl, and cream for 60 seconds more.
  3. Add eggs, one at a time, to the creamed mixture.  Beat in the almond extract.
  4. Sieve together the flour, salt, and baking powder.  Alternately add the flour mixture and milk to the creamed mixture.  Ladle the mixture into the baking pans.  This is a thick batter.
  5. Carefully smooth the batter with a metal offset spatula.  Hit the pan against the counter to burst any air bubbles.
  6. Bake in the center of the oven for 45 minutes or until the cake slightly shrinks and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
  7. Cake can last for 3 weeks in the refrigerator if wrapped well and can be frozen.

A buttercream frosting cake featured in Toba Garrett’s book, “Professional Cake Decorating”


Tools: 5 or 6 Quart Mixer

Yields: 2 ½ to 3 lbs (1.13 to 1.36 kg)


  • 12 oz (340 g) of granulated sugar
  • 6 fl oz (177 ml) whole milk
  • 1½ Tbsp (3/8 oz) all-purpose flour
  • ¼ tsp (1 ml) salt
  • 1 Tbsp (15 ml) pure vanilla extract
  • 3 fl oz (85 g) heavy cream
  • 1¼ lbs (57 kg or 568 g) unsalted butter (cut-up)

Or, for a larger quantity:

Tools: 20 Quart Mixer*

Yields: 10 to 10.5 lbs (4.45 to 4.76 kg)


  • 3 lbs (48 oz or 1.35 kg) of granulated sugar
  • 24 oz (710 ml) whole milk
  • 6 Tbsp (90 ml or 1.5 oz or 38 g) all-purpose flour
  • 1 Tbsp (15 ml) salt
  • 2 fl oz (57 g or 59 ml) pure vanilla extract
  • 9 fl oz (266 ml) heavy cream
  • 5 lbs (2.27 kg) unsalted butter (cut-up)

*Recipe can be multiplied 5 times for a 60 quart mixer.


  1. Make custard by heating milk and sugar over a double boiler until sugar crystals dissolve.  Remove from heat and add flour and salt and whisk until flour is incorporated.  Place over an ice bath until the custard has slightly cooled.
  2. Pour custard mixture in mixer bowl with paddle attachment.  Add cut-up butter and heavy cream.  Mix on LOW speed to fully incorporate ingredients or until mixture starts to thicken.
  3. Mix on NEXT highest speed until mixtures starts to look light and fluffy.   This can take 7 to 10 minutes or longer if making larger batches.
  4. Store and refrigerate buttercream in an air-tight container.  Freeze for up to 2 months.

Note:  If the buttercream curdles, it will just take a longer time for the butter to warm-up.  Continue beating until the butter softens and the mixture looks light and fluffy.


© 1995, 2007 Toba Garrett, all rights reserved

By Carly DeFilippo

16950026ICE grad Leigh Koh Peart (Culinary Management and Pastry & Baking Arts ’08) had an dynamic career in the music industry, but something wasn’t quite right. She moved across the world to study at ICE, which led to externships and work opportunities with some of the industry’s top bakers and pastry chefs. Today, she manages an extraordinary custom cakes business in London.

What were you doing before you enrolled at ICE, and what inspired you to change careers?

I was working in Singapore at the time, running event logistics for MTV music events in Asia. It was great fun but I was ready to learn something new and see more of the world. I always had a love for baking and wanted to take it to the next level. I also wanted to learn how to manage a food business. So I picked the ICE program because I was able to do both concurrently. It was quite intense but really fun, I learned a lot and made such good friends from around the world.

Where was your externship? And what have you been up to since graduation?

I did two externships. The first one was at Financier Patisserie, where I helped to produce their daily range of beautiful French-style pastries. Then I realized I wanted to learn more about the art of cake decorating, so I applied for an externship at Ron-Ben Israel Cakes, which was an amazing experience and inspired me to start my own cake business.

I moved to London after my externship at RBI Cakes. I worked as a pastry chef in Michelin-starred Chef Pierre Gagnaire’s Sketch in Mayfair, London. I learned so much working alongside high-caliber chefs, but knew that life in a restaurant kitchen was not what I wanted in the long term. I decided to start my own cake business, Craft Cakes, where I currently make bespoke cakes, teach cake decorating classes and host parties in London.


Describe a typical work day.

I start the day by answering emails or ordering ingredients, and then go on to bake and decorate cakes due for delivery or prepare for classes. I also trawl the internet for new techniques or products for cake decorating all the time. Sometimes I get a bit naughty and sneak off for a lazy long lunch with a friend at a hot new restaurant in town.

What might people be surprised to learn about your job?

It is as fun as it looks! The best part is the flexibility of being self-employed. I can find the time to pursue other culinary adventures, such as running my own supper club. Please check out Two Hungry Girls when you are next in London! We specialise in creative Chinese cuisine.


Five years ago, did you ever think you’d be doing what you’re doing now?

I always had the idea of opening my own cake shop or cafe. I am still working towards that goal, slowly but surely! I’d also like to write my own cookbook or be a cake and baked goods consultant to companies in the food and beverage industry. Anything to do with cake, basically! It is a life-long obsession.


Well, it’s done. We’ve decorated our fondant cakes and invited our friends and family to our Senior Reception (check out the photos of all our cakes above). Nine months and 100 lessons later, what have I really learned through taking the Pastry Arts & Baking Arts program at ICE? Back when I wrote my very first post, before I knew how to tare a scale, I couldn’t have even imagined that I’d be able to make flowers out of gumpaste. But I also took away a lot more than just recipes and techniques. I agree wholeheartedly with what I wrote then — I did learn much more than what was included in the curriculum. I think we all did.

I asked some of my classmates what they learned, including what they would do differently knowing what they know now. Here is a look at the unexpected lessons my fellow classmates and I gained during our time as pastry students.

As you can imagine, in a three-night-a-week evening class, most of us held full-time jobs. As a career changer, Ivana was learning a whole new set of skills. She shared, “What a humbling experience it is to start something new after working towards one career for 15 years.” More…

I was never one for flowers. This Valentine’s Day, knowing that I have a strong dislike of the traditional red roses overpopulating deli storefronts and florists on February 14, my boyfriend surprised me with a beautiful bouquet of plum-colored tulips. They were beautiful — they were a surprise, they were gorgeous and they even smelled good. But later in the evening, after leaving pastry class, I said to him, “Next year, if you’re going to get me flowers, I think you should make them out of gumpaste.”

Since I last wrote, that’s what I’ve been doing — making flowers out of gumpaste. At the start of each class, I find myself wondering how we’re going to spend the entire class just making flowers. But four hours later, I realize we have kept ourselves happily busy. The process is as tedious as it is relaxing, and as time-consuming as it is rewarding. What starts as a simple bud, comes to life a little more each day as we add petals, leaves and a final touch of petal dust that adds the perfect amount of color, dimension and magical shimmer. At least, that’s the goal. More…

This is the part of the program where we are designers. Yes, we have had the experience of designing our chocolate showpieces, but individually making fonadant-covered cakes last week was our first experience designing solo. Well, it was actually an inedible foam cake, but it still gave us something to roll our fondant over, creating a clean palate for us to decorate. The only requirement was to include a chocolate rose somewhere on the cake.

If you recall, my introduction to modeling chocolate was certainly a challenge. I struggled with rolling it through a pasta machine to make my chocolate ribbon cake. This time, I used white chocolate, working it in my hands to improve its elasticity. I’m not sure if it had to do with the warmth of my hands or the differences between white and dark chocolate, but this was much more successful than using the pasta machine. Creating the rose petals and leaves out of this material was actually quite fun. I love the process of making parts that will become something bigger and then watching each of the petals comes together to produce a beautiful flower. More…

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