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After a few quiet pandemic years, special occasion cakes are back in a big way


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Amy Springer has been decorating specialty cakes for many years, but creating them for socially distanced occasions during the pandemic was something entirely new to her.

A Disney-themed birthday cake at Reilly’s Bakery in Biddeford. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer


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At Reilly’s Bakery in Biddeford, where she is the lead cake decorator, she found herself fielding requests for small cakes that would impress friends on Zoom or Instagram, for cupcakes that could be delivered door-to-door for a “drive-by birthday party” ,” and from customers who were celebrating milestones such as the end of distance learning or the return to a hybrid work week.

Springer and others in the business of creating celebratory cakes are relieved that those days seem to be behind them. A sense of normalcy is starting to settle in, and business is picking up, especially for wedding season, which typically kicks off in May, extends through October, and is looming larger than ever this year.

“After a very quiet year for weddings in 2020,” she says, “we saw a huge uptick in 2021, but nothing like we’re already seeing for 2022. People aren’t holding back this year. They are planning weddings for 200 guests and more.”

Elizabeth Rzoska, baker and owner of Prairie Baking Co., uses fresh-cut flowers to decorate a cake. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Large weddings, non-traditional cakes

Big weddings might be back, but cakes are not the over-the-top, fondant-enshrouded, wildly elaborate creations that were once all the rage.

According to several cake makers in Greater Portland, the current trend is toward more tasteful, creative, original designs – often called “cake art” – that reflect the personality and uniqueness of the couple. Adornments such as bride-and-groom toppers, water fountains beneath tiers, or even ornately sculpted roses are rarely requested. And smooth, fluffy buttercream frosting is favored over firmer, clay-like fondant.

Elizabeth Rzoska, founder of Prairie Baking Co., wouldn’t want it any other way. In a commercial kitchen tucked away on Portland’s Washington Avenue, she has worked on her own full-time since January 2020, handcrafting stunningly beautiful buttercream cakes decorated with fresh flowers. She also makes cookies, scones and European-inspired sweets for a few coffee shops in town – a gig that’s helped her weather the pandemic-induced pause on parties and weddings.

“I like making cakes that look like cakes,” Rzoska said, adding that since her childhood, she has been drawn to two-dimensional art, not 3-D sculpture. Her mother de ella is an artist and illustrator, and she grew up drawing and painting by her side de ella.

Rzoska’s work as a baker, pastry chef and cake decorator – mostly in the Midwest, hence the name “Prairie Baking Co.” – You have helped her hone her style and aesthetic of her.

As much as possible, she sources ingredients locally, opts for organic and strives to stay in season with color and floral choices. She sometimes “paints” buttercream scenes or symbols on her cakes de ella – ocean waves, mountains or Maine’s iconic pine trees, for example, and her cakes de ella are always filled and frosted with Swiss-Meringue Buttercream – never fondant.

Cake decorator Amy Springer decorates a birthday cake with a theme from the Disney movie Charm at Reilly’s Bakery in Biddeford. In the Great Buttercream vs. Fondant Debate, Reilly’s has stood firm (or rather, smooth and fluffy) for American buttercream for more than 100 years.

Icing on the cake: Fondant vs. Buttercream

The latter is a key distinction among wedding-cake makers, who are either fans of fondant, or more often these days, believers in buttercream. In the buttercream camp, professionals sometimes prefer the Italian- or Swiss-Meringue recipes for their light, ultra-silky texture, or American buttercream for its simplicity and sweetness. (There are seven variations of buttercream. Others are French, German, Korean and Russian.)

At Reilly’s, fourth-generation owner Elizabeth Hussey says that American buttercream has been the icing of choice ever since her great-grandfather, Edward J. Reilly, opened the bakery in 1910. She wouldn’t dare mess with her family’s beloved cake recipe, which she suspects originated with her great-grandmother, Melina, and has helped Reilly’s gain a large and loyal following over the decades.

More cupcakes and “cake art”

One recent change she’s made, however, in response to demand, is the pairing of a smaller wedding cake with dozens of cupcakes, which are easier than one large cake to distribute among guests. Melina’s buttercream sweetens the cupcakes as well.

Martha Elk, owner of Hanami Cake Design, also in Biddeford, says buttercream is not only her preference, but also that of her customers, who, in general, are bucking traditional trends and ordering cakes that might not appear as “perfect” as they eleven were. “Couples are choosing more modern silhouettes that include unusual tier heights and/or shapes, and bold colors or textures over smooth white finishes. They don’t want just a cake, but an edible piece of art.”

Elk relishes the opportunity to design more artistic cakes, the larger the “canvas” the better, as it allows her more creative freedom, and she jokes that she buys cake-decorating tools more often at art-supply shops than at restaurant- or cake -supply stores. She aspires to “play more” with different textures such as wafer paper, an edible paper made from potato starch that enables cake decorators to form 3D effects and structural elements.

Elizabeth Rzoska, baker and owner of Prairie Baking Co., boxes up a cake for delivery. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Delivering smiles

Even more fulfilling than the creative process itself, Elk says, is the sense of delight she feels when delivering smiles in the form of a highly personalized, custom-made cake.

“Nothing brings me greater joy,” she says, adding that it’s been an isolating couple of years when she couldn’t interact easily with engaged couples and feel a part of “the magic of it all,” so the return to greater normalcy feels especially poignant.

Others echo Elk’s sentiments. Rzoska recalls a heartwarming moment during a recent cake delivery when her client broke into tears upon seeing her cake de ella, seemingly overwhelmed by its beauty and how it symbolized a sweet turning point in the era of social distancing.

And Springer calls it a “dream come true” that she can “create something that brings people joy and deliciously helps them express themselves.”

“We had to hit the pause button,” sums up Hussey, “but now we’re a part of people’s lives again, and there’s more appreciation and excitement around celebrations than ever before.”


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