NEW YORK — Elisa Strauss opens the door of her offices wearing a white apron stained with black dye.
The pony-tailed baker has spent nearly a week trying to make a Manolo Blahnik stiletto out of sugar dough to complement a white shoe box made of vanilla cake with chocolate butter-cream frosting. Delicate, shimmery pink tissue paper, constructed of sugar, completes the cake.
Returning to work in her small, steamy kitchen, Ms. Strauss focuses as intensely as a professional tennis player watching the seam of an incomingtennis ball. Gingerly she places what appears to be a leatherlike shoe upper onto a pink sole, on which there are delicate stitches and a black Manolo Blahnik label.
Strauss then "glues" the two pieces together with royal icing. Later, she'll paint the icing black with a small paintbrush and food color - the reason for Strauss's stained apron and slightly blackened fingernails.
The former artist and designer opened her business, Confetti Cakes, three years ago. She specializes in whimsical, elaborate, and offbeat designs - from the Eiffel Tower and the Baseball Hall of Fame to glowworms and copies of the sheep in the Serta mattress commercial.
"Everything I do, anything I see, I think of as a cake. You really can replicate anything," Strauss says.
It turns out the savvy baker has chosen a good business for herself. In 2002, custom-decorated cakes and wedding cakes constituted 22 percent of the output at US retail bakeries, according to a survey by Modern Baking magazine.
Constructing these elaborate designs takes countless hours. The cost of custom cakes (up to thousands of dollars) can also be prohibitive. But for bakers with an artistic inclination, creating a pièce de résistance can be very gratifying.
The unusual cakes are often the highlights of celebrations. Those fortunate enough to receive a Strauss creation, which sell for $400 and up, are not always eager to cut into them.
For a surprise party recently, she designed a cake in the shape of the guest of honor's sailboat. In the middle of the night, Strauss says she received a phone call from the wife asking if she could shellac the cake and save it.
"No, it's a cake," she recalls telling her. "It's made of sugar."
"Everyone was so mad at me," says customer Jamie Chew, recalling her guests' reactions when she sliced into a cake that had decorations that included a cellphone, a red patent leather Louis Vuitton handbag, a polka-dot scarf, and a dress shoe.
Scarves and high heels? It wasn't hard for Strauss, who started out in the fashion industry, to transition into a career in baking. After about four years designing textiles for Ralph Lauren and handbags and hair accessories for Frederic Fekkai, Strauss decided she wanted more meaningful work. "Do women of Madison Avenue need another handbag?" she recalls asking herself.
So Strauss applied to Peter Kump's cooking school (now the Institute of Culinary Education). "Cake girl," as her friends call her now, had grown up baking sugar cookies with her grandmother.
Strauss studied art at Vassar College and the Art Institute of Chicago, but she always kept a hand in the kitchen, baking cakes for friends' birthdays. "I knew I could do the art part, but I went to pastry school so they'd taste good, too."
Back in her kitchen with the humidifier humming, Strauss is putting her skills to the ultimate test. "Let me see how this one's doing," she says, checking to see whether her shoe is holding up. It needs to harden in time for her afternoon deadline, and the humidity isn't helping.
As she adds more gum paste and sugar dough to the sole with wooden art tools and scalpels from her dad, who's a surgeon, Strauss notes that for her, cooking is about nourishing and pleasing people. "To make people happy, that's made me happy," she says.
Is it fun designing cakes that are wild, memorable concoctions?
"It's a lot of work," Strauss says. "I'm a perfectionist. I don't ever cut corners."
Plus, the hours are brutal. She works six or seven days a week. Sometimes she starts baking at 4 a.m.; she's on her feet most of the day. Because each cake is a one-of-a-kind design, she never knows how long it will take to complete.
Surrounded by 50-pound bags of enriched cake flour, mixing pans, spatulas of assorted sizes and colors, tins of ribbon, neatly marked cans of baking soda, Q-tips, and industrial- sized containers of vanilla, Strauss says candidly, "This lifestyle is not something someone chooses. It's more a calling."
Pulling trays of brownies out of her convection oven, Strauss becomes quiet. She has serious business to attend to.
She's got only a couple of hours in which to complete the embroidery work on her stiletto, and for that, the artist needs utter concentration.
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2-1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
4 large eggs
1-1/2 cups vegetable oil
2 cups sugar
2-3/4 cups coarsely grated carrots
1 (8-ounce) can crushed pineapple, drained
3/4 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
1 cup shredded sweetened coconut
Sift together flour, baking powder, soda, salt, and cinnamon. Set aside.
In a large bowl, using an electric mixer at high speed, cream eggs, oil, and sugar.
Add flour mixture to creamed mixture a little at a time. With mixer at medium speed, blend well after each addition. When all flour has been added and batter is well blended, add carrots, drained pineapple, nuts, and coconut, and beat until thoroughly blended.
Grease and flour two 9-inch round cake pans or a 9-by-12-inch pan and pour in batter.
Bake at 350 degrees F. until a tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, about 35 to 50 minutes (the longer time for the oblong cake).
If removing cake from pan, let cool for about 10 minutes before removal. Cool cake completely before frosting with Cream Cheese Frosting (see recipe below).
Carrot cake will keep well in the refrigerator for at least a week.
1 stick butter, softened
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 to 1 pound confectioners' sugar
With electric mixer at high speed, cream butter and cream cheese in a large bowl until smooth. Blend in vanilla. Sift 1/2 pound confectioners' sugar over creamed mixture and beat until blended. Gradually add more confectioners' sugar to increase volume or sweetness. If frosting is too thick, add 1 teaspoon milk to thin it.