Ron Ben-Israel’s star shined bright even before he judged Food Network’s Cake Wars. Master confectioners aren’t the most frequent guests on the Late Show with David Letterman, but Ron Ben-Israel’s formidable sugar work once garnered him an invitation to chat with Dave. Ron’s intricately handcrafted sugar flowers, specifically, have drawn praise from Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey. It’s tedious work requiring persistence, so perhaps it’s no coincidence that Ron formerly served in the Israeli army and danced with a professional ballet company, too. Yet he is quick to say, “I’m not the inventor here. I’m simply an artistic arranger, contributing my own style to a field in which others laid the groundwork.”
During Jane Austen’s era, specialist confectioners often toiled away downstairs in England’s great country houses making realistic sugar paste flowers to delight dinner guests, notes food historian Peter Brears. These eye-tricking blossoms might decorate miniature tabletop parterre gardens lit by candlelight. Other sugar-based trompe l’oeil was popular throughout Europe, going back to the days of the Tudors, and before then the sweet sculpting medium (essentially powdered sugar mixed with water and a binder such as gum) likely originated in the Middle East.
Culinary expert Ivan Day, the man tapped by the Metropolitan Museum of Art to install period-inspired sugar flowers for a 2010 exhibition, emphasizes the early confectioners’ attention to detail, describing how anemone centers were sometimes simulated with dried strawberries stained with dark indigo. Interestingly, the early modeling tools— metal cutters for shaping petals and leaves, and wooden molds along with ivory-handled “fringers” and ball rollers for adding definition—were not dissimilar to those currently used by pastry chefs.
What became newly fashionable in the 20th century was the use of full-blown, lifelike sugar flowers on wedding cakes. Ron says that his former teacher, Betty Van Norstrand, the Culinary Olympic gold medalist revered for her deft hand with sugar, contributed greatly to the stylistic shift that really took hold in the 1980s.
“People began requesting beautiful, sophisticated cakes that were also fresh and delicious,” recalls another celebrated cake maker, Sylvia Weinstock. Because sculpted sugar flowers are made separately from the cake, not piped onto it, they can be done well in advance of the actual cake-baking, attached to wire wrapped in food-safe tape, and inserted later into a tiered, mouthwatering, buttercream-covered confection.
“To be botanically accurate, I would buy fresh-cut flowers from the florist and take them apart, laying out each petal in sequence. Then I would put them back together and stand the real flowers alongside my sugar dough versions,” says Sylvia, who also happens to have a master’s degree in psychology and education, remembering how she honed her craft three decades ago. Tiny flowers, such as lily-of-the-valley, demand the most work because one cake requires masses of them, she adds.
These flower-covered cakes have long been popular with celebrity brides. When sweet toothed Dylan Lauren—daughter of Ricky and Ralph Lauren and owner of the popular Dylan’s Candy Bar boutiques—married Paul Arrouet in 2011, she turned to Sylvia for a six-tiered creation wrapped in pastel sugar roses and other summery blooms. The cake’s sugar flowers complemented the real flowers used throughout the June wedding, an approach Sylvia recommends.
Ron agrees, explaining that visual harmony between the cake and the rest of the event was often lacking back in the era of the piped-decoration cake. The son of artists, and an art student himself, he grew up in Israel’s suburbs, surrounded by green meadows, naturally bright-red anemones, and Syrian tulips. His mentor, the aforementioned Betty Van Norstrand, pushed him to bring his own perspective to sugar work.
“While my flowers are realistic, I think more importantly they evoke emotion,” he says, adding that he enjoys poetic touches such as flower petals that appear to have insect bites. Both Ron and Sylvia say that orchids are among their most requested flowers, but recently Sylvia did a succulent-covered cake and Ron has his fingers crossed for the return of 1990s tulips.
Maggie Austin, another former ballet dancer, is a rising star in the industry. Out of culinary school for only a few years, she has already won plum commissions, including Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds’ wedding cake, and sugar flower vases for the White House. Wedding photographer Kate Headley has observed that most party guests don’t realize that Maggie’s gum-paste flowers aren’t real, but flawlessness isn’t necessarily the cake maker’s goal. [See “Maggie Austin’s Cake Dance.”]
“I’m a fan of the beautiful mistake. A rose appears all the more exquisite for its fallen petal. I think designers of any medium can get trapped in their own visions of perfection. Releasing yourself from those confines is extremely liberating,” says Maggie. Like Ron and Sylvia, she works with each client’s florist to be sure her cake design is fully integrated into the event’s overall aesthetic, but she acknowledges that she can bring ever-popular peonies to the table when there are no fresh varieties to be found.
Maggie finds soft, organic arrangements featuring peonies, roses, and dahlias to always be popular, but what she loves about sugar work is its potential to add an ethereal dimension: “Sugar flowers can easily head into the area of fantasy. A gold-edged bloom could never exist in nature, but all it takes for me is a paintbrush. I also like making more movement-based abstract shapes. They refer to the flower without being confined by reality. Plus, they last indefinitely, which is quite cool.”
Last they do—if stored in the correct container, says Sylvia. One bride came to the studio with 26-year-old sugar flowers taken from her mother’s cake. “They became her ‘something borrowed.’ So I always encourage brides to save some,” she explains. Wedding guests apparently heed Sylvia’s advice as well, collecting flowers not just from their own slices of cake but also from everyone else’s. She elaborates, “They table-hop and by the end of the night have their own bouquet.”