One Question Quiz
Local bakers have started whipping up tiny, retro cakes. (Image: Archi Banal)
Local bakers have started whipping up tiny, retro cakes. (Image: Archi Banal)

KaiMarch 6, 2022

Pipe dreams: These ornate retro cakes are all about more is more

Local bakers have started whipping up tiny, retro cakes. (Image: Archi Banal)
Local bakers have started whipping up tiny, retro cakes. (Image: Archi Banal)

Creations that look like they’ve come straight out of a 1970s cake decorating book are having a moment. Charlotte Muru-Lanning chats to three talented local cake makers about why they’ve embraced the trend.

For the last 10 years (at least), “naked cakes” have been a persistent force when it comes to cake trends in New Zealand. Classy, pared-back cakes left largely unadorned but for a dusting of icing sugar, a layer of freshly whipped cream and a few fresh blooms.

But there’s a new cake in town, and it’s in near-direct opposition. Minuscule, hyper-feminine creations topped with ribbons of unnaturally tinged frosting and old-fashioned cursive messages. Occasionally they’re studded with kitschy glacé cherries or a ring of primary-coloured candles. They still look like cakes, but they also look deliciously hyper-real. 

Before the pandemic, the ornately decorated style of cake was already trendy in South Korea. Perhaps fuelled by quarantine and lockdowns, the trend seemed to take off globally early last year. Now, local bakers have picked up on the vintage-styled cakes, and cuteness is a requisite. 

“The cakes that we make are the cakes of our childhood dreams,” says Nicholas Maestranzi, who makes cakes with his business partner Paloma Harada through their Instagram cake shop Zi

The pair met in 2019 while working at a supermarket and realised they shared an interest in cooking and baking. “Every time we hung out we’d be baking, baking, baking,” Maestranzi says. 

Over summer, their shared dream of running a food business became a reality. They quit university and their supermarket jobs and began selling their retro-styled cakes full-time in January this year. And already, they’re nearly at capacity for orders.

Heart-shaped cakes by Auckland cake makers Zi (Photos: Supplied)

Most of the decorating side of the operation is done by Harada from their East Auckland kitchen. She’s not had any previous experience with cake making or pastry but credits baking with her grandma as a child for some of the basic skills she started out with. Inspiration for their whimsically decorated cakes comes from vintage ornaments and ceramics found while op shopping, cake images on Pinterest and Instagram and from memories of bakeries in Japan. Colour combinations are particularly important to the pair, and sources of inspiration can come from “absolutely anywhere”, says Harada – sometimes even a strange combination of colours spotted among food in their waste disposal.

If you look back across the history of cake making, the origins of the elaborately piped cake can be attributed to Marie-Antoine Carême. Considered the father of professionalised French cuisine, he’s widely recognised for his methods of creating fanciful, decorative, sculptural cakes in the 19th century. 

Fast-forward a hundred years or so and British pastry chef Joseph Lambeth published his 1934 book Lambeth Method of Cake Decoration and Practical Pastries. In America, Lambeth is credited with popularising what’s known as “over-piping,” a centuries-old technique of overlapping lines to create intricate and layered dessert decorations. 

Wedding cakes aside, the Lambeth style of over-piped cakes began falling out of fashion in the 1950s, but the influence of his techniques have lived on. In the 1970s and 1980s, cakes abundantly frosted with colourful icing made a return. It’s these that seem to be the direct predecessors of this cake trend gaining traction today.

Another Auckland baker making kitschy frosted cakes, Stella King, started selling cakes during Auckland’s level three lockdown last year through her cake Instagram From Sugar. Unable to work in her job as a food truck manager and bored at home, she stumbled across pictures of retro-style cakes online from bakeries in Japan, South Korea and Indonesia. “I thought they’re cute, that could be a fun little idea, no one’s really doing that, ” she says. “And it just blew up.” 

What really drew her to the sweet treats was their size. “It just seemed like the perfect time for bubble-sized cakes,” she says. The teeny cakes, best suited for sharing between three or four people, were ideal for Aucklanders who were, for the most part, restricted to socialising within their own households. Rather than the typical celebratory messages, during lockdown King was meticulously icing cakes with messages like: “I hope you’re enjoying isolation”, “I miss you”, and a lot of “fuck Covid”. 

The retro-styled cakes by Auckland baker From Sugar (Photos: Supplied)

King has worked professionally as a cake maker and studied pastry for two years previously, but the techniques of intricate buttercream decorating were new to her, so she spent time in lockdown honing her skills. Part of what makes these cakes so cute is that they’re tiny, she explains – usually just 10cm in diameter and typically served in a takeaway bento box. But that also creates challenges for decorating. “It was quite difficult to figure out how to do intricate wording and piping on such a small surface,” she says.  

Her cakes are delicately iced with old-timey ruffles and lots of pastel-coloured Swiss meringue buttercream. It’s one of the trickier types of icing to make, and involves combining cooked egg whites with sugar and butter. But it’s worth the effort, she says, because “it’s a little bit lighter, a little bit less sweet than American buttercream and it pipes really, really well – and also I just think it tastes better”.

Her inbox has been buzzing since the beginning. Order slots for her cakes fill up weeks ahead of time. On Valentine’s Day she had to turn down more than 50 people hoping to make orders and recruit friends to help with deliveries. King explains that the popularity of her cakes has relied largely on word of mouth. “Not to toot my own horn but they’re quite pretty and cute, so people want to post about them,” she says.

South Auckland cake maker Monica posted the first picture on the Instagram of her cake business, One Wish Cakes, on December 30 last year. Covered in impressive scalloped frosting and dotted with fresh cherries, the cake appeared to have been made by a seasoned pro. But Monica is entirely self-taught. 

In fact, Monica didn’t even have an oven until she moved out of her parents’ place last year. It was only during last year’s lockdown that she made her first iced cakes. She attributes her skills to watching television shows like Cake Boss and Masterchef as a child. Since February, she’s been balancing her newly acquired job at a local cake shop with selling her own creations.

And she’s hoping that she’ll be able to turn her Instagram operation into a full-time job. “It’s always been my dream to have a cake shop,” she says, “so it’s really important to me that I pursue my dream.”

Cake creations from One Wish Cakes’ Instagram (Photos: Supplied)

Over the last couple of years, aesthetic subcultures like cottagecore, softcore and balletcore, which romanticise domesticity, cuteness and ultra-femininity, have gained a foothold. Whatever your opinion is of these trends, their influence has pervaded fashion, interiors, pop culture and, of course, food. Think those bucolic dresses with puff sleeves and ruffled hems, the return of ballet flats, soft linen interiors and arguably, sourdough. Monica sees parallels between these and the retro cake trend. “They fit that aesthetic,” she says. “That’s what I think of when I see these vintage cakes, I’m just reminded of cottagecore picnics.”

One of the impacts of the Covid-19 outbreak has been an absence of the celebrations we once considered normal. Weddings, new years, birthdays, graduations and any other kind of get-together that would have called for cake have become potentially risky. 

Unquestionably celebratory looking cakes like these tiny ornate creations fill that void – even if they’re shared with one, or kept for yourself. They’re a safe form of celebration that can be delivered directly to your doorstep. And at a time when we could all do with some cheer, it’s therapy in the form of cake. 

Keep going!