Designing somebody’s birthday cake and creating sugarpaste figures to go on it is all in a day’s work for cake decorator Leanne Tang, but this doesn’t mean it all comes easily. The winner of Renshaw-sponsored Celebration Cake Maker of the Year at the Baking Industry Awards 2008, says one of the most challenging parts of the competition was trying to keep her showgirls’ heads on with spaghetti.
At just 21 years old, winning a competition like this is no mean feat, especially if you believe your sister has always been the creative one, but Tang says her tendency towards perfectionism may have helped. Working at the family business - Terry Tang Designer Cakes in Wavertree, Liverpool - she explains she has learnt so much from just watching her father at work. "I’ve been working here for about four years, which is when I started in this line of work," says Tang. "I started off doing things like putting leaves and stars on wires and then moved on to doing figures and progressed step by step after that."
She had applied for the same category in the 2007 awards and had made it to the final eight - her father went on to win - so thought she would try again. "I spent time trying to get everything together and find pictures of what I had made previously, for my application. It was when I got through to the next stage that I was told about the Las Vegas-themed cake I had to make."
She sought inspiration for her design from a number of different sources; from going to local travel agents and getting Las Vegas holiday brochures, to researching on the internet and asking friends what the idea of Vegas conjured up in their minds. "The idea of glitz made me think of showgirls, and that image stuck in my head," she explains.
The process of making the cake took her longer than usual, mainly because she was doing it alongside her job in the shop. "I had to work on it on my days off and stay late after work," she says. "One of the most time-consuming parts was having to wait for the icing to dry. I would do a bit, but then would have to wait until it was hard."
It took her around two weeks to finish the cake, and around a week beforehand to get her ideas together. "I drew quite a lot of pictures to get my ideas down, but the cake we had to use was quite small, so it was limiting. I had all these ideas, but once I’d laid it all out I realised it wouldn’t be practical to do on that scale."
Tang admits there were times when it was stressful, due to the time-scale, but once she’d finished the cake, she says, she was really happy with it and the effort was all worthwhile.
Speaking about why she won, she says the fact she is a perfectionist may have helped, though she admits it can sometimes be a bad thing as it can take her twice as long to get things done. "I also focused on the small details that you don’t necessarily notice straight away, for example all the showgirls have coordinating eyeshadow and they have their eyelashes painted and fingernails too," she explains. There were even details on the dresses that she painstakingly painted on with glitter, that you can actually see on only one of the showgirls as their hair covers up the detail.
Everything on the cake is edible, even the supports. Tang explains that she would normally use non-edible supports that go through the figures to keep their heads on, but the only type of edible support you can use is spaghetti. "Obviously if there’s any moisture it’ll go soft and if you knock it, it can be easily damaged. That was hard to do as it was such a delicate procedure," she explains.
Out on display
The current Terry Tang shop on Picton Road houses over 200 display cakes, quite a step up from the 20-odd it had at its previous location, and the company is hoping to increase this number further. Tang says the wedding cakes, in particular, are most important to have on display, as it is difficult to get an accurate idea of what they are like from the image folders.
The five-strong team produces around 50 birthday and 12 wedding cakes per week, and customers can choose from a range of different cake flavours - fruit, sponge, chocolate, orange, lemon, carrot and banoffee. But it doesn’t just do run-of-the-mill celebration cakes, the most expensive cake it has produced was a nine-tier creation, covered in over 10,000 Austrian crystals. It has also made cakes for Liverpool City Council, a number of local footballers and Natasha Hamilton from girl-group Atomic Kitten.
The new literature, which the company takes to wedding fairs for example, details her award win, and the certificate and photos from the night are hanging on the shop wall for all to see. "There were a lot of people who had come into the shop while I was doing the cake, who came back later to see how it all went," she says.
As well as the satisfaction of finishing a cake, one of the things Tang enjoys most about her job is the planning process - finding an idea that will work for a customer. Sometimes people come in with an exact idea about what they want and won’t change anything, so if the idea doesn’t work, it can be a challenge, she says. However she explains that often people find something they like in one of the image folders, but want to change something, such as the colour scheme.
"If it’s a birthday for a man, for example, we ask if they’ve got any hobbies, what their interests are or their job. I like having to come up with an idea - it can be quite a challenge."
For those considering entering the award this year, Tang advises people to take their time with the design and not to worry if you have to change things or do things again and again. She did, and it was worth it in the end.
=== View of the night ===
"I thought it was a brilliant night. I was a bit nervous when I saw the other cakes, as I thought I’d done a good job, but when I saw the others I thought, ’Is it going to be good enough?’ I couldn’t actually believe it when I won. I was absolutely made up."
=== What does winning mean to you? ===
"I feel like all the work paid off in the end, because it was quite hard to do. I think that makes it better though; it wasn’t just an easy challenge, you couldn’t just do anything, you had your guidelines. It’s the first real competition that I’d entered as well."