For Michelangelo it was marble, for Giacometti bronze. But the medium that elicits Margaret Braun's particular genius is sugar. Braun designs cakes--cakes that are works of art. Her clients may pay thousands of dollars for her fabulous creations, which require days or even weeks to prepare; she did the cakes for Frank Sinatra's 80th-birthday bash and for Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker's wedding. In addition to commissions, Braun also creates whimsical sculptures out of cake and icing. Technically, they're edible, but only a vandal would take a knife to them. The shelves of her studio in Greenwich Village are lined two deep with these eccentric sculptures: tottering minarets in sugar, some gilded, some covered with mosaics of food coloring. (She makes the "tiles" by shattering sheets of pastillage, dried sugar paste.) Propped up on a ledge over her stove are portraits of Escoffier and Julia Child, painted with food coloring on sheets of sugar paste and marzipan.
For someone who devotes her life to sugar, Braun has a remarkably trim figure and a mouthful of pretty teeth, which are nearly always on display in a bright smile. Born and raised on Long Island, she moved to Manhattan and worked in pastry shops to put herself through college and art school. "I discovered cake decorating and realized I was good at it," she said. She had wanted to be an artist all along. "But," she explained, "it took me many, many years before I made the leap and discovered that I could combine the two."
Braun finds inspiration in many strange and wonderful places, but medieval sculpture and architecture are her passions, and she borrows medieval motifs for many of her works. Postcards of bejeweled chalices, arched Gothic altarpieces and Byzantine Madonnas are tacked up everywhere in her studio. On a recent holiday, she headed for Barcelona, a Catalan city of architectural splendors, and there she found a new love: Antonio Gaudí (1852-1926), the exuberant modernist whose fantastical architecture gives the city the atmosphere of a surreal wonderland. His crazy spiral towers and rippling, bulging facades are adorned with colored mosaics in ceramic and stone and with dripping fantasies in wrought iron--an explosion of the imagination that dazzled and beguiled Braun as she explored the city. "The scale and conviction and energy of Gaudí are awe-inspiring," Braun said, as she usually does, with enthusiasm.
And she found more: "I would be looking up, oohing and aahing at some fantastic piece of architecture, and then my eye would fall to street level, and I would find myself utterly captivated by a window display in a hardware store or a grocery." What she ultimately discovered is that Barcelona itself is one great sumptuous confection.
From Cafés to Cathedrals
After her return to New York City, Braun gathered the impressions of her trip, threw them into the Mixmaster of her imagination and created a lavish five-tiered cake sculpture. Plenty of Gaudían touches turned up, such as the sinuous lip on the second tier. The lightly gilded wave motif of the sugar-mosaic base is a quotation from the facade of Casa Batlló (1905-1907), an apartment building that is one of the architect's most bizarrely conceived structures; there's scarcely a straight line to be found in the place.
Braun told me that when she was in Spain, she traveled as she always does: with a lot of research under her belt and a sense of adventure but no fixed agenda. "I just get up in the morning and drink a lot of coffee and see where the day takes me." One afternoon early on, wandering through a labyrinth of cobbled streets outside the Call, a part of the Gothic quarter, she happened on a café, the Anduriña, on Carrer de la Fruita. "It was very quiet; there were children sitting at one of the tables, playing with puzzles." She spent hours in what she described as "the right chair at the perfect table," sipping café con leche and reading García Lorca. The café served a Catalan dish she adored: anchoa e tomate, a loaf of bread smeared with anchovies and fresh tomatoes and topped with olive oil.
Braun kept a journal, and like many scribbling tourists she devoted more space to food than to art. On one page she wrote, "These Spanish anchovies are my friends because they speak volumes about the complexity of salty flavors." She accompanied her observation with a deft little cartoon of a fish saying, "Who, me?" Braun was drawn to the vibrant range of Catalan food, from the saltiest salty of her anchovy friends to the sweetest sweet of the region's fabled candied oranges. (See the recipe on page 162.) She brought back several boxes of them: "They're preserved so well that the inside is truly juicy--it's a little bomb of orange syrup."
And as she always does, she sought out locally produced food coloring. On a walk through the medieval Ribera district, she paused at Casa Gisbert, an old nut-roasting shop on Sombrerers. "They were tossing freshly roasted almonds into a burlap sack. It smelled so good! It was there I found my first good orange food coloring." The proprietor directed her around the corner to an Arab-run spice shop, which sold a wide palette of vivid colors. "It's so hard to find a good red, and they had one that's incredible. It's called rojo vivo--living red."
After a few days in Barcelona, Braun drove north to the cathedral city of Gerona. She had decided before she left New York that there would be a chalice on the top of her cake, and she was eager to see the superb collection of sculptures, chalices and reliquaries in the cathedral's treasury. "The cathedral in Gerona," she pointed out to me, "has a Baroque facade, a Gothic nave and a Romanesque cloister. It's one-stop architectural shopping."
Back in Barcelona, on her way to the Sagrada Familia--the elaborate and still unfinished church that occupied Gaudí for the last 43 years of his life--she came upon Farga, a swank old-fashioned confitería just off the Passeig de Gràcia on Via Diagonal. "Most of the pastry shops in Barcelona have a sort of Arabic feel," she told me. The pastries at Farga draw on a wide range of intense flavors, from marzipan and anise to orange-blossom water and apricot. Braun's favorite was a golden Catalan cream of which she wrote in her journal: "This small round lusty wallop of sweet cooked yolk, planted in a moat of burnt caramel, makes me happy. Yum!"
A Tour of the Cake
Once she was back in New York, Braun set to work designing the cake. "I want there to be a sense of place," she said at the beginning, when I first visited her studio, "but I don't want it to be too obvious, too themey." Then, when the cakes for the five tiers arrived (she has them made to order by professional bakers), she started rolling out the pastillage and whipping up the icing. The first time I saw the piece in progress, Braun was trying to decide whether to include the red and yellow crest of Catalonia. (In the end it showed up, on the second and fourth tiers.) She was also fussing over the design for the third tier, which she had based on Gothic arches from the cathedral in Gerona. She wrinkled her nose and declared, "It's not right."
A week later, the arches had been replaced by a geometric composition inspired by a reliquary in the Gerona cathedral's treasury. By then the cake was finished, and Braun took me on a tour of her strange and elegant creation. She pointed out that the blue of the chalice came from a tile plaque outside Café Escribà, a confitería on Las Ramblas, the main street of Barcelona's old town. The golden tassels that adorn the first level are tiny versions of a series of cake sculptures she based on the medieval legend of Saint Ursula.
After she had finished showing me the cake, we talked again about Barcelona. "One of the high points of my trip came on the last evening," she said. "I was wandering around, feeling kind of nostalgic, and I ended up in the plaza in front of the cathedral. There were a lot of elderly people there, dancing the sardana, a traditional Catalan folk dance. A little orchestra was playing. I sat down and watched them dancing their lovely little dance. It was just twilight, the magic hour. And I thought to myself that this was the perfect ending for my trip--the icing on the cake."
Jamie James is a travel writer and an art critic for The New Yorker.