Long before Food TV showed consumers they didn't have to settle for a sheet cake, Edible Art Bakery was providing distinctive designs for discerning Raleigh clients. For more than three decades, cakes made from the treasured recipes of the original owner's grandmother have been de rigueur at everything from formal weddings to wacky promotional events.
So when INDY Week wanted to challenge bakers to create a cake that "looks and tastes like Raleigh"—that was the only rule—we of course asked current owner Todd Mozingo if he was up to the challenge.
As it happened, Edible Art had just completed a cake for a client that featured, of all things, a Raleigh public art theme.
"We put our heads together and made a list of great features, like the Shimmer Wall at the Convention Center, which really makes a statement about who we are today," Mozingo says. "We also included things like the Andy and Opie statue, the Sir Walter Raleigh statue and the N.C. State Belltower to reflect our history."
Most of the edible landmarks on the cake are fashioned from flexible fondant; some are painted with a bronzer to reinforce their statue-like appearance. Exceptions include the textured, glistening Shimmer Wall, which was crafted from crisp gum paste, and a tall, delicate-looking tree, which is coated in edible sterling silver dust to resemble a recognizable sculpture on the grounds of the N.C. Museum of Art. Because Raleigh is the City of Oaks, they also adorned the cake with lifelike fondant oak leaves cut into the shapes of actual leaves they collected around town.
"The pieces can get pretty complex," Mozingo says. "We wanted things to look as lifelike as possible in order for the viewer to understand what we're trying to do."
The cake's large acorn topper recalls the copper-sheathed acorn statue that is traditionally dropped during First Night Raleigh festivities each New Year's Eve. Mozingo initially considered making it from layers of fondant, but its size and weight made that technique risky. "It could have cracked, or worse," he says, apparently deploying a baker's voodoo of not saying out loud that it could have crashed. "Much safer to use a Rice Krispie treat, which also tastes better if you want to eat it."
As for flavor, Mozingo let generations of Edible Art customers decide. "Almond cake with amaretto butter cream filling is the No. 1 Raleigh choice and it always has been," he says with pride. "It's something we are well known for. We make everything from scratch with as many local ingredients as possible."
The cake itself is a light yet butter-rich pound cake, the stuff of countless special occasion memories, and the icing is sinfully decadent, suggesting dear Grandma was not stingy with the liqueur.
A few miles away, the staff at Sugarland bakery also accepted INDY Week's challenge. They opted for a custom-created sweet potato crunch cake, but there was some controversy in the kitchen regarding what fruit filling to use to best complement its rich flavor.
"Peach filling is traditionally Southern, but a lot of figs grow here, too," says Katrina Ryan, owner of Sugarland, a Chapel Hill institution that opened a larger branch a year ago in Cameron Village, which she describes as "Raleigh's Franklin Street. We knew this is where we wanted to be."
Ultimately, peach bourbon won. The somewhat boozy fruit layer was topped with a rich slather of cheesecake-like icing, then the cake was enrobed in brown sugar-boiled icing. In addition to sweet potatoes—our state produces more than any other—the moist cake used graham flour and got its crunch from pecans.
"We based our flavors and design on the idea of Raleigh being Southern, but not in a typical Southern-sweet sort of way," Ryan says. "We wanted to aim for a more sophisticated flavor palate."
When they polled people as to what they thought of when they thought about Raleigh, "It was like one of those Rorschach inkblot tests," Ryan says, noting that Raleigh customers are more likely to splurge on "very over-the-top" cakes than her Chapel Hill customers. "It's interesting to see what Raleigh people say compared to those who live elsewhere."
To capture this unexpected dichotomy, the bottom layer focuses on what Raleigh represents statewide: its status as the seat of government, demonstrated by donkey and elephant figures bumping heads, and home of the State Fair, with its colorful carousel and fried food stands. Its middle is how visitors see us, with elegant magnolia blooms and such attractions as the paddle boats at Pullen Park, the N.C. State Belltower, the Sir Walter Raleigh statue and the Shimmer Wall.
The cake, which remains on display in a hanging glass case, is topped by a large, chocolate-wrapped acorn and a graceful drape of oak leaves. The board on which is sits is encircled by—what else?—the Beltline.
This article appeared in print with the headline "In good taste."