When Design Meets Cake, It Transforms into Delicious
Chef Madison Lee adds flavor, sugar, and a dash of design on the iPad Pro to create artisanal, one-of-a-kind cakes for celebrations.
"It is my job to capture [the couple's] emotions and their feelings about each other and to turn them into a piece of art at their wedding that represents who they are together. It’s a challenge, but at the same time, I am a storyteller and a steward of their love - what could be better?? Nothing!"
Hi! My name is Chef Madison Lee. I am the artist and owner behind Madison Lee’s Cakes in New York City. As they say, if you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life. That is one hundred percent true for me. I am able to use pastry as a medium to create edible installations for weddings and other once-in-a-lifetime celebrations.
As a Chef, what is your creative process like when it comes to making a cake?
As a Chef and an artist, there are two parts of the creative process for me: inside and outside. The inside is the good stuff, and the outside is the fun stuff.
The inside is all about standout flavors. I look for a mix of nostalgia and familiarity but add a twist of unexpectedness to enhance the experience. For example, a recipe I developed years ago, “Cherry to My Yuzu,” was a play on a PB&J - almond cake with almond butter, cherry jam, toasted and salted almonds, and a yuzu buttercream. Yuzu, a Japanese cross between a grapefruit and a lime, adds another whole level of brightness to the almond and cherry. It’s like a “zing” in the mouth, yet it's still reminiscent of the classic PB&J many of us grew up with. It makes you smile. I look for ways to bring this joy to couples with the flavors I present to them.
Chef Lee cuts every layer to an exact hundredth of an inch, consistent throughout every tier.
The outside is not about me. It requires learning about the couple. I had a couple that told me about their proposal in Bruges. The groom thought the architecture was so amazing, he had to get down right there and propose. Their entire cake then became inspired by the main square bell tower. Their cake was able to be more than just the dessert at the wedding. Instead, it told part of the story that started them on this journey.
I have couples that tell me wild things and some that tell me simple stories of how they met or things that are meaningful to them. It is my job to capture their emotions and their feelings about each other and to turn them into a piece of art at their wedding that represents who they are together. It’s a challenge, but at the same time, I am a storyteller and a steward of their love - what could be better?? Nothing!
A finished cake and sugar flower arrangement ready for the bride and groom to dig in.
Have you ever designed a cake for yourself? What would it look like and how would it taste?
It's a bittersweet thing to design a cake for myself. Part of the creative process I love is the challenge of bringing the couple's story to life. So, when I get to design something that's my own, I find I really need to be inspired or personally moved in some way by nature’s beauty or by another’s artwork.
The sweet thing about designing for myself is that part where there is no one to dictate or to put any limitations on anything. This is the time I get to push boundaries within sugar art. Most of the display cakes in my studio are cakes I dreamt up for no one but me. Some even came from mistakes or from experimenting with new techniques, and in those cases, the cakes take on a life of their own.
Flavor profile is a whole other topic. Now, I love cake. I eat cake every day. But, even I don’t want to eat the same thing day after day after day. For this reason, I am constantly tinkering with recipes and trying new combinations. I am a big believer in combining salt and acid in desserts! When it comes to sweetness, I believe the ingredients should take center stage. I use the finest ingredients I can get my hands on - European butter, single-origin chocolate, the world’s greatest vanilla. These kinds of products have a melody all on their own. There is no reason for me to cover them up with excessive sweetness. My job is to enhance their natural flavors, which I believe I do quite well.
At the end of the day, I am the kind of woman who is looking to dip her potato chips in chocolate, sweet and salty, but I don’t want something unnaturally sweet that gives me a toothache. I want the quality of the ingredients to shine! No need to make everything taste sweet and sweet alone.
Chef Lee teaching one of her sugar flower workshops.
How did you discover Concepts? What do you like about the app and how does it help you to design and sell your ideas?
I never thought in a million years I would give up my graph paper, markers, and pencils - especially not for technology! I am the worst. I can barely answer texts! One day, I was running late for clients who were coming in from out of town to see me. My manager of operations was driving and saw a sign for a Best Buy off the highway. He pulled a dangerous lane change and told me to hand over my credit card. Next thing I knew, I had the iPad Pro in my hand with an Apple Pencil. We went back to the parking lot, and he connected to the hotspot on my cell phone (who even knew that was a thing at the time).
In no time, I was video chatting with my client, drawing on this “screen,” and exporting the images to the Studio, where someone was opening them so the couple and I could adjust and make changes in real time. The iPad and Concepts have changed the way I am able to create for my couples and how business is done at Madison Lee’s Cakes.
What does a design consultation look like between you and a client? What are your goals for the client and for the cake?
Between serving tea, cake, building 3D cake models out of styrofoam, and then the iPads for notes and sketches, my studio gets full on design days. It’s no wonder the stylus usually goes missing when it’s time to open up Concepts!
All jokes aside, consultation days are the best days for me. It’s truly a creative process. When I first sit down, I have absolutely no idea where on earth the next two hours are going to take us.
Chef Lee mocks up a towering cake with styrofoam tiers in her New York City studio.
Building 3D styrofoam dummy cakes is a great way to get couples involved in the process. I am a believer in seeing everything take shape in real life.
I also want to touch. I have found that when a couple can stand next to the wedding cake, practice cutting it, and physically understand what the size of the cake will look like, it builds trust. It also reads on their faces as “OMG this is going to be our wedding cake! Can you believe it?!” It's an excitement I love to see. After building a model, taking some photographs next to it, and rehearsing pushing cake into each other’s faces just like on the big day, it’s time to sit back down again.
Chef Lee sketches a new design in Concepts.
At this point, my iPad and Concepts become the real showstoppers of the meeting. I open up Concepts, and most couples are intrigued to see how big the iPad is. Then it's “Wow, you're fast at that!” I quickly begin counting boxes on the grid and making lines that look like elementary school shapes stacked on top of one another. Once the main base is down, I start adding layers.
As I quickly work to make the simple boxes take shape into stacked tiers of cake, I am chatting away about details like florals, invitations, color palettes, and the bride’s dress. All of this information is processed as I decide how to shade and form the cake with Concepts. When inspiration strikes, I put the stylus back to the app and begin drawing flowers wrapping or moving around the cake and adding lace details or textural elements that coordinate with the couple’s aesthetic.
Then, I add color. The color wheel is the best part - couples go crazy with curiosity when they first see it, always asking me all about the app. The entire drawing process usually takes no more than fifteen minutes, and it all happens in front of them. I love to swing the iPad around and show them what was created on Concepts. Their excitement becomes contagious, and it’s the most wonderful feeling that I can make people so happy.
Chef Lee adds a color layer to her nearly finished designs.
Can you share how you design a cake in Concepts? What are your favorite, go-to tools for sketching the design?
Concepts, for me, was a natural and easy switch from my graph paper. I use the boxes to help with scale and dimensions for the cakes - one box for width and one box for height. I always start in pencil, just like I would have on paper. Once I capture the base structure to scale, I start adding details and personality. I am a big fan of the layers. These really allow me to make easy, quick changes. Sometimes brides have a tendency to change their mind on details. With the layers, I do not have to start from scratch. That’s a big change from my paper!
I love the watercolor setting. I used to give each of my clients a hand painted watercolor sketch in a frame. That took a lot of extra time. Now I do not have to do that anymore - I am able to paint the depth and detail of the cake right in Concepts, so it feels as though I was using an actual sable brush. They receive a print or digital copy of this, which is a lot easier to show off to friends.
Two of Chef Lee’s sketches from Concepts with various layers visible.
Another tool I think is amazing is the Dots - this dotting brush gives the effect of lace beautifully. Clients can really see the softness that I will be able to create on the actual cake by piping. Since Concepts has updated their brush sets, I currently find myself using the Oil Pastel. I love how I can layer depth with this tool. I am able to give a three-dimensional shape to the two-dimensional sketch and showcase even more details to the clients.
Part of the process is giving clients options. I love how I can make the base structure of the cake, shade and color it all, then make copies of it and add different details to multiple cakes at a time. This is great when showing couples differences in price points. The ability to do this has had the biggest effect on efficiency for me and my company.
Chef Lee dusts pigments into a delicate royal icing piping element.
Once you have a design ready, how do you bake and build the actual cake?
After the couple and I approve a design, I take the same sketch and break it down structurally. No one wants to eat a hard or heavy cake. This means that the inside of the cake needs to be stable and strong to support layers of fluffy, moist sponge on top of each other. I will add an additional layer to the sketch that will outline this structure to the whole team.
We then get to start baking. Butter is always first! Once the cake is baked, it goes through multiple stages to become what you see on wedding day - more than most would think.
Sugar flowers prepare to crown a cake as Chef Lee applies the finishing touches.
Before the actual construction of the wedding cake, we are making sugar flowers, sometimes months in advance. Every single thing you see on our cakes is made with edible elements, so all flowers are made from sugar. They take weeks to make, as each petal has a wire inside and starts off white. They are eventually brought to life by edible pigments which I add by hand to each petal and pistol.
Since each cake is unique and one of a kind, it’s at this stage that there are really no rules or boundaries. For me, the artist, I just feel it.
Fine tuning the first tier with a menagerie of sugar flower cakes surrounding her, Chef Lee works for precision at every turn.
Many thanks to Chef Madison Lee and her team for sharing their design story. Learn more about Chef Lee and her incredible passion for cake making as she designs, bakes and builds a wedding cake in this Tasty: Made By Hand video:
Madison Lee is the Chef and Owner of Madison Lee’s Cakes, based in New York City. At 34, she is established as one of the world's foremost cake artists and sugar flower experts. She has been seen on the Food Network, The Cooking Channel, Buzzfeed, The Today Show, Good Morning America, appears in textbooks and magazines, and was named one of the US’s top ten cake artists of 2020 by Cake Masters Magazine. She designs cakes for high-profile clients, events, and venues, and she is known for cakes that are not only delicious but sought-after works of art.
Hero Image - Chef Madison Lee finely tunes every detail of her designs. Every floral piece is hand made from sugar.
Cover Image - A hand painted design on fondant beside delicate sugar flowers.
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