Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Ten years ago, cake maker Jasmine Rae de Lung of San Francisco wanted to experiment with new decorating elements. She went to Clement Street in the Richmond, a neighborhood with numerous Asian markets. That day she acquired some rice paper sheets typically used for Vietnamese spring rolls.

In her Mission District kitchen, de Lung discovered that the sheets wouldn’t work for draping on a cake; they became flimsy when wet and shrank and shattered when refrigerated. However, she found that the rice paper had potential for detailing: Cut into pieces, dyed, dried, and attached to wire, the rice paper resembled delicate flowers. She also learned that she couldn’t control the paper; it curled and changed in unexpected ways. Instead, she had to create multiple versions and choose the ones that worked best with the cake. “You have to let it be the beauty that it wants to form,” she said.

De Lung, who runs a business named Jasmine Rae Cakes, embraces serendipity in her artistry. She says, “My art is rooted in the natural process, surrendering to what’s going on as opposed to designing and creating every last detail.”

She never received professional baker training or even baked as a hobby. However, encouraged by her former boyfriend, de Lung started her business in 2006 as a way to experiment creatively. At first, she baked items for local cafes, but in 2010, she decided to focus exclusively on cakes, primarily for weddings. Her approach to cake making is heavily influenced by her training in art and psychology. De Lung attended an arts magnet high school before studying cognitive science in college. She had already been baking for a few years when she pursued a master’s in psychology, which she believes helped her refine “the tool of yourself and who you are.”

Working with an edible medium is inherently ephemeral. De Lung can spend anywhere from 12 to 200 hours on a cake, but her creation, meant to be eaten and enjoyed, doesn’t last long.

On a late autumn day, de Lung drew inspiration from dried flowers for her cake decorating, which felt acutely personal as her mother has a terminal illness. She’s developed and adopted other distinctive elements that reflect similar themes, like “elephant skin” — dried out and cracked fondant.

De Lung has become known for her cakes’ sculptural forms and techniques, such as rough stone, torn paper ruffles, and what she calls “crawling ridges.” In the last few years, she has become interested in creating a “billowing and undulating and unfolding” motion produced by carving her cakes with a knife before decorating them.

She then rolled the fondant out to an almost translucent thinness, tore it into nonuniform pieces, and placed them on the cake, her hand warming the buttercream frosting, making it more adhesive. She assembled the rice paper flowers and added some to the cake. In the end, everything visible but the wires holding up the petals was edible — “the highest form of integrity in cake making,” she said.

To finish her decorating demonstration within the day, de Lung left more elements incomplete than she would leave for a commissioned cake. As the sun began to set, she assessed her creation, welcoming the “uncertainty of how it would continue to bloom.”

Her cakes typically cost between $5,000 and $10,000 for local weddings, though clients have hired her to travel and bake cakes for weddings around the world; the most she’s charged is between $30,000 and $40,000. She also offers workshops for other cake makers.

De Lung’s somewhat freethinking, fluid approach might seem at odds with the meticulous planning typical for weddings. She offers rough sketches to clients with the caveat that, while she can promise to employ certain techniques and keep them and their specific story in mind, the cake may evolve as she works on and responds to it.

With her cakes, she said, “you’re buying the process, not the product.”

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