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Baker’s sweet success

Her creations are as varied as a Scrabble board, a Louis Vuitton purse, a BlackBerry and baby booties.

Her creations are as varied as a Scrabble board, a Louis Vuitton purse, a BlackBerry and baby booties.

But unlike most artists, Juanita Koo knows her works won't have much longevity once she's added her finishing touches.

That comes with the territory when your creations are designed as a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach.

Koo's
diverse works aren't etched on canvas or sculpted in clay but
constructed on a far more delicate - yet delicious - foundation.

It's cake - and lots of it.

Koo
uses homemade layers of the rich confection along with swiss meringue
buttercream typically topped off with a colourful fondant.

But
what distinguishes the creations are the intricate pieces Koo crafts as
toppers or that are woven into the design, whether they are towering
tiered cakes or smaller-scale cupcakes.

Sugarpaste is typically
used to mould everything from adorable animals to miniature mittens.
And she even makes the cakes themselves into objects and characters.
For instance, she's done a replica of a wedding gown for a bridal
shower and a Heffalump for her nephew's birthday.

"I practise a
lot and it just comes to me," Koo said in a recent interview at her
Toronto home where she was putting the finishing touches on a 60th
birthday cake of a woman on a motorcycle modelled after one owned by a
client.

"Maybe I played with playdough a lot when I was a kid, I have no idea, but ... I like making little tiny items, it's just fun."

"I've
never been an artist or anything like that, but it does come naturally
to me and I love it - love it. I can stay up until 4 in the morning
doing this."

Koo's specialty cakes typically start at $150, but
depending on the complexity of the creations and number of tiers can go
into the hundreds of dollars.

And while it's a labour of love,
the cakes are also labour-intensive. Not including the actual baking
process, it can take at least five hours to construct one cake -
sometimes double.

It's been a longtime passion for the
35-year-old, who grew up in Hamilton. Koo took classes a couple of
years ago and made cakes for co-workers and family friends while
balancing a career in marketing as a director for a software company.

She
had thought about how much she would love to make cakes full time, and
even recalled joking with a boss a couple of years ago about leaving
the corporate world.

Just four months ago, Koo's musings came to pass - but not on her terms.

She
was laid off in November, among 20 per cent of company staffers who
were let go. The timing couldn't have been worse as she had just bought
a house and moved in two weeks earlier.

After returning from
competing in an Iron Man in Florida, Koo started applying for jobs,
with headhunters saying there wasn't much out there. It was at that
time she started wondering if she could make a go of her dream.

Koo
applied to be on a home and garden show to see if she could enlist help
renovating her new digs by converting the basement semi-kitchen into a
full-fledged one for use as a cake studio.

In January, she found
out she was selected for the show, just weeks after landing a job as a
personal trainer at a downtown women's fitness club, and just as her
blog where she showcases her cakes started to see increased traffic.

Koo
also recently won a birthday cupcake bake-off contest run by the
website Torontoist to commemorate the city's 175th birthday, creating a
dozen colourful cupcakes topped with miniature designs of sites and
landmarks from the CN Tower to City Hall.

Koo recently received a
job offer in her field, but turned it down. She has decided to go full
steam ahead with her business, Sweet Things, devoting about 25 hours
each week to making cakes with about 35 hours a week at the gym. The
dual worlds of fitness and food have even converged, with some of Koo's
gym clients ordering her cakes.

Koo studied at the Bonnie Gordon
School, which offers a vast array of courses in the edible arts,
including cake decorating and design.

Bonnie Gordon, a renowned
designer of customized cakes, said with the uncertainty of the current
economy she has seen many new students looking at creating custom cakes
as an additional source of income.

"Sure, some people are leaving
full-time employment to pursue this full-time, but I would say within
that group, there are many who are not in a position to leave their
full-time job ... but are seeing this as a second income, a second
career that they fit into their current career because you can pick and
choose the number of cakes you want to make."

Gordon said when
she was in university and thinking of a potential career, being a cake
designer didn't exist, as most people got their celebration cakes from
caterers and bakeries.

But with the vast number of decorative
tools on the market like moulds, stencils and cutters, she said it's
becoming easier for people to create beautiful cakes.

Gordon said the majority of students are beginners who are coming to take classes for fun.

"It's
a highly creative art form, great opportunity for expression,
individual expression and a lot of people do it just for the fun of it."

And those on the receiving end of the colourful confections are getting a kick out of them as well.

Montreal-based
lifestyle and entertaining expert Kim Vallee said she scored a hit with
cupcakes created by Clever Cupcakes for her husband's birthday inspired
by video games he played in childhood.

"If you host a party, the cake is always an important moment," said Vallee who produces entertaining blog Kim Vallee at Home.

"Everybody will stop and gather to see the cake presentation, so that's one place where you can get a big wow factor."

Koo
and Gordon agree that Food Network shows like "Ace of Cakes" and
challenges on the channel where designers compete in elaborate
cakemaking contests are giving wider exposure to the artistry of cake
design.

"People will see a cake and think, 'Oh, can you do a cake
that looks like a shoe?"' Koo said. "People are definitely getting
ideas for that special present for someone."

"It's something that
is just a phenomenon," said Gordon. "It is a new art form, and people
want to do it, and once they catch the bug, they can't stop, they love
it, they absolutely love it."

On The Net:

Sweet Things: http://sweetthings-toronto.blogspot.com

Bonnie Gordon School: www.bonniegordoncakes.com

At Home with Kim Vallee: http://blog.kimvallee.com

 
 
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