Glaze of Glory

Designing the Perfect Cake

By Shelly DeButts 

2009_cover8In his tiny kitchen, Cliff Simon spins fantastic creations out of his imagination—and lots of sugar. Click here for a slideshow of some of his designs.If you’re ever at a wedding reception and notice a piece of Mexican folk art where the cake should be, suspect the presence of Cliff Simon. Simon, who teaches set design in UAB’s Department of Theatre, regularly steps out from behind the curtain to pull off one-man performances as a world-famous designer of dramatic edibles. He baked a miniature Manhattan skyline for designer Donna Karan, a pink Fabergé egg for Malcolm Forbes—who gave it to Elizabeth Taylor—and a brushstroke-perfect re-creation of a Van Gogh for a baby shower. His client list includes Madonna, Liberace, and Diana Ross, and he has been the subject of profiles in People and Bon Appétit. Simon has a sense of humor about his second calling; when he wrote a book about his experiences, he called it They Ate My Cake.

Simon grew up in New York City’s Bronx borough and majored in theater in college. The stage was his passion, but his mother was concerned he wouldn’t make enough money, so he took up graphic design to pay the bills. He was working as a designer in New York when he discovered the joy of baking. “I was bored,” Simon recalls. “So I grabbed a Julia Child cookbook one night and started making cakes.”

For a time, Simon’s cake making was something he did to celebrate coworkers. Then someone asked if he could make a cake in the shape of Ohio to surprise a friend, and his imagination took over. “Because of my design background, I treat each cake like a set,” he says. “I look for anything edible to decorate that set.”

Simon’s cakes do look more like theatrical productions than baked goods, with painted backgrounds, artfully created environments, and casts of dozens of fondant figures. The rosettes and frosted swirls that decorate most cakes are nowhere to be found; daring originality is what makes Simon so sought after at party time. (To see a gallery of his creations, visit www.cliffcakes.com.)

Even though he wants to make all his cakes beautiful, Simon demands that they succeed in seducing the taste buds as well. “That’s important to me,” he says. “Taste has to come first—more than looks. If not, I would just be making an object.”

Simon once watched a popular daytime cooking-show host whip up a dessert that was gorgeous but inedible; he was highly offended. “If you’re making a true cake, it has to taste like a cake,” he insists. For the same reason, he doesn’t go in for low-fat milk or fraudulent butters. “I have no desire to try to make a ‘healthy’ cake.”

The solution to our sugar troubles is not a matter of ingredients, Simon argues—it’s a matter of proportions. “If you go to Europe, they know how to eat. Their desserts are pure butter and sugar, but they are not as sweet as ours; they don’t overdo it.”