Incredible, edible art
Channel 4's Extreme Cake Maker, Wells-based Zoe Burmester, swapped a behind-the-scenes career in TV and film to create showstopping celebration, wedding and event cakes that tell a story
Extreme cake maker Zoe Burmester of Sugar Street Studios in Wells has been scooping up gold medals and accolades for her incredible, edible art over the past four years, since a pastime turned into a business.
She’s appeared on Kirstie Allsop’s Handmade Christmas (winning the best decorated Christmas cake, natch), and is currently featured in the fourth series of Channel 4’s Extreme Cake Makers, the show that follows cake artists around the UK as they push conventional baking to its limits.
She’ll make you a stonking birthday or wedding cake too.
We managed to persuade Zoe to put down her icing bag and tell us more…
With an Italian dad and Turkish mum, my Mediterranean heritage has definitely fuelled my love of cooking and baking, and is something that has been fundamental to my identity from a young age. I was always fascinated by novelty cakes. I just couldn’t believe that cake could be made to look like something else, and each year I used to wait in excited anticipation for my own birthday cake.
What’s your background?
After drama at university, I worked in film and TV production, becoming a prop buyer and set decorator, on a range of projects from blockbuster movies to TV dramas and commercials.
Did you have any formal training?
I’ve no formal patisserie training but I’ve built up a large repertoire and knowledge through years of trial and error. My sweet tooth and a desire to learn has got me pretty far and I love the constant challenge of trying new recipes and methods.
How did you get into cake making?
Purely by accident. I was living in Italy with two young children, feeling rather housebound and started experimenting with sugar craft, which had always fascinated me. I made cakes for the family, then for other expats. I knew immediately that I loved it as it combined my passion for baking with my love of visual storytelling. When we moved back to the UK in 2015, I shared some of my cakes on social media and within a couple of months I was approached by an industry magazine to create a tutorial of one of my cake designs – and that was it.
Do people know what they want?
Clients generally allow me creative freedom. They come to me with a general theme and we’ll discuss various ways we can execute it. The event and budget will dictate the design but as every single commission is unique – I never make the same cake twice – I can offer a very tailored service. I sketch the cake so we all know what we’re aiming for. Quite often the client is happy not to see the sketch as they like the surprise element when it’s finished, but with other clients the sketch process is pivotal to the final commission.
What are the cakes made from?
The cake itself is the most important part for me. I hand bake and make everything from scratch in my kitchen studio, using quality ingredients, as far as possibly locally sourced. I’m constantly trying out new butter creams, mousses, curds, compotes and syrups to enhance the cakes to challenge the preconception that an extreme sculpted cake can’t taste as good as it looks – because I know that it can.
Are they completely edible?
Wherever possible. Either 100% cake or a combination of cake and marshmallow crispy treats, cake clay or chocolate biscuit cake over those areas where sponge cake simply won’t go. For big showpieces, where the client doesn’t need the whole sculpture to be edible, it may have both edible and non-edible elements.
Where do you get your inspiration?
Everywhere – films, posters, illustrations, textiles, animation, vintage books, home decor and mother nature – except for other people’s cakes. First I think about concepts and the visual story and how best to bring the client’s theme to life, then I worry about how to turn that into cake.
Can you tell us a little about the process?
I spend a fair amount of time planning my design on paper and, if it’s a sculpture, considering the internal structure. I draw up the non-edible element, working out where the cake and edible elements will go and then set aside time to build that and make it food safe. I also pre-plan for anything that requires a long preparation time (like making sugar flowers) or to make bespoke moulds. I set aside a day or two for baking and making my fillings, syrups and ganaches and allow anything from one day up to a week (or longer for bigger projects) to decorate the cake.
Overall, it can take from one day to several weeks to make a cake. Very big projects can be months in the planning but for small to average size cake sculptures it’s three to four days from start to finish.
What do you enjoy the most about creating the cakes?
Creating cakes that don’t look like cakes! I’ve found an artistic freedom and have learnt much about colour, texture and sculpting techniques but I also take pride in producing a delicious and tasty dessert. Quite often the cake is the talking point and visual highlight of an event, and being a small part of someone’s special occasion is incredibly rewarding.
What’s the most unusual commission you’ve ever had?
Most of my cakes have some unusual element to them. I’ve created a cake like a paper lantern that illuminated at night, a 5ft cantilevered origami unicorn cake made for an interactive theatrical performance of the Blade Runner movie and a cake for the Guinness World Record attempt to make the largest recorded dish of sauerkraut. Not only was the cake to look like a box of cabbages, it also had to feature sauerkraut in the recipe. People couldn’t believe that the fudgy chocolate cake they were eating contained fermented cabbage!
What’s been your favourite cake?
Each cake is a labour of love with its own story to tell, so they’re all special to me. But I adore making animal cakes – from snow leopards to elephants, flamingos to eagles and everything in between – and recently made a full size sloth hanging from a tree. The challenge of hanging a suspended cake was testing but the end result was so animated and life-like, I was sorry to see that one cut!
Have you ever turned down a commission?
I try and be as open minded as I can but I won’t take on commissions that involve severed heads, bloody limbs or are just generally gruesome. I’m just too squeamish!
Does it cost an arm and a leg?
Everything from the bake down to the last sugar detail is created by hand, there are simply no shortcuts. If you want a cascade of flowers, each individual sugar flower has to be made and wired petal by petal, shaped, left to dry, assembled, coloured and steamed. A sculpture of a beloved pet takes the same level of work and time as a clay sculpture (though the sculptor doesn’t have make their own clay beforehand). So you’re paying for the time and skill of artisan work that blends both patisserie knowledge with artistic technique and flair. Celebration cakes cost from £175.
Want to commission a cake?
Zoe loves a challenge! Contact her for a chat at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 07779 123201.