Elizabeth Hodes makes some of the most amazing wedding cakes coming out of New York; often times they feature what she refers to as "sugar sculptures," incredibly precise and life-like works of pulled sugar. With no formal training, Hodes thinks of herself more as an artist than a pastry chef.
Always the creative type, Hodes had no idea that food would eventually be her calling, but there were signs. As a kid, she was the one building carefully constructed and elaborate gingerbread houses when all of the other kids were slapping theirs together. When it came time to decorate cupcakes, Hodes approached them like art projects rather than vehicles for frosting, sometimes spending as long as 30 minutes decorating a single cupcake. It's no wonder she'd eventually grow up and start her own business, Elizabeth Hodes Custom Cakes and Sugar Art, creating cakes that can take 100 hours, and are completely constructed by her alone.
You have no formal training at all, so how did all of this start? I made my sister's wedding cake in 2000. That's the first time I really remember thinking that a cake could be so much more than a cake; it could be something sculptural and beautiful.
Do you ever refer to yourself as a pastry chef? Never, because I'm not. I consider myself to be an artist. I apply fine art techniques to sugar, food, and other edible materials. I use silk screening in sugar, traditional paper methods on edible paper, mold making, etc. It's all borrowed from other artistic skill sets. There are many similarities between art and what I'm doing, but the biggest difference is the medium I'm using. I'm very interested in the space where art and craft overlap and I think that space is food. Is it art? Is it craft? Is it lunch? Who knows?
How would you characterize your style? It's very detail and precision-orientated. I try to balance the cake as a whole, but I also focus on all of the details the average person wouldn't notice. I research them a great deal before starting; I'll read up on Moroccan tile work or tropical flowers from Aruba. I know the things I'm making are sugar illusions; they're not real, but I want them to look real.
What are some of the most unique cakes you've made? I did a cake for two veterinarians once and the bride was a primatologist, so there were two nesting gorillas on top of the cake. But I'd have to say that the most unique cake was this very dark, macabre cake that featured a gothic bride on top made out of sugar. The whole cake had these scenes of death and destruction. It was odd, but really fun to do.
There are plenty of shows on television now about cake making, some of which you've been on. Do you feel like this part of the culinary world is finally getting the respect it deserves? It gives people a reference point for what we do. Before I'd try to explain and people would say, "So, you own a bakery? You bake muffins?" People now know what it means to pull sugar or use fondant. The downside—and it's not just these shows, but reality television on a whole—is that they're so focused on the competition and the ticking clock and the cakes falling apart that they don't really showcase all of the incredibly cool stuff we're doing.
I understand that you're also a traditional artist. Do you think you'll ever switch media for good? My boyfriend's convinced I will. He says I'll eventually want my artwork to last more than four hours. I don't think I'm done making cakes. When I begin repeating myself or when I get too frustrated with the limitations of sugar and how far I can push it, that's when I'll quit. For now, I really like the impermanence of it. You spend 100 hours on this beautiful thing and then it doesn't stick around. It's created for one thing and then it dies.