Heart, you see, is getting married on Valentine’s Day in the very exclusive Balesin Island to Senator Francis “Chiz” Escudero, and theirs is a wedding that’s keeping society tongues wagging. It is a high-profile romance that has fans on the edge of their seats. But I’m not elaborating because, after all, this story is not about Heart or Chiz. It is about my niece, Judy Uson, the Cake Artist.
I was out of the country for most of the time that she was making a name for herself, but my guess is that anyone in the bridal industry had heard her name. Judy, to my surprise, had turned sugar and gum paste to a most amazing art medium that to say she makes sugar flowers is like saying Rembrandt did oil paintings.
Her edible flowers look astonishingly real—botanically correct, some have pointed out. How pretty it is to see wedding cakes adorned with lifelike rosals, sampaguitas and bougainvilleas. Gardenias, frangipanis, day lilies!
I invited Judy to my house to tell me about the cake she is about to create for Heart and Chiz.
“It’s a secret,” Tita,” she began.
“Huh?” I said, “I can’t write about the cake?”
She hesitated then said, “Well, you can say yes, I have been commissioned to bake it, but because it is going to be one of the big surprises at the wedding, it’s best to keep the design a secret.”
Oh. I wondered if it would be anything like the Donaire cake. In November 2011 the boxing champ Nonito Donaire Jr. got married. It was going to be a huge celebration of a wedding because Donaire was on a decade-long winning streak. His last ringside loss was in 2001, and now the flyweight was winning the biggest prize of all, a bride, Rachel Marcial.
Nonito and Rachel called Judy to bake their cake. They wanted a big cake and they wanted it stunningly beautiful. After much discussion about concept and design, the product was an imposing six-layer cake standing six feet tall, bedecked with Swarovski jewels and sugar flowers seemingly straight out of a Victorian mansion.
“Will the Heart-Chiz cake be similar to Donaire’s?” I insisted on knowing. I poured Judy a glass of wine in hopes she would lighten up and tell.
“The wedding cake is usually a very important focus of a reception,” she explained. “So the couple wants their cake to be unique.”
In 2000, Judy had been 10 years out of college running here and there doing professional video productions but felt she was gaining nothing but stress and frustration. One day she baked a cake. It was a cheesecake, actually, the no-bake kind. But unlike other cheesecakes, she decorated it with rolled fondant and fresh flowers. I would say she fru frued it, meaning, she made it a girly cake. The result surprised even herself. Her friends saw the cake and friends of friends heard about it. Everyone was so impressed they ordered enough cakes for birthdays and other parties to keep Judy busy baking and decorating for a good while.
“I can make a serious business out of this,” she thought. But first she had to learn to bake really good cakes. She turned to the computer for lessons and faced the screen for hours at a time, reading all there was about baking, decorating and starting a business. When she wasn’t on the screen, she was in her kitchen trying out recipes and design ideas.
Initially, she used fresh flowers on her cakes but realized they wilted too quickly and there could be pesticides to worry about. So she learned to make edible flowers with sugar and gum paste. Relying on her background in fine arts, she created flowers so lifelike, you would want to feel and smell them.
Three months later she signed up at a bridal fair. It was a burgeoning industry dominated by big names, and she was the new kid on the block--the one who dared to sashay over next to bakeries that had been providing wedding cakes for years and years. But she stood unfazed for she was confident in her products and she understood market demands.
“My cakes are my works of art,” she said. “I knew from the start that I would never compromise on quality and artistry just to have lower priced cakes.”
While most cakes at the time used butter frosting or meringue, Judy covered hers with rolled fondant, a substance that was gaining popularity for its versatility. It could be shaped, sculpted or molded into beautiful objets d’art. It made her cakes stand out.
At her first bridal fair she received six orders of wedding cakes.
She quit her day job. She could now spend most of her time at home with her young daughter unless, of course, she was out buying ingredients, tools and stuff for her trade. She could also be delivering cakes to event venues, driving very carefully to ensure the cakes did not fall over in transit.
But one did topple to the floor. Judy laughed as she recalled the incident.
“It was a luscious white chocolate-covered cake that I delivered to one of the five-star hotels in Manila. This was during my first year as a cake designer, and back then I was the purchaser, baker, decorator, marketing manager and driver,” she recalled.
“When I drove up to the hotel marquee and opened the trunk of the van, I saw that one side of the cake had fallen to the floor! I realized that the cake recipe I had used was too soft and moist to be able to carry the weight of the icing and it was not able to withstand the car trip to the hotel.”
Oh well. That cake was charged to experience, and Judy, at last, was very happy in her career.
The Cake Artist was born to my first cousin Toti Sangalang and her husband, Marcelo Giron, a quality control consultant. Judy’s school years were spent at Holy Spirit and then UP Diliman where she earned her degree in fine arts. In was in church where she met her future husband, Batch Uson, an advertising and marketing professional. Together they raised their only child, Noelle.
After the initial cake orders, requests came for TV and magazine interviews. It didn’t hurt that she looked great on screen and hardcopy and that she articulated well in both English and Tagalog. Right away she was the darling of wedding magazines and talk shows.
She went to New York and took some classes at the International Culinary Center. When she came back, orders multiplied. Her cakes graced weddings across the country and overseas.
I asked if she had a cake she considered her masterpiece. The Floral Cascade, she responded, was her signature design. “It features gum paste sugar blooms that seem to encircle the layers of the cake. Even after 14 years of cake designing, I still think this is one of the most romantic and classic of all.”
On Christmas day 2011, Judy’s husband Batch suffered a massive stroke and died three days later. It left Judy and her daughter stunned. Batch had just designed a cake that instantly became one of Judy’s favorites. Called Timeless Elegance, it features sugar flowers with delicate lace details.
Young, newly widowed and keenly aware of life’s precarious state, Judy felt it time to pursue more dreams. She had recently opened the Northpoint Academy for Culinary Arts in San Fernando, Pampanga, offering diploma courses in culinary, baking and pastry arts.
Encouraged by its success, she opened a restaurant next door. “Life is uncertain. Eat cake first,” the restaurant’s website states.
Café Noelle, named after her daughter and meaning born on Christmastime, opened in 2012 with a year-round Christmas theme. It, too, is doing well.
If it seems that everything she touches turns to gold, it could be because she works harder than most to understand her clients’ needs and wants.
“I want to make sure my clients get the cake of their dreams,” she stated. “When we sit down to discuss their cake, I ask how big they want their cake, how many layers, what colors they want, what theme and what is their design preference. They may have ideas that sound nice and exciting but when I stop to translate those ideas to a cake, I sometimes have to shake my head and tell them it might not work. I have to balance my desire to give the clients what they want with designing a cake that would actually look good for the occasion.”
Now that we’d had a few glasses of wine, cheese and crackers in my dining room, I felt freer to ask the harder questions.
“Is it true that some cakes nowadays don’t really have cakes inside? I mean, they’re just fondant-covered Styrofoam?” I asked.
“Haha!” she laughed. Yes, it is true, she said, but not all cakes are phony and even if they were, at least part of the cake would have to be edible because the bride and groom still have to cut the cake (and eat it too).
I learned that some clients try to cut costs this way but the savings are not immense. “Although my cakes are delicious,” Judy explained, “they hire me primarily for the artistry. Even if only a little piece of the cake is real, I still have to render or execute a design so that’s why the difference in price could be very little.”
And that brought us to the subject of costs.
“Can I afford your cakes?” I brazenly asked.
We laughed and poured more wine.
“My three-layer cakes range from P12,000 to P30,000 ($267 to $668). Four layer cakes start at P25,000 ($556) and five layers start at P30,000 ($668).”
Phew! Not bad, I thought. There are some cake designs that go over the top; like she has baked a number of six-foot tall cakes but once she had to make one that stood eight-feet tall. Those, she said, cost quite a bit more.
It wasn’t nice to ask how much the Heart-Chiz cake will cost. That is not for us to know. But I do know that it will be a spectacular cake and it will grace magazine covers.
The movie star and the senator, after all, have great taste.
Bella Bonner, UP Mass Comm graduate, moved back to Manila after 30 years in Texas and is trying life as an urban farmer. Between growing arugula in her neighbor’s yard and making artisan cheeses, she contemplates on raising goats in her own yard. Would her neighbors agree?
Orange Butter Cake
This is one of Judy’s favorite cake recipes, one she teaches in the Northpoint Academy for Culinary Arts.
Ingredients for the Cake
1 cup Butter, cubed and softened
1 ¼ cups Sugar
4 pcs Large Eggs
2 cups All-purpose flour
1 Tbsp Baking powder
½ tsp Salt
¾ cup Orange juice
2 Tbsp Orange rind
Ingredients for the Candied Orange Slices
1 cup Sugar
½ cup Water
1 pc Orange, sliced thinly in rounds
Preheat oven to 350*F (180*C). Grease and flour six 3-inch diameter (8 cm.) cake pans.
Using a mixer, cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time.
In a separate bowl, sift together the dry ingredients – flour, baking powder and salt. Mix in the orange rind.
Add the flour to the butter mixture in three parts, alternating with the orange juice. Mix well after each addition.
Spoon the batter to the cake pans, filling them only until three-quarters of the way. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the cakes are golden brown and a cake tester inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean. Transfer the cake pans to a wire rack and cool completely.
Prepare the candied orange slices. Boil the sugar and water in a small saucepan. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Add the orange slices and cook over low heat until the orange slices are translucent.
To serve, un-mould the cakes and place them on individual serving plates. Top each cake with a candied orange and drizzle with some syrup. Enjoy!
The Cake Artist Showroom Address:
(By appointment only)
The Wedding Lounge
RFM Corporate Center (ground floor)
Pioneer corner Sheridan Streets
Mandaluyong City 1550
Tel: 63-917-897-5839 • 632-430-8512
More from Bella Bonner:
Lovelier The Second Time Around
May 6, 2014
When these seniors got married, they partied like teenagers.