Take a good look–the precariously balanced pile of objects in this photo is actually a cake. In recent years, whether in trendy bakeries or televised competitions like the Food Network Challenge, bakers have been developing increasingly elaborate cakes. Now anyone capable of making something like this is obviously highly skilled. But these creations appear more like sculptures than something I would think of eating. And therein lies the problem.
Cooking is an art, but it is not the kind of art intended for the museum. In other words, it is not what is often called “high” or “fine” art (art that is intended to be contemplated and appreciated for its particular use and arrangement of form, color, sound, or similar properties, independent of any practical purpose it may have). Rather, cooking is a classic example of a useful art, since everyone has to eat. Cakes like the one pictured above appear to be an attempt to elevate it to a high art. But is this something appropriate for cooking to become?
I do not have a final answer to this question. But as Divinely-appointed stewards of the materials of the world, all those making art are obligated to make appropriate use of the materials available in the particular art they choose; this makes me doubt that high art cakes are a good path for cake-baking to take.
The reason cakes like this initially seem impossible is because they would be if the baker were working only with the traditional cake components of, well, cake, and various sorts of icings. Such cakes frequently use plastic or metal structural elements to support themselves, and bakers have gone beyond fondant icing decoration to incorporate food materials like modeling chocolate or gum paste. I generally find the taste even of fondant inferior to some other forms of icing, but I have never tasted the latter two materials (and I can’t consider anonymous internet accounts of their taste to be authoritative). Perhaps they taste good, but since they are intended for making elaborate shapes and decorations, their taste is not a priority for their users. I do not think any use of the cooking arts that ignores taste is making appropriate use of the food with which it is working. Further, although objects from toothpicks to multi-layered stands have an appropriate place in the presentation of food, a cake that needs an internal support structure strikes me as an abuse of the art.
Whatever impressiveness arises from these cakes comes, I think, from their nature as a sort of high wire act. The interest is in success at something difficult, not enjoyment of the result. There are some arts where this feature might be appropriate, but cooking is not one of them, for cooking’s end is achieved when the food is eaten. And in conclusion, which of these cakes would you really rather eat?