This cake maker finds beauty in change, time and even life and death
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This cake maker finds beauty in change, time and even life and death
Jasmine de Lung makes a cake at her studio in San Francisco, Dec. 9, 2023. De Lung’s striking creations are as much about process as they are the final product. (Sasha Arutyunova/The New York Times)

by Anna Diamond

NEW YORK, NY.- A decade ago, Jasmine Rae de Lung, a San Francisco-based cake maker, wanted to test out some new decorating elements. She headed to Clement Street in the Richmond, a neighborhood with several Asian markets. Her haul that day included some rice paper sheets, typically used to form Vietnamese spring rolls.

Back in her Mission District kitchen, de Lung realized the sheets wouldn’t work for draping on a cake; they became flimsy when wet and shrank and shattered when refrigerated. The diaphanous material offered greater potential, though, in detailing: Cut into pieces, dyed, dried and attached to wire, the rice paper resembled delicate flowers.

But de Lung also learned the paper couldn’t be commanded; it curled and changed in unexpected ways. Instead, she had to create multiple versions and choose which ones worked best with the cake. “You have to let it be the beauty that it wants to form,” she said.

De Lung, whose business is named Jasmine Rae Cakes, embraces this sort of serendipity. Her artistry, she said, “is rooted in the natural process, how time changes things, surrendering to what’s going on as opposed to designing and creating every last detail.”

She never trained professionally as a baker, or even baked as a hobby. But with the encouragement of her boyfriend at the time, de Lung began her business in 2006 as an outlet for creative experimentation. (She’s drawn to unusual flavors, like calamansi and osmanthus tea, and roasted apricots and almonds.) At first she baked items for local cafes, but decided in 2010 to focus exclusively on cakes, and now primarily makes them for weddings.

Her approach to cake making is heavily informed by her training in both art and psychology. De Lung attended an arts magnet high school before studying cognitive science in college. She had already been baking for a few years when she pursued a masters in psychology, which, she said, helped her hone “the tool of yourself and who you are.”

Working in an edible medium is inherently ephemeral. De Lung can spend anywhere from 12 to 200 hours on a cake, but her creation, meant to be eaten and enjoyed, doesn’t last long.

On a late autumn day, the shifting seasons felt acutely personal: Her mother has a terminal illness, which has centered de Lung’s focus on change, aging and death. For that day’s decorating, she drew inspiration from dried flowers, a symbol of the passage of time.

“What’s interesting about a dried flower is you cut it off from its life source, but it still has fluid and life in it for a little while,” she said. “It’s not like it freezes in time. It continues to move. And then as it dries, it curls more and continues to develop and change until at some point it just stays still.”

She’s developed and adopted other distinctive elements that reflect similar themes, like “elephant skin” — dried out and cracked fondant. Once de Lung realized she couldn’t stop it from happening in her low-humidity kitchen, she decided to see the beauty in the texture and use it in her work.

“And then I really fell in love,” she said. “I could never have designed that.” De Lung has become known for her cakes’ sculptural forms and techniques, such as rough stone, torn paper ruffles and what she calls “crawling ridges,” which emphasize surface and movement.

In the last few years, she’s become interested in creating a “billowing and undulating and unfolding” motion produced by carving her cakes with a knife before decorating them.

After carving a stack of cakes as a sculptor might shape a block of marble, de Lung applied buttercream to the shape before turning to the fondant, which she colored by kneading in dye.

She then rolled the fondant out to an almost translucent thinness, and tore it into nonuniform pieces and placed them on the cake, her hand warming the buttercream frosting, making it more adhesive. She assembled the rice paper flowers and added some to the cake. In the end, everything visible but the wires holding up the petals was edible — “the highest form of integrity in cake making,” she said.

To finish her decorating demonstration within the day, de Lung left more elements incomplete than she would leave for a commissioned cake. As the sun began to set, she assessed her creation, welcoming the “uncertainty of how it would continue to bloom.”

Her cakes typically cost between $5,000 and $10,000 for local weddings, though clients have hired her to travel and bake cakes for weddings around the world; the most she’s charged is between $30,000 and $40,000. She also offers workshops for other cake makers.

De Lung’s somewhat freethinking, fluid approach might seem at odds with the meticulous planning typical for weddings. She offers rough sketches to clients with the caveat that, while she can promise to employ certain techniques and keep them and their specific story in mind, the cake may evolve as she works on and responds to it.

With her cakes, she said, “you’re buying the process, not the product.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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