|By Allan I. Ross|
East Lansing baker’s cakes are edible artworkIn the recent comedy “Zombieland,” Woody Harrelson’s character, Tallahassee, roams the post-apocalyptic countryside with a double-barreled mission: eradicate zombies, find Twinkies. Dispatching of the undead is a no-brainer (pun intended), but when asked about his obsession with the snack cakes, Tallahassee digs deep and rhapsodizes on how something as simple as a spongy yellow treat can take you back to a simpler time, emotionally. It’s certainly one of the more idiosyncratic odes to comfort food in recent pop culture.
Kelly Kobus has taken that primal yen for comfort food to a whole new level with her East Lansing bakery, A Piece O’ Cake. Through the use of rolled fondant (a sugar/water/glycerin compound that yields impossibly intricate designs), she has created a unique fusion of confectionery and art workshop, where cakes, cookies and cupcakes are so beautiful you almost don’t want to eat them.
“I’ve had customers who have said what a shame it was to cut into their wedding cakes,” Kobus said. “All I can tell them is, ‘Just make sure you take lots of pictures.’”
Kobus, 24, bought A Piece O’ Cake from the previous owners two years ago right after she graduated from college. She was a French major and an art minor, but she always had a love for food. During her senior year she studied abroad in France, where she took some cooking classes at Le Cordon Bleu and also took private classes. These classes led to her working with (and studying under) some of Paris’s top gourmet chefs, and when she came home her career began to take shape.
“When I came back, I started interning at Le Chat Gourmet [a classical French culinary arts program in Eaton Rapids], and soon afterward my dad found this bakery for sale,” Kobus said. “I talked to the owner, and she asked me if I had graduated from culinary school, and when I told her no she told me that was perfect. She said, ‘They teach you pastries in culinary school, but they don’t teach you the art of the cake.’”
Heavy emphasis on the word “art.” In addition to flower sifters and oven mitts, Kobus’s kitchen walls are adorned with paintbrushes, bits of ribbon and every conceivable color of sparkles. Because all of her training was practical, Kobus has been able to quickly master fondant, which can be rolled out like pie crust to create a carve-able, malleable cake covering, or it can be rolled into balls, cut into shapes or molded into three-dimensional edible figurines. A Piece O’ Cake was recently featured in TheKnot.com’s Best of Weddings 2009, putting her in the elite class of go-to wedding cake makers in the state. Flipping through her photo album of previous creations, it’s hard to believe that a.) this was all created on site, and b.) that you can actually eat it.
“There are some popular cooking shows right now on the Food Channel, like ‘Ace of Cakes,’ where you can see these beautiful cakes being made,” Kobus said. “A lot of people don’t realize that there’s a place right here in East Lansing that’s making that same kind of stuff. You’re not going to find this anywhere else in the area; no one else is doing this.”
The previous owners had also established a gluten-free menu, so when Kobus took over she made sure to include these items. She’s quick to point out the glutenfree items are made only one day each week — Tuesdays — but if you’re a coeliac, you have found your new mecca.
“This is bread that tastes like real bread,” Kobus said. “We also do gluten-free cupcakes and cookies; it’s really a wonderful part of the business. And we can do specialty orders for batches as small as six items. I hate having to say no, so if people call ahead we can be very accommodating.”
Among these gluten-free items is a familiar yellow, cream-filled sponge cake dubbed the “Twinky” (note the different spelling — no copyright laws being infringed in this kitchen). It’s nearly indistinguishable in taste from the original: the cake is moist and spongy, the filling rich and creamy, and they are hand-made in small batches right here in this kitchen. Harrelson would be proud.
The cakes are custom-made only, starting at $30, but a variety of cupcakes, breads and cookies (including Kobus’s signature Snickerdoodles) are available Tuesday through Saturday. The busy wedding season is just coming to an end, with holiday parties next on her radar.
“The great thing about fondant is how versatile it is,” Kobus said. “If you can visualize it, I can make it.”
A Piece O’ Cake, 4966 Northwind Drive, East Lansing. 9:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. Tuesday – Friday; 9 a.m. – noon Saturday. (517) 333-6881. www.apieceocake.com.