A walk inside Cupcake Station on East Liberty Street in Ann Arbor feels like a scene out of a Brothers Grimm fairytale: the hand-chalked sign outside announcing “Monday Madness” and “Frosting Friday,” the aroma of fresh vanilla bean and cake batter that hits you once the door swings open, the giant tubs of colored icing stacked against the wall, the miniature bar stools lining the counter. And the centerpiece — the row of neatly lined cupcakes beneath the display case, tipsy with sprinkle-flecked frosting, with little paper tags announcing their flavors: “Fall Into Pumpkin,” “Southern Red Velvet,” “Vanilla Petals.”
Cake decorator Sarah Ternes sits at the counter, wielding a massive tube of icing in one hand and a tray of newly frosted cupcakes in the other.
Ternes scoops up a cloud of white chocolate buttercream from the tub behind her. It drops softly into the icing tube. She holds the tip vertically over an unfrosted chocolate cupcake, easily swirling the frosting onto the cake’s surface in a matter of seconds.
“We can pretty much do anything (customers) want,” she said, crafting a purple buttercream flower off to the side. “We can do letters, roses, drop flowers, petals, leaves, grass, fruits, dots. It just depends on what they want.”
For Ternes at the Cupcake Station, decorating baked goods is more of a family tradition, she explains, putting the finishing touches on her sample flower. The petals look like little pearl droplets curling atop the wax paper.
“My great aunt was actually a cake decorator, so I got started when I was pretty young,” she said. “I would go to her house to hang out, and I would start to pick up on a couple things … Then when I moved here, I found a job on Craigslist that was advertising for a cake decorator, and I was like, ‘I’d like to get back into that!’ ”
Ternes typically comes to work when the store opens with a huge batch of unfrosted cupcakes waiting for her and steadily works her way through them until the end of the day. The cupcakes are made earlier that morning by the store’s bakers.
“If the cupcakes are a little warm from the oven, you just wait until they’re cool to the touch,” she said. “If they’re too warm, the frosting will start melting all over the top, and it’s just a big mess.”
While the Cupcake Station specializes in daintier confections, Cake Nouveau on North 4th Avenue, owned by Food Network star Courtney Clark, features something a bit more elaborate. Large scale, tiered wedding confections tower the small room, enveloping the customer in their warmth.
Cake construction begins with a series of sit-down or e-mail sessions between the client and one of Cake Nouveau's consultants. Clark then takes the sketches from the consultation and tries to replicate them in cake form, sometimes adding a bit of her own inspiration into the mix.
Instead of frosting, Cake Nouveau promises each client a custom-designed cake rolled in mounds of stretchy fondant and finished off with a series of molding chocolate or gum paste sculptures.
“Fondant is basically sugar Play-Doh,” said cake consultant Sarah Mayfield. “It comes in a bucket. You can stretch it, twist it, roll it out, make it into a ball — you can literally do anything with it.”
“The difference between gum paste and fondant is that fondant doesn’t dry hard,” she added. “Gum paste is meant to dry hard so you can make separate sculptures with it.”
The cake is generally baked 48 hours before the date of the order by a special pastry chef. The interior is usually filled with a buttercream or chocolate ganache frosting.
“It’s really just your typical sponge cake, chocolate or vanilla,” she said. “But we can add additional flavors — lemon or lime or mint.”
All of Cupcake Station’s frostings are homemade and usually consist of a buttercream or cream cheese base. The tubs behind Ternes read “Peanut Butter Buttercream,” “Lemon White Chocolate” and “White Chocolate Cream Cheese.” The cupcakes are then finished with a decorative topper — usually a buttercream flower, a few douses of multicolored sprinkles or a drizzle of caramel.
“Sometimes we mix different things in the buttercream in order to get different flavors,” Ternes said. “The buttercream is easiest to work with. The cream cheese is a little thicker, so sometimes it’s a little more difficult to use.”
Cupcake Station also provides people with a special custom cupcake service for weddings, holidays and special events. People who come in for wedding tastings get six to eight cupcakes for free to try some of the different flavors and frosting combinations.
The store also bakes larger cakes on request, which can be tiered or unilayered. Ternes outlined the difficulties with decorating each type of cake.
“It depends on what you want to do,” she said. “Cupcakes can be easier because they’re smaller to work with and a lot of times people just want something really simple — you put something on there and it looks really cute. But if they want something bigger, like flowers or letters, it’s easier to do it on a cake.”
To achieve the exquisite intricacies found in Cake Noveau’s creations, Clark does not use the kinds of cake tools that one would find at IKEA or Williams-Sonoma.
“This one she uses to thin the fondant out so that can get ripply and crease-y. This one she likes to use when she’s doing indentations for a person’s face,” Mayfield said, pulling out a bevy of cake tools that resemble large plastic toothpicks. “They’re all just — there’s no name for these. They’re just special cake tools.”
Whatever the tools or ingredients or sizes involved in fashioning their respective cakes, these two locally owned dessert stores have won the hearts of Ann Arborites, not just through their outside decorations but also for their decadent flavors underneath. One bite into Cupcake Station’s “Boston Cream Cake,” a cupcake covered in a dark chocolate ganache and drizzled with white chocolate and a sweet pink buttercream flower, reveals an even sweeter vanilla bean interior soaked in a rich creamy custard. If only all artwork were this delicious.