Shows like “Ace of Cakes” and “Cake Boss,” which chronicle the day-to-day operations of successful bakeries, occupy a wildly popular niche in food television. Why do people like watching shows about cake? Besides the obvious pleasure of watching a large Italian-American family schmooze with each other, these shows satisfy on both the gustatory and aesthetic levels.
On the one hand, they are pure food porn: Layers of tender cake are lovingly smothered with gobs of creamy frosting and studded with insulin-raising amounts of sugary decorations. On the other hand, cake decorators, with just some fondant and food coloring, produce products so creative and intricate that it is hard to not call them art.
But this delectable dichotomy doesn’t exist solely on TV. Here in Ann Arbor, baker Heather Anne Leavitt acts as both a craftswoman and an artist at her shop, Sweet Heather Anne on North Main — roles that “have equal importance.”
Sweet Heather Anne produces a wide variety of baked goods, from shortbread, to “cake in a jar.” However, the shop has become best known for its custom-designed cakes. No two cakes are exactly the same, because no two clients are exactly the same.
“We try to work with the client and get out what they like about certain cakes and then design something new for them,” Leavitt said.
These designer-client dialogues have produced an eclectic portfolio for Sweet Heather Anne. Cakes run the gamut from the classically beautiful floral cakes for weddings to a cake in the shapes of a steak and baked potato.
After seeing the cakes, it’s hard to not call them art, and whoever makes them an artist. But despite your opinion on whether cakery is a proper artistic medium, Leavitt is an artist in her own right, having received a degree from the Univerity’s School of Art and Design. Fittingly, her undergraduate work revolved mostly around sculpture — of a non-edible variety. But while studying abroad in Italy, the edible became her passion.
“It was the first time that I had thought as much about food and cooking, because it was just so pervasive in the culture,” Leavitt said.
Back in America, Leavitt combined her love of food and her sculpting skills into a senior thesis, for which she made edible monuments for the Ann Arbor food producers whom she sought out upon her return. After graduation, she worked in savory restaurants for several years, which, like art school, provided her with skills rather than recipes.
So, cake is just a new material for Leavitt, more delicious and marketable than wood or bronze.
Sweet Heather Anne has tried to make itself even more appealing, though, through its emphasis on local and seasonal products. Rather than use mass-produced ingredients, Leavitt has established relationships with local farmers and purveyors for many of the shop’s culinary staples.
“I love how I go every year to get a certain thing from a certain person; I think that’s really special,” Leavitt said.
For example, the pumpkin cakes and pies use fresh pumpkin from Tantré Farm, which is only 20 miles from Ann Arbor and is sold only in autumn.
“I think that a lot of people enjoy that kind of connection and understanding where it’s coming from,” Leavitt added.
Sweet Heather Anne is a business that is constantly evolving as the seasons come and go and as new customers arrive with new ideas for cakes. But this constant evolution raises an almost philosophical question: How does the designer of a work of art, like a cake, contend with the fact that no matter how beautiful and unique the piece is, it will eventually be cut and devoured?
“As an artist, I kind of like it,” Leavitt said. “I think that the eating part is actually part of the process for me. We make so much artwork, and I kind of love the fact that it’s not piled up in some garage. I like that we can do these special projects that have a special meaning for a special day.”