Volume I, Issue 1 (Fall, 1998)
Food Files
GASTRONOMA

DON'T CALL HER THE CAKE LADY

by Carolyn Faye Fox

And don’t call her a cake “decorator,” either.

Ursula Argyropoulos is, first and foremost, a pastry chef with impeccable credentials: extensive European training in traditional pastry techniques, experience as a hotel pastry chef, and over ten years as a popular Chef Instructor at Newbury College in Brookline, MA, which earned her a “Best Educator” award last year from Les Dames d’Escoffier in Boston.

Yet the initial appeal of her work is its extraordinary surface appearance. Ursula’s cakes are quite literally works of art: draped in satiny fondant, then graced with a cascade of trompe l’oeil flowers – roses, iris, poppies – whose petals are as finely textured as bone china, whose coloring is as vivid as their botanical counterparts, yet whose fragrance is a barely perceptible whiff of sugar, like the subliminal memory of a sweet dream.
For these are flowers made of gum paste, exquisite handmade recreations of pansies, tulips, lilies, and orchids, caught at the peak of their beauty and adding a breathtaking final touch to Ursula’s cakes. The cakes themselves are superb, a richly flavorful marriage of classical European techniques, fine ingredients, and sophisticated combinations of taste and texture.

Not surprisingly, most of Ursula’s work is wedding-related. The wedding cake business, she says, is just starting to catch up to the increasing culinary sophistication of the local dining scene.

Reflecting a demographic of older, more worldly brides, these brides-to-be come to her “Art of the Cake” Boston studio with an “awareness that there’s more to life than white cake, yellow cake, and chocolate cake,” she says.

Although Ursula will “do whatever somebody wants,” she will often provide gentle guidance to clients who are overwhelmed by her flavor list: thirteen cake flavors, thirteen fillings, four cake coverings (fondant, marzipan, and white or dark chocolate plastique), twelve buttercreams and twenty-one “other flavor choices,” several available in mousse form.

For those whose eyes glaze over as they browse through options such as pistachio white chocolate cake, black currant mousse, mascarpone Bavarian filling, and walnut buttercream, a page of “recommended combinations” divided under “the nuts” and “the fruits” can have a calming effect.

Of course, it’s the flowers that get noticed first. Not only are they astonishingly lifelike – people refuse to believe that the poppies, for instance, aren’t “real” until they touch them – but they’re made from gum paste, an amalgam that incorporates gelatin and sugar. Most people are more familiar with royal icing, which is made of sugar and egg whites, and is the usual medium for “cake decoration.”

Most people, however, are not Ursula. Once she started working with gum paste, it changed her life… at least, her professional life.

“I knew I’d be teaching it (gum paste) at Newbury,” she says, “so I thought I’d work on it, and as I started, it was like … yes! This is it! This is what I want to do for the rest of my life!”