We’ve all been there, standing over the cake watching the icing melt, crestfallen that you didn’t wait that extra ten minutes. Cake decorating is an art, but there is one lady who takes this one step further – make way for Lily Vanilli. A self taught baker, Vanilli found fame with her breathtaking sculptural designs. From the slightly weird (you too could have a realistic looking heart as your wedding cake) to the wonderful (think beautiful fresh flowers and endless tiers), she has made it all. With a celebrity following, Vanilli has baked cakes for Elton John’s White Tie and Tiara Ball, Lulu Guinness and everyone from Vogue to Hello Kitty. Opening her first shop off London Columbia Road in 2011 and publishing her book ‘Sweet Tooth’ in 2012, it’s safe to say she has made it. With her short films and Instagram account documenting each creation (if you haven’t followed this you need to), this modern day Mary Berry has a story worth sharing.
Have you always been interested in baking?
I loved baking as a child and came back to it as a hobby in my twenties. I started out selling a few cakes here and there to make ends meet and it grew very quickly (although unexpectedly) into a business.
Did you receive any formal qualifications or training?
No, always self taught – I learned mostly from books, practice and youtube.
Where do you find the inspiration from for your amazing designs?
Everywhere! From old recipe books, paintings and sculpture to very twee traditional British baking and in unexpected places like the insect archive at the National History Museum.
How hard is it to turn a drawing into a 3D decoration on a cake?
It is often a case of taking elements and re-interpreting them in cake form. I’m really not a fan of working with fondant and sugarpaste, so rather than recreating an exact image, I’ll take elements of the colours, shapes and patterns and create them in chocolate or using nuts, fruit and flowers. I like to use things that taste good as well as look good.
When it comes to cake decorating, what is the hardest part?
It depends on where your skills lie. I love baking and the decorating, but at first I struggled with building armatures and internal supports for the more ambitious sculptures. To overcome this I partnered with an architect on those builds and was able to achieve some much more ambitious sculptures, such as cakes with kinetic moving parts and a replica of one of Zaha Hadid’s buildings in gingerbread. Figure out what you excel at and get help where you need it – the sum is greater than the parts when you do.
I’ve read that you never make the same cake twice – why is this?
Whenever we get an order we create something bespoke – even if it is just tweaking a design to suit someone, I like to make it unique to the customer each time. My theory is that if you’re going to have something so decadent and indulgent as cake, it should be exactly how you like it. We work with the customer from the flavour up to the finishing touches even on our smaller orders – it keeps it interesting for us too.
A wedding cake is very personal, how do you make sure your client loves what you create?
Like I said, by working with the couple on all the details to make sure it’s something they love. Having said that, there is often an element of trust which is great too – people have seen a lot of the cakes we have made and know they will get something unique, made to a high standard. They give us their wish list, flavours, colour scheme, perhaps a mood board and the scale, and we go away and create something for them.
What inspired you to write your recipes down in a book?
I was approached to put one together and then I started collating the recipes of mine that I thought would fit nicely together into the structure of this particular book. ‘Sweet Tooth’ aims to arm the reader with knowledge of the basic building blocks of baking and encourages them to experiment and create their own bakes to suit them. It’s really nice when I can’t recall where I wrote down a particular recipe, and then I remember it’s very nicely printed and bound in a pretty book on my shelf. I still use my book all the time in my own bakery and when I’m working on something new.
What is your advice for someone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
Keep baking; get as good as you can before you start selling and keep aiming higher afterwards. Develop your own skill set into something that offers a unique edge in the market.
What’s next for you and your company?
I’m working on some edible flower gardening projects at the moment – watch this space!
Finally, which of your cakes are you most proud of and why?
I like my Victoria sponge the most I think – it’s so light and melts in the mouth and despite being the simplest, it’s the recipe I spent the most time on. It’s also a version of the first cake I ever baked – as a child with my grandmother.
If (like me) you are itching to roll up your sleeves and get back into the kitchen, why not learn how to ice, pipe and mould like a pro with a cake decorating course? You might not leave ready to open your own bakery, but will easily be the most popular one in the office as you practise. Happy baking!