At 86, NY’s Queen of Cakes still sits sweetly on her throne
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At 86, NY’s Queen of Cakes still sits sweetly on her throne

Far from retiring, legendary baker to the stars Sylvia Weinstock is poised to expand her booming bespoke cake business

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Celebrity cake maker Sylvia Weinstock in her New York office. (Carol Chan)
Celebrity cake maker Sylvia Weinstock in her New York office. (Carol Chan)

There isn’t much Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton agree on, but one thing they have in common is their taste in cakes. The presidential hopefuls from opposing parties are both clients of Sylvia Weinstock, arguably the best and most sought-after cake-maker for weddings and other celebrations in the United States.

Back in 1949, Weinstock couldn’t afford a cake at her own small Jewish wedding. Sixty-seven years later, the now 86-year-old self-taught baker is known among the rich and famous as The Queen of Cakes. Wealthy clients — many of them celebrities and royals — shell out considerable sums for her elaborately decorated and delicious confections.

She doesn’t like to name names, but one need only flip through wedding and lifestyle magazines to see who’s slicing into one of her exquisite cakes. Weinstock also has a wall of fame at her Tribeca, New York atelier that shows off her better-known clients. Aside from the Donald and HRC, they include Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Martha Stewart, Ralph Lauren, and various members of the Kennedy clan, among many others.

Although plenty of Weinstock’s clients — celebrity and plebian — live in New York, many do not. Distance is not a deterrent for the baker, who has figured out how to ship her cakes anywhere in the world (but has yet to send one to Israel). They key is to engineer the tiers so that they can be safely boxed up separately and later assembled into a single cake upon arrival at their final destination. She once made a cake to feed 3,000 for the Saudi royal family, which was flown over on the Saudi royal airline.

Sylvia Weinstock personally oversees the assembling of her cakes. (Courtesy)
Sylvia Weinstock personally oversees the assembling of her cakes. (Courtesy)

Weinstock generally declines to share the range of what she charges for her creations, saying that the price for each custom cake varies by design and size. She has made miniature cakes for one, the gigantic cake for the Saudi royal family, and every size in between.

“It is the labor intensity of the customer’s design which will determine the cost,” Weinstock told The Times of Israel.

To be sure it’s the huge amount of work that goes into Weinstock’s cakes that make them so famous and so costly. Called the Leonardo da Vinci of cake makers, Weinstock specializes in decorating multi-tiered cakes with lifelike flowers made of sugar. It’s not unusual for the diminutive baker to whip up a 6-foot-tall butter cream-frosted cake structure covered in hundreds, if not thousands of these edible blooms.

Weinstock can make any kind of flower out of a sugar dough made from a proprietary recipe. The dough is malleable when worked with, but dries hard and can keep forever. To give a sense of how time consuming this craft is, Weinstock noted that it takes one of her workers a full 40-hour work week to make 100 roses.

Miniature cakes by Sylvia Weinstock, who specializes in making lifelike sugar flowers. (Courtesy)
Miniature cakes by Sylvia Weinstock, who specializes in making lifelike sugar flowers. (Courtesy)

 

Those who can’t afford actual Sylvia Weinstock cakes can enjoy looking at photos of them and reading about how they are made in her two books, “Sylvia Weinstock’s Sensational Cakes” and “Sweet Celebrations: The Art of Decorating Beautiful Cakes.”

The perfectionist Weinstock takes no shortcuts when it comes to her artistry. The same holds true for the quality and taste of her cakes, with their rich fillings and buttercream frostings. In fact, it was Weinstock’s insistence that a wedding cake must taste as wonderful as it looks that compelled her to start her own cake baking business.

A school teacher and mother of three daughters, Weinstock had originally baked only for her family and friends. She baked at her family’s home in Massapequa, Long Island, and especially at their country home in Hunter, New York. When everyone else went out skiing, she would stay inside cooking, baking and entertaining.

She and her attorney husband Ben were from culturally Jewish families, but she didn’t pick up any culinary skills while growing up.

Sylvia Weinstock has created miniature cakes resembling Faberge eggs. (Courtesy)
Sylvia Weinstock has created miniature cakes resembling Faberge eggs. (Courtesy)

“I had no grandparents, and my mother was a terrible cook. I’m sure that was my inspiration to learn. Sorry, but I have no recipes to share from three generations ago,” she said.

“Family at the table, enjoying good food, has been, and still is, very important to me, so I made sure I had the skills to do it,” she added.

When Weinstock met famous French-American chef André Soltner by chance, he suggested she apprentice to retired pastry chef George Keller, who operated a guesthouse at Hunter Mountain. She did so, and before long, she was baking more desserts than her family could consume. Consequently, she began selling them to local restaurants.

Around the time that Weinstock’s daughters were in college, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She and Ben decided that since their girls were already out of their suburban house, they would sell it and move into Manhattan to be close to the hospital where Weinstock would undergo surgery and chemotherapy.

Throughout her illness and recovery, Weinstock continued to bake as a form of relaxation and mental therapy. It was in this period that she learned how to craft those exquisite lifelike flowers from sugar.

Already in her 50s and without formal culinary or pastry training, Weinstock decided to open her own cake baking and decorating company, Sylvia Weinstock Cakes. Her husband sold his law practice and threw his support behind her burgeoning business. They delivered cakes together by truck, and they decided that Weinstock’s signature oversize round black glasses would become the company logo.

Ben and Sylvia Weinstock in the early days of Sylvia Weinstock Cakes. (Courtesy)
Ben and Sylvia Weinstock in the early days of Sylvia Weinstock Cakes. (Courtesy)

On occasion, Weinstock is mistaken for nonagenarian fashion icon Iris Apfel, who is also seen around New York (as well as in the 2014 documentary film “Iris” by the late Albert Maysles) wearing large owl-like spectacles.

“People have confused me with her, but I’m younger!” the baker, famous in her own right, joked.

There has not been enough of a demand for kosher cakes among Weinstock’s clients for her to seek kosher certification for her business. She has, however, made cakes with kosher ingredients and under kosher supervision when asked to do so.

‘I have a business to run. It is easy to get up and go to work… I never see myself retiring’

While kosher requests are not many, Weinstock does make many cakes for bar and bat mitzvah celebrations. Custom designs requested by clients often include Stars of David and the map of Israel. She’s made a cake resembling the Western Wall, and also one that looked like Masada, replete with an edible replica of the salty Dead Sea at its base.

So after some 35 years of getting up every day to bake one-of-a-kind cakes, is the 86-year-old Weinstock finally ready to hang up her apron?

Not a chance.

The opposite, in fact. In addition to what she’s been doing all along, Weinstock is now working with partners to expand her business by experimenting with a retail line that would bring her brand to other countries.

“I have a business to run. It is easy to get up and go to work when you know you have 17 employees and their families who depend on you, and clients who want what we create. I never see myself retiring,” she said.

Watch a 2011 video in which Sylvia Weinstock gives a tour of her business and comments on the cake for the then-upcoming wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge:

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