You know the expression “making sheep’s’ eyes”? Watching Sally Laker make sheep’s eyes is a real education. Two tiny pieces of sugar paste rolled between her fingertips, a quick press and hey presto – the perfect sheepish look!
She makes it look so easy, working away on a bespoke scene of Pork Belly and I having a picnic with the afore-mentioned sheep looking mournfully on, but it’s that attention to detail that makes her cakes stand out from the crowd.
“I once did a five tier wedding cake, each tier with hundreds of silver balls on it. It took five hours per tier and I was exhausted, but it looked lovely.”
Self-taught and modest about her skills, Sally never writes down her designs. “They’re all in my head. Sometimes I just wake up with an idea and work on it until I get it just right. It’s the little touches that I love to work on – some people make their designs more simply and they will look very effective, but I often get carried away with all the different little bits and pieces.”
Sally’s work attracted our attention on Twitter with her big, bold and often quirky cakes. We wanted to meet her and find out more about how she came to be creating monsters, mayhem and Muppets as well as the more traditional wedding and birthday cakes.
“It all started when I made a novelty cake for my eldest son’s first birthday and everyone thought it was great so I began to make them for friends and neighbours, just as a hobby. I never really thought about doing it for a living, but when my second child was born deaf and I needed to be home-based I had to give up my other work and thought I’d give this a try.”
“I really like to give my cakes the personal touch, and that’s where the figures come in. Sometimes people come to me with very clear ideas about what they want, other times they give me an idea of what the person is like, their job, how they look, the sort of things they enjoy – and then leave it up to me.”
It’s that approach that has led to such a wide variety – a retirement cake for a nurse, complete with giant syringe; a yacht, a swimming pool and (my personal favourite) Animal from the Muppets seated at his famous drum-kit.
Sally is completely self-taught and says she was never any good at art, yet she finds the whole process therapeutic. While we talk she is constantly flicking her eyes towards Pork Belly and I, taking in the tiniest details, the colour of our eyes, hair, the patterns on our clothes and under her clever fingers two perfect little caricatures of us quickly take shape.
“I love to make characters and the more unusual the better. I get a lot of requests for film favourites such as Despicable Me, Frozen and so on. They are really fun to make, but it’s even better when I am asked for something really complicated and I have to go away and look it up and find out how to do it. Structures like ships and action scenes are tricky but where there’s a will, there’s always something you can do.”
“The hardest thing is to make sure at the end it is portable. I once created a massive cruise ship which was very heavy and had to be transported in one piece. When arrived I found out the party was upstairs in a pub with a narrow wooden staircase and low beams. My cakes are very precious to me – like gold dust – and I can’t bear to let anyone else carry them, but this was so big and heavy I had to hand it over to my husband and I went ahead calling out “make way for the cake!'”
Handbags and shoes are popular choices too. “I get a lot of men saying their wife or girlfriend wants a Gucci bag or Jimmy Choos which they can’t afford, so will I make one out of icing instead!”
Sally uses a simple sponge or fruit cake as the base and that leaves plenty of scope for the sugar-paste work. Armed with an amazing array of tools and colours she deftly works the paste into shapes and builds up the structures as we watch.
A garlic press makes strands of hair, she gives Pork Belly muscles and she spends more time brushing blusher on my figure’s cheeks than I do in front of the mirror each morning!
And she’s made some very strange cakes.
“A guy approached me with an incredibly detailed description of what he wanted. It was a scene with zombie Muppets being attacked by storm troopers while Miss Piggy lay disembowelled on Aslan’s table, from the Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, which was standing on the grassy knoll. ”
That’s a far cry from the usual wedding cakes, but the twinkle in Sally’s eye as she describes the gory scene makes me think she gets a buzz out of the weirder ones.
Now her hobby is a full-time career with famous customers who have put her creations on the front cover of Hello Magazine.
“I made a 50th birthday cake for Masterchef star Gregg Wallace, showing him sitting alongside three of his historical heroes. He absolutely loved it and I was thrilled when he asked me to make his wedding cake.”
“I had to keep it a secret as they had an exclusive deal with Hello and it was all very hush-hush. I was very nervous making it as it was so high profile. I took my mother-in-law Irene with me to help set up the cake at Hever Castle. Once we were there everyone was so nice and helpful and Gregg came and chatted away to us while I put the cake together.”
“He said that I was the best cake maker ever. I wish I’d got that in writing!”
Sally credits her family as the reason she started the business but it’s her own creativity that provides the driving force and some of her cakes, like her designer handbag that you can actually hang over your arm, are so lifelike you find yourself doing a double take.
“Birthdays and weddings are great but I also love doing cakes for unusual occasions. Local author Julie Wassmer is the creator of the Whitstable Pearl Mysteries and I’ve made cakes for two of her book launches. with a seaside theme.”
She’s immortalised the owner of the Whitstable Produce Store in cake form and some of her recent edible scenes include a Walking Dead cake and a surgeon in theatre blues ready to saw up a body.
It’s not that she’s averse to the more traditional pretty flowers and silver beads, it’s just that hobbies, jobs and TV icons are more likely to catch her sharp eye and even sharper decorating tools.
“What I really love is when someone comes to pick up their cake and they are genuinely overjoyed when they see it. I love that feeling. Some people don’t even eat the cake. That used to offend me a bit, but now I see it as flattering. The only thing I can’t bear is when they want to put candles on them. Yes, I know candles are fun but please, if you are going to do it just don’t tell me about it!”
If you can’t find at least one cake in her repertoire that tickles your fancy, I’ll eat my hat – which Sally could no doubt arrange!
Additional photographs © Sally4Cakes
Update on Sally Laker
Unfortunately Sally no longer runs her cake decorating business but we have left this post as a tribute to her creativity.