A cake is a symbol of celebration often found at the center of special events such as birthday parties, weddings, and important milestones; and having one to mark the occasion has become tradition for many. For Heather Leavitt, owner and cake designer of Sweet Heather Anne in Ann Arbor, Michigan, designing custom cakes for clients is not only a tradition, but also a career she is passionate about.
Established in 2010, Sweet Heather Anne, a boutique cake studio, offers online ordering for signature cakes and desserts, a temporary in-shop dessert counter for holidays and special occasions, by-appointment tastings in shop, and custom cakes made specific to a client’s needs.
Leavitt, who began her career studying art at the University of Michigan, became interested in food culture during her time studying abroad in Italy her junior year. When she came back to Ann Arbor, she found cake was an excellent medium to combine her passion for food and art.
“I found using cake as a medium for my sculptures was really fun for me, because I could do painting and sculpting all within this edible piece, and I also enjoyed that it was kind of ephemeral. I would work on something, and it would have a purpose for basically being part of a celebration, and then it would be gone. It’s not like I have a warehouse full of sculptures, but its more they each have a purpose for this one day,” Leavitt said.
“I’m realizing as I get older, I just like things to be special. It’s not like you have a cake at every celebration, or every meal—it adds an air of importance to the day,” Leavitt added.
With experiences working with another cake decorator, who ran her business with a heavy focus on design, and working under a chef who passed on knowledge of developing recipes and working with local food, Leavitt opened Sweet Heather with the goal of combining her training from both mentors.
“I wanted to have my business care equally about both things; where it would be working with local farmers and local ingredients, or if I couldn’t then very high quality [ingredients], and then also having a very high attention to detail when it comes to design,” Leavitt said. “I didn’t see that in this area, and I thought ‘I could do that.’”
The process of designing a cake, from meeting with a client to revealing the finished product, is an inspired journey of pressing the boundaries of the edible medium for Leavitt and her team, which includes fellow Cake Designer Katie Robinson. Intricate cake designs and techniques have originated from the bakery, such as Robinson’s idea to create edible sequins from gelatin and wafer paper shaped with a hold punch to create a decoration much lighter and airier than other edible sequins available for purchase.
“I think at this point it’s actually easier for me to do the edible work than it would be to paint on a canvas,” Leavitt said. “We are always creating new types of edible things. That’s actually part of the fun for us; sort of pioneering new ideas within the medium.”
Leavitt also describes pulling inspiration for a design for specific clients’ cakes with fondness, mentioning a cake inspired by a timeless gold dress worn by Audrey Hepburn as one of her favorite projects. The cake was crafted in two tiers, with a bow colored in deep greens, hints of orange, and golden flowers wrapped around the base.
“It came out that this person who was turning 60-years-old, really loved Audrey Hepburn. I can definitely work with Audrey Hepburn, she’s very iconic and that’s a very specific style I would say,” Leavitt said.
“What I did was look up gold Audrey Hepburn dresses, because I could incorporate the gold, and a dress is really great inspiration for cake design. I found this one that had this cool gold brocade pattern on it, and a huge bow, so I took inspiration from that and simplified it a bit. I figured out a way to make it read very similarly without being quite as complicated,” Leavitt added.
Leavitt also cited an Ethiopian, basket-weaving-inspired cake as another distinctive project. Designed by Robinson for a couple who wanted to display their heritage in their wedding, the cake was hand-piped with royal icing in a zig-zag pattern to create the look of a traditional woven basket.
“It took us over 40 hours—we didn’t expect that—but it was displayed at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and it was just a really special cake for us,” Leavitt said. “It was another one where we took their color scheme and color references from other areas and then incorporated that into a very traditional design.”
Aside from the custom cake work, the bakery also offers workshops for the public to come in and learn new techniques. Among their most popular workshops is their holiday cookie decorating workshop, which allows for people from the community to come in and work on cookies together, some of whom return annually. The shop also offers private workshops, which are often one or two clients, and are specialized to the clients’ skill level and what they’re interested in learning, usually jumping more into cake design than the public workshops do.
“We have tons and tons of questions all the time about how we do certain techniques; we thought it was a good time to bring this knowledge online from us. It’s been more and more popular lately with other cake artists,” Leavitt said. “We’ve received tutorials from other people, and I feel like it’s been really great, because it just expands your arsenal.”
Sweet Heather Anne is also working toward the unveiling of online video tutorials, with hopes of a March 2020 or April of 2020 release date.
“With cake decorating, it’s not like there is really even a school where you can go and learn most of the stuff,” Leavitt said. “You can go to culinary school and get some basic knowledge, but it’s really cool to be able to get into someone’s head, because a lot of stuff is developed over time with trial-and-error. You can see someone else’s process in that way.”
Whether it’s through teaching workshops or bringing dream designs to life in edible format, Leavitt loves that cake design is an outlet for creativity, and that Sweet Heather Anne has allowed her to do it in a way that pushes experimentation and design.
“Even if we’re designing a kid’s character cake, we’re going to pay attention to the balance and how the colors are on the cake, and honestly it’s why I started this business,” Leavitt said. “It brings me so much joy to create these beautiful pieces that celebrate people’s special moments. Having strong designs to move that work forward is basically why I do this. That’s why I keep coming to work every day.”
Text: Brenna Buckwald
Photography: Sweet Heather Anne