Real Life: The cult of the cake: To devotees, they are sculptures and icing them is an artform. Hester Lacey discovers 'sugarcraft'

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JANE Asher was sipping an elegant cappuccino in her smart Kensington cake emporium and tea-room. Here, customers can sample the fruit cake while pondering the Asher portfolio of 1,000 designs. 'Somebody once said that a Jane Asher cake is like a Tiffany diamond,' she said. 'I thought that was rather nice.'

This year's favourite Christmas shapes are a spherical fruit-cake Christmas pudding at pounds 35 and a fruit-cake snowman for pounds 75. A sugar sack spilling over with presents is pounds 90. 'There's a lot of work in it,' explained Jane, who can be found in the shop every day. 'The cakes are priced on the time they take to make, and it takes four or five hours for the presents - very labour intensive. It's a very silly trade, we spend hours doing these things that are demolished in seconds.'

Other choices include a pounds 45 fat pink bottom garnished with frilly suspenders ('not to my taste') or a yacht draped with saucy naked ladies ('extremely popular' - naked men are also a possibility, at pounds 140) or a more sedate bridge table, complete with severed hands dealing the cards (pounds 125). Her cake-creating team will attempt any commission. 'We so far haven't had a challenge we can't meet,' she said proudly.

Jane Asher believes that cake decorating is an art form. 'Anything where you're conveying a symbol of something else is art.' She is not alone; the 17,000 members of the British Sugarcraft Guild (motto: My Craft is My Art) would all agree. Creating elaborate sugary sculptures has become an obsession with British cake- makers, as modern pliable icings and sophisticated gadgets for crimping, cutting, frilling and embossing have made almost anything possible. The Guild, founded in 1981, now has 294 branches; members are 'mainly amateurs - housewives, accountants, policemen,' according to National Secretary Janet McCreedy.

True aficionados will snap up books on any theme. Ann Baber's book Something Different features 'a range of sugarpaste tablecloths' while Saucy Cakes by Debbie Brown includes edible mud wrestlers and male strippers; top sugarcraft book publishers Merehurst of Putney have more than 50 titles in their current catalogue.

Jane Asher has produced six cake decorating books of her own. 'I keep thinking people must have had cakes up to here,' she admits cheerfully. If you prefer to attempt your own Christmas cake, there is no need to spend hours sweating stickily in the kitchen, says Jane. 'Just roll out a bit of coloured icing, cut out a few patterns and stick them on. Bright red stars on a bright green cake could be quite interesting.'

She warns that over-ambitious constructions can end in disaster. Stand-up Christmas trees are best left to the professionals. 'It can look a bit sloppy if one side collapses. We're now very experienced here at doing big monolithic numbers, but it can be a bit daunting to do at home.'

The ladies at the Lewisham Community Education Beginners Class would probably not be daunted at all. They have spent 10 weeks working on their traditional royal-iced Christmas cakes. 'It's all very simple,' according to Diane Ennals, the instructor. 'We cover shell edgings, over-piping, templates, writing, making runouts and modelling candles. Getting a good coat of royal icing is one of the most difficult things - we spent three whole weeks on that.'

For some, one class a week was simply not enough. Joyce and Pauline went to the Advanced Workshop in the morning, and filled in the afternoons at Beginners. Don't they feel upset when their creations are hacked up and devoured? 'That's why we take photos,' said Pauline, whisking out a handful of snaps of Christmas cakes of yesteryear. Eleanor was busily modelling delicate sugar flowers. 'Those Christmas roses are really taking on character now]' exclaimed Diane enthusiastically.

There was an air of rapt concentration as Diane demonstrated how to assemble a miniature sleigh made of rolled-out sugarpaste. 'Use the number 44 tube, then finish off with a number one size dot. It's a bit fiddly.' She wrote Toys in red on the side of the sleigh. 'Even pressure is the secret, no air bubbles, not too much icing in the bag, and having the confidence to go for it,' she explained.

Diane recommends using a set of icing crimpers for last-minute decorating, to make holly leaf shapes and pretty edgings. 'You could easily do it in an afternoon - and even if you're not very proficient with a tube you can do dots for the holly berries.'

The Lewisham City and Guilds Certificate group, equipped with dividers, steel rulers and tracing paper plans, were geared up for serious construction work. Jenny was sealing a large square cake with apricot jam. 'It's going to be Father Christmas coming down the chimney into the fireplace.' Not just any old fireplace, though. 'I'm doing an Adams style, I have to get the proportions just right.'

Emma was putting the finishing touches to a stand-out royal icing collar for her cake. 'I've chosen a picture from a Christmas card to paint on the top. It's got a church and steeple, little cottages and trees, and four robins - you need a steady hand for the detail.'

Instructor Julie Suter, an icing teacher for 21 years, believes that traditional cake skills should be preserved at all costs. 'We must keep royal icing. It's our heritage,' she says seriously. Last-minute tips are not forthcoming, though. 'It takes a lot of planning and forethought to do what we do here. The longest time I ever spent on a cake was 70 hours.'

Those who regard their efforts as not simply slabs of fruit cake with sugar on top, but original works of art will read the new magazine Sugarcraft with interest. Editor Gary Chapman graduated to sugar via plasticine, pottery and modelling. 'It was like I'd been looking for it all my life, a medium I could really work with; it opened up an Aladdin's cave of possibilities.' He is keen to emphasise the aesthetic merits of cake icing. 'Sugarcraft is an art form using sugar as an artistic medium,' he says. Gary's particular speciality is fabric and drape effects in sugar.

Sugarcraft is currently only available on subscription and through cake decorating shops, but Gary expects to hit the news-stands soon. Columns include Cake Chat, Focus On A Cake Shop, and a cake problem page. There is a free sachet of Edible Glitter Flakes with Issue 1 to make your snow scenes sparkle.

Sugarcraft's second issue will address the iced cake as sociological indicator, in a feature entitled the 'Swinging Cakes of the 60s'. 'Were cakes swinging in the Sixties? Probably not,' says Gary. 'While art and fashion were very artistic at that time it didn't really translate into cakes. But there was a change from plain white icing to colour. I've hypothesised that it was because society itself changed and moved on. People started to experiment with cakes as an art form rather than just a functional thing to eat.'

He recommends a 'quick and simple' design for last-minuters that features in Iced and Easy, yet another forthcoming icing magazine. 'Put sugarpaste holly leaves, poinsettias, nuts and berries round the cake and put a candle in the middle.' But he won't be rustling one up for himself. 'I haven't got time this year.'

(Photographs omitted)

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