Julie Deffense’s cakes will make you gasp. Multi-tiered, hand-painted and covered in sugar flowers that are so lifelike people debate whether they’re real or not, they’ve earned Deffense an international reputation as a master of her craft.
Until recently, Deffense was based in Portugal and Boston, but she’s expanding to Sarasota—and, this Friday, you can attend an intimate class at USF’s Culinary Innovation Lab in Lakewood Ranch, where she'll teach you some of her decorating techniques.
Here, Deffense shares how she went from magazine owner to cake decorator, her favorite part of baking and why she loves Sarasota.
Have you always loved baking?
I always used to bake and cook with my mom and grandmother, and it was kind of a natural evolution to do it professionally, but it took me a number of years to realize that. I moved to Portugal in 1998 for a three-month paid [graphic] design internship, then met my husband after my first month there and decided to stay. I ended up buying a magazine, but the whole time I was making cakes for everyone I knew, and I always wanted to get to the next level and do a professional course.
Then I saw that the famous Wilton School was teaching a master [cake] course in Lisbon, and I thought, “This is a sign.” Everything snowballed from the second I walked into the class. When I finished, my husband said, “OK, we need to discuss things.”
So that class changed everything?
The first publication I owned was a commercial real estate magazine, which gave me insight into how [the publishing] world worked. Then I decided to sell that one and start one that was more creative, about interior design and renovation, and that was mine from the roots up.
After I took the Wilton course, I thought, what better way to advertise my cakes than to put an ad in my own magazine? So I did, and after the first issue I had more business for my cakes than ad revenue for the magazine. It was like [the universe said], “Do something with this now.” Within three months, I had put the magazine to the side and started baking full time.
What made you decide to expand your services to Sarasota?
My parents are moving here, and the first year that I came down to visit them, I fell in love with it. It’s similar to Portugal in a lot of ways. Professionally, I think I can fit in and add something new to the market. I know there are other people who make cakes here; we’re all artists, and everybody’s art is different. And everyone I’ve met has been so nice and welcoming.
How does your design background aid your cake business?
I look at the cake like a blank canvas, and then I start designing using the principles you learn in school—color theory, balance, texture, shape. I hand paint my cakes and make my own sugar flowers; sometimes, they cascade down the cake, which makes it looks like it has movement.
Your cakes are so unique and intricate. Walk us through your process.
No matter where I am, my initial contact with couples is almost always Skype or FaceTime,so I can see their faces and their emotions. I relate each cake to each couple and work with them to translate whatever vibe they’re on into cake. Sometimes we’ll hit it off so well that they’ll invite me to the wedding—I had one couple whose parents asked me to sit at their table!
What’s your favorite part of making wedding cakes?
The sugar flowers. Baking the cake is a long process; its scientific and you have to follow the rules. But sugar flowers are a really artistic piece of my business—they’re made petal by petal, and sometimes a petal takes a minute, sometimes it takes 10 minutes. I generally make them white and paint them. I finish my cakes on-site, and often there are people behind me discussing if the flowers are real or not.
You’ve written several cookbooks, too.
My first one is mainly desserts and the second one is party food. The third is about wedding cakes, and it’s my best calling card; my portfolio, my soul, my passion. Those three are in Portuguese, and I’m working on a fourth in English that’s also about wedding cakes, but also my life, my journey in Portugal, following your dreams and finding your passion.
What trends are you seeing right now?
Orders are getting bigger and bigger and taller and taller—I have a summer bride who wants a 19-tier cake. Last year, I had a lot of requests for “naked” cakes.
What advice would you give to young people who want to follow your career trajectory?
It’s always scary to make the leap. Invest in the fundamental techniques so you have a good understanding of the basics. Then invest in a few really good courses, like the Wilton one, which helped me decide what direction I wanted to go—for me it was sugar flowers; for someone else, it might be modeling. Get a general appreciation of everything, choose a specialty, focus on it, and have a lot of patience.
What can attendees expect from your class at the USF Culinary Innovation Lab this week?
It’s for any level baker. Everybody’s going to get a small cake and learn to make a basket-weave pattern and sugar flowers. They’ll go home with their own cake and a little goodie bag. I’m thrilled to have the chance to teach the class.