It was the summer breaks and early weekday recesses that led then high school math teacher Amy Noelle to sign up for cake decorating class, where she quickly discovered she had a knack for baking — and family and friends quickly took notice. “I have five nieces and nephews, and I started making their cakes — and people were impressed,” she says. That confidence boost quickly landed her in a sugar flower-making class, where she realized she had the interest and patience for crafting the time-consuming but highly rewarding gum paste cake adornments. “That was where everything really clicked for me,” she explains. In 2006 she opened Sugar Flower Cake Shop in the Hudson Valley, and this past Valentine’s Day marks her third year in business at her Chelsea location (336 W 37th St #950, 212-993-6441) — situated conveniently near the Chelsea Flower District. Here, Noelle discusses her rooftop honey icing, why she gets amped about creating Juliet roses, and the time she delved even deeper into the outdoors — i.e. the woods — for her one special creation.
Does a math background come in handy in the baking realm?
Absolutely. I have these excel spreadsheets that calculate the formulas for our recipes based on the pan size. So we can say, “OK it’s going to be a five-tier wedding cake,” and it will compute the numbers and say we need 100 grams of sugar, 100 grams of flour, and so on. It actually calculates the surface area of the cake, too, and tells us how many grams we need for the buttercream icing. I can’t stand waste, so this [system] helps — a ton.
How would you describe your style?
I would say that most of my clients come to me for something simple and elegant, and I like to describe my style as timeless. There can be a lot going on within a design, but if you take a step back and look at the overall picture, there is a level of simplicity to it that will stand the test of time.
How do you come up with a design with your clients?
Especially when we’re doing wedding cakes, we go through a design consultation. It’s during then that I sit down with my clients one-on-one for about an hour, and I ask them all sorts of questions. I ask them probably more questions not about cake than I do about cake — really just because I want to be inspired by who they are as a couple and to get a sense of their style. So I’ll ask about where they met, where they like to vacation together, where’s the spot that everybody knows their name. It gives me a sense of who they are, if they’re whimsical, formal, or over the top — those answers will guide me.
What happens once you have a sense of a couple?
Then, we look at inspiration. The wedding cake, besides the couple, is the most photographed element of the day, so we want it to be reflective of the couple. It’s also an opportunity to tie together the rest of the choices they’ve made, whether it’s the invitations or the dress or the flowers. Usually the cake is ordered closer to the wedding, so we aim to wrap together all of their inspiration into the thing that they’re first sharing with all of their guests.
Where do you find inspiration for your designs?
I’ve paid attention to flowers since 2002, when I took that sugar flower class. Every time I see a flower, I try to get up close to look at it or photograph it. I’m usually looking more at the construction of the flower than its beauty. I happen to live near the Chelsea Flower District, so I’m constantly walking up and down 28th street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues if I need inspiration or I need to see a flower to remind myself of what it actually looks like.
Any in particular that you love creating?
One of my favorite flowers is the anemone, so I really like making those. From a construction standpoint, I’m fascinated by ranunculus and also by Juliet roses — just because they each have a ton of petals, so they take a long time to make and we need to put them together layer by layer. It’s fascinating to watch this thing grow from one little petal to fifty petals for a Juliet rose.
What are your favorite ingredients to source locally?
Our most popular icing on our wedding cakes is our NYC honey icing, which comes from Andrew’s Honey at the Union Square Greenmarket. It’s really cool because Andrew keeps his bees on Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, and Queens rooftops, but he keeps everything separate by neighborhood. So we use a Chelsea highline honey just because that’s the closest to our shop, but if someone’s getting married in Central Park or the UES or UWS, Tribeca, SoHo, they can have specific honey based on their wedding neighborhood. It’s as hyperlocal as it gets.
The other things that we’re constantly getting from the market are berries, which we get from Franca Tantillo of Berried Treasures. She’s great because they call her the berry witch — she can grow strawberries through Thanksgiving. Nobody else knows how to do that. It’s great for us because the season is longer. What we do is we buy at the height of the season, then we’ll puree the fruit and freeze the puree so that it’ll be used throughout the year.
What tools do you depend on in your workshop?
My biggest friend is probably my bench scraper, which I use to get my cakes smooth. It’s a metal object that is thicker, longer, and taller than a spatula. From a sugar flower perspective, the biggest tool that I use is a ball tool. It creates a lot of ruffles and intricacy in the way the petals set and helps to make them appear more realistic.
Do any designs stand out as being particularly challenging?
One of my all-time favorite cakes is a cake we did for a wedding at the Central Park Zoo. A lot of challenges presented itself. I never got to meet the couple, but I was told that they were into the outdoors. That was my glimpse of inspiration. I decided to create a cake where each tier was on its own individual slice of a tree, they went in varying widths, from small at the top and large at the bottom, so it still had the wedding cake step tier look to it. My parents happened to be clearing their backyard, so I said to my dad, “If you see a tree about this big and this tall, etc.” He happened to have one and brought it to the workshop, where we cut it and drilled into it to create a structure on which these individual cakes could rest. By the time we were done, the entire thing was eight feet tall. Once we got it to the venue and were putting it together, this little bee kept flying around the flowers and trying to land on them! I took us tricking nature as a good sign.
What’s the best part — and the most challenging part — of your job?
I would say my favorite thing and the most challenging thing might be one and the same, which is the creativity. It’s constantly being creative and coming up with something. My goal in what I’m offering to something to my clients is this experience of creating something that they’ll remember and look back on. I want them to remember the first bite of their cake as much as their first kiss. Sometimes the challenge becomes when the creativity isn’t there — so I keep on top of trends and do things that inspire me and do whatever it is that I can constantly keep my mind active. I’ll walk the flower district, I’ll go to the Frick. I sketch during the time I sit down my clients, so I’m on the spot and have to come up with something in the moment. It’s a fun challenge.