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Karen Tyler refers to herself as a sugar artist who creates edible artwork. Her business, Cove Cakes, is based out of her home of 33 years in Lyme and is where she works her magic, whipping up intricate custom cakes that look too good to eat but taste too good not to devour.
Tyler says she has always loved cooking, but she turned to baking much later in her life.
Six years ago she got her two-year culinary school degree and went to work as a cook at The River Tavern in Chester. She loved the job but says her family didn't love the hours and so she quit but wondered what she would do with her culinary degree.
"One thing I couldn't connect with was cakes," Tyler says. "The originality and creativity (it required) hit me like a brick wall. I saw it as a challenge. I wanted to learn how to do it."
So she took classes with custom cake designers, trained under celebrated chef Lori Blethen, did a lot of research, and supplemented her education with a little help from the Internet. One of her favorite websites is craftsy.com.
"You go to the cake designing (tab) and there are videos of great cake artists. You buy a lesson and it goes into your library," Tyler explains.
Tyler purchased the requisite specialized cake decorating equipment, designated half of her kitchen to her new enterprise, and went into business making cakes for weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, graduations - any and all special occasions. She has been making her unique confections for five years now and says a lot of what she does comes from trial and error.
"Art is knowing which mistakes to save and which are really mistakes," she says. "It's art. The medium happens to be food. I go in spurts. I'll have a hard time sitting down, coming up with ideas, and then I'll be driving and ideas come to me. I always keep a pad in my car and write it down."
Tyler's cakes are made completely from scratch using only organic ingredients. The decorations are colored with edible dusting powders that are all FDA approved. She says she only uses "impeccable" ingredients. For example, she uses organic vanilla beans from the Boston Vanilla Bean Company.
"You would not believe how much better their vanilla extract is than even high-end vanilla extract like Massey," she says. "I put vanilla in everything. For me, vanilla is to the sweet world as salt is to the savory world.
Every cake is one of a kind, and she works entirely on her own.
"I never duplicate a cake and I won't copy someone else's," Tyler insists.
But Tyler's flowers are her piece de resistance, crafted with homemade fondant with marzipan that she gets from Italy - the only source of organic marzipan, she says. With this "sugar play dough," as Tyler describes it, she creates decorative flowers, berries, leaves and more.
She rolls the fondant out so thin you can almost see through it.
"That's where the individuality comes in," she says. "A lot of sugar artists' work is clunky and heavy. The real technique is to get it fine and thin."
Once she's shaped a calla lily, for example, she uses a veiner tool to make delicate veins in the leaves and paints the pistil with edible glue dipped in yellow sugar to make it look like pollen.
Tyler's cakes are so time-consuming that she says she doesn't do a lot of them and averages about two a month.
"They're all done by hand. It's unusual how much effort I put in. When I meet with clients they often say they want simple and elegant. I tell them, 'You won't get simple with me, but you will get elegant.'"
She is already working on the non-perishable elements of a cake for a July wedding that will be four-and-a-half feet tall when completed.
Tyler points out that she doesn't do sculpted cakes although she does theme cakes. In the past, she's made a theme cake in the genre of James Bond, sitting on a roulette wheel complete with dice, poker chips, and slow burning cigarettes; a leopard patterned cake trimmed with sequins and accented with Black-eyed Susans for a girl who loves leopards; and for a 90-year-old woman, who was very involved in the New Britain Museum of American Art and loved owls and yellow finches, she created a sheet cake with a gilded frame and bas relief work of an owl on a branch and a yellow finch, creating a three-dimensional feeling.
"I put my heart and soul into each cake," Tyler says. "I put as much detail into a $250 cake as a $4,000 cake. It's just smaller."
For more information and pictures of Tyler's custom cakes, visit www.covecakes.com.