To a certain set of white-gowned brides, the fairy-tale wedding wasn’t complete without a Vera Wang dress, an elegant venue like the Carlyle hotel in Manhattan and an eye-catching cake by Sylvia Weinstock, whose ornate, multitiered confections led Bon Appétit magazine to call her “the Leonardo da Vinci of wedding cakes.”
Weinstock, a former Long Island schoolteacher who became a full-time baker after surviving breast cancer at age 50, was a cake baker to the stars, known for making custom cakes that were as good to eat as they were to look at. She specialized in decorating her cakes with botanically correct sugar flowers – roses, violets, calla lilies and poppies, each petal made by hand – but was also a master at trompe l’oeil design, making cakes that looked just like cars, ties, deer, snakeskin shoes, a crate of wine and a box of cigars.
Her buttercream creations were served to Kennedys, Rockefellers, Clintons and “anybody who walks in the door and wants something special,” as she put it. For designer Steve Madden, she made a box-shaped cake containing what appeared to be a pair of shoes; for the Russian Embassy in Washington, she crafted miniature cakes shaped like jeweled Fabergé eggs. “I designed Freud’s couch in Vienna,” she once said, “as a wedding cake for two shrinks that were getting married.”
Weinstock was 91 when she died Nov. 22 at her home in Manhattan. Her family announced the death in a statement shared by her longtime friend and business partner, Nanci Weaver, but did not cite a cause.
With her short silver hair, oversized round glasses and wry sense of humor, Weinstock was a cheery force in the world of luxury weddings and events. She found a wider audience in recent years while appearing as a guest judge on baking shows, offering gentle encouragement to contestants on the Food Network’s “Chopped Sweets” and Netflix’s “Nailed It!”
“We all idolized her. She could have been a Borscht Belt comedian,” said event planner Marcy Blum, a frequent collaborator. In a phone interview, she recalled that Weinstock would charm and question brides while discussing cakes at her shop in Manhattan: “So what does your fiance do? Does he make any money? Can you live like that? Do you like his mother?”
“It was like getting a little bit of Coco Chanel when you bought a Chanel suit,” Blum said. “It was part of the experience. People would try to bargain with her” – her cakes started at around $15 a slice – “and she’d go, ‘Listen: Do you walk into Chanel and tell them you can get a Chanel cheaper? It’s a Chanel, that’s the way it is.’ “
Weinstock baked for celebrities including Mariah Carey, Michael Douglas, LeBron James, Billy Joel, Ralph Lauren, Jennifer Lopez, Eddie Murphy, Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey, sometimes traveling as far as Kuwait or Japan to deliver her creations. The cakes flew in cargo and were assembled on arrival, with thousands of sugar flowers added by hand.
While many bakers use fondant, a stiff icing with a consistency like Play-Doh, Weinstock refused to touch it, saying that fondant was “cheap and easy” and practically inedible. Instead she worked only with buttercream, using egg whites, sugar and butter to craft cakes that were remarkably lifelike. She made cakes shaped like Hermès handbags or tall white orchids, which were housed in “pots” frosted in brown buttercream. Others were more whimsical, designed to look like a pair of pugs dressed in suits or like a bull-riding cowboy clutching a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Her own tastes tended toward the fruity – she was partial to lemon curd and raspberries – and the botanical. Sugar flowers had helped launch her business in the 1980s, and she took special care to model her petals after the real thing. “Each time I make a new flower, I buy a real flower, take it apart, count the petals, and look at the shading and the coloring,” she told the New York Times. Even once she nailed the formula, the petal-making process was painstaking; as she told it, one of her assistants could “create 100 roses in a typical week,” making the petals using sugar, egg whites, gelatin, gum arabic and food coloring.
“This is an obsessive business because of the intensity and personal value that everyone places on their occasion,” she told Inc. magazine in 2004. “And I honor that. I fret. I worry. And unless I heard that the cake arrived happy, I’m checking that phone all the time.”
Sylvia Silver was born in the Bronx on Jan. 28, 1930. She grew up in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, where she lived above her parents’ shop, which sold liquor and later became a bakery.
At age 19, while studying psychology at Hunter College in New York City, she married Benjamin Weinstock. Unable to afford a lavish wedding reception, they served “a little honey cake and a glass of wine,” then settled in the Long Island community of Massapequa. Weinstock, who received a bachelor’s degree in 1951 and later completed a master’s in education, raised three daughters while teaching at elementary schools.
“Living in the suburbs was a huge learning curve for me,” she told the Wall Street Journal in 2014. “When I was young, I was very insecure, and the house gave me successful parenting and time-management skills, as well as the confidence to be around a stove. All became essential for my cake business.” She added that as her children grew up and learned who they wanted to be in life, “I learned who I wasn’t – one of those card-playing, country-club suburbanite ladies.”
She also learned that she was drawn to entertaining and cooking, and took classes in French, Russian and Chinese cuisine to expand her repertoire. When her family built a country house in the resort town of Hunter, N.Y., in the early 1970s, she preferred to bake in the kitchen rather than ski with her husband and children.
She sold her extra cakes to local restaurants, and at a dinner party she met André Soltner, the chef-owner of the New York restaurant Lutèce. At his suggestion, she spent the next few years apprenticing for pastry chef George Keller, who ran a guesthouse near her vacation home and taught her to make yeast cakes, croissants, tarts and other treats.
Weinstock fell deeper into baking in 1980, when she was diagnosed with cancer. “I didn’t know how much life I had left,” she said, but knew that she wanted to spend her remaining time in the city. Her husband quit his law firm and they moved to Manhattan, where she baked for private events at the Carlyle and began making wedding cakes with encouragement from William Greenberg, a veteran Upper East Side baker who sent customers her way.
In 1983, she and her husband acquired a burned-out warehouse in Tribeca, which they rebuilt as a four-story townhouse, moving in on the top floor and setting up their shop, Sylvia Weinstock Cakes, on some of the floors underneath. While Weinstock focused on cake design and decoration, her husband helped with the engineering, devising new ways to build cakes that sometimes stood 15 feet tall.
“When we started there were no tools available so he would see me do something and make me tools,” she told the Journal, noting creations that included a revolving table and a petal-cutter for sugar flowers. “Everyone wants to know why our cakes never collapse,” she added, “and it’s due to him.”
Weinstock closed the shop in 2016 to spend more time with her husband, who died two years later. By then she had started expanding her business in new directions, teaching classes and licensing her name to shops in Japan and Kuwait. She also collaborated with the French pastry company Ladurée and wrote books such as “Sweet Celebrations” (1999), in which she advised that a cake’s decorative “fruit and flowers should be started 10 to 12 weeks in advance.”
Survivors include her three daughters, Ellen Weldon, Amy Slavin and Janet Weinstock Isa; and six grandchildren.
Weinstock came out of retirement last month to make one last wedding cake: a white, six-tiered showstopper for the wedding of Jennifer Gates, the oldest daughter of Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates, and equestrian Nayel Nassar.
“The cake is a showpiece. It’s second to the bride,” Weinstock previously told the Times. “Most people can’t remember the food, music, or flowers, but they remember the cake 30 years later. That gives me great pleasure. I gave them something memorable. I have a moment in everyone’s wedding, which fills my heart.”