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Baker's designs take the cake

By Mariann Hughes -- Daily Staff Writer

FRONT ROYAL -- They've gone hand in hand with family celebrations for generations. Whether little Isaac is turning 1, or great aunt June is turning 100; whether you're a starry-eyed bride-to-be at your wedding shower or doing the fox-trot at your 50th wedding anniversary, there's always one present.

That's right. A cake.

And for nearly 16 years -- the last five spent in Front Royal -- Cakes by Ruth owner Ruth Wahl has been working with customers to make sure she creates that memorable confection for whatever celebration they are marking. And if she hasn't yet crafted customers' dream cakes or concocted their dream flavor, she'll work until she does.

"I love for somebody to say, 'Oh, just make me a Mardi Gras cake,' or 'Make me a baby shower cake,'" she said. "And then I start looking through the books, looking on the Internet [to come up with ideas].

"I'm perfectly willing to try new things."

Cinderella's carriage with horses. The Redskins' logo for the Super Bowl. A teapot. A Mardi Gras king cake. How about a Tinman cake for someone celebrating his heart transplant? Or a cake for the birthday of a 22-year-old whose father was diagnosed with cancer on her 21st? A slumber-party-themed cake with dolls handcrafted from fondant. And, yes, they're edible.

Once the cake's style is nailed down, there are a lot more decisions to make.

Customers have many choices: chocolate cake, yellow vanilla butternut, white sour cream, lemon or chocolate. Perhaps the cake's prospective owner had banana or mocha in mind. A spice cake may not be the most traditional choice for a wedding, but Wahl has done that, too. And don't forget to add a filling -- raspberry, strawberry, lemon, apricot or mousse.

Wahl has baked flat cakes, shaped cakes, layered cakes, tiered cakes. The decorative elements of her cakes are, for the most part, entirely edible. She tries to avoid plastic or wire and instead uses sugar products, marzipan, fondant, cookies, candies, and chocolate moldings, mainly to keep the dessert safe for the small fry.

"Children are so precarious that you just never know when somebody's going to put something in their mouth," she said.

Although Wahl's repertoire includes weddings, graduations, christenings, engagements, First Communions, and a host of other unique celebrations, she has a special place in her heart for birthdays or celebrations involving little ones.

"I love to see the reactions of children, and adults, when you bring in a cake that expresses something personal about them and makes them smile," she said. "They so much appreciate that you have taken the time to ask questions, and find out something special about what they are about. Likewise, the joy of a child when you show up with a pirate ship or a princess cake, makes that day even more special for them."

Wahl has built a solid business in Front Royal after moving there five years ago from Vienna, where she first began her business at the suggestion of a coworker. She keeps her talents sharp by participating in cake decorating networks such as the International Cake Exploration Society and Cake and Sugar Artists of Northern Virginia.

Working out of a well-equipped kitchen in her home, and with shelves of cake books and magazines at her disposal, Wahl communicates closely with her customers to ensure they get exactly what they desire and is flexible in scheduling cake-tasting appointments and consultations. Her fillings are made from real fruit, and fresh ingredients are used in her homemade cakes and icings, including cream and real butter. She has options for people who have food allergies.

"The customer service aspect has always been something in my work, in my own business, that I think is important," Wahl said.

She possesses ServSafe Certification and is in the works to have her kitchen approved by the food safety division of the Virginia Department of Agriculture.

Wahl spends about three to five hours on a birthday cake, depending on how elaborate it is. Cost varies, depending on the size and the time involved. They can start at $20, but the average birthday cake runs about $30 to $50. The cost of a more formal cake, such as for a wedding, is calculated per serving. A typical wedding cake serving 100 would be about $300. She doesn't charge extra for fillings or for different flavors in different layers.

Wahl's warm personality exudes her passion for what she does, and she delights in sharing her stories of people whose lives she has touched.

"Recently I did a cake for a 22-year-old young lady. She told me that when she turned 21, her father had just been diagnosed with cancer so there was no '21' celebrating for her," Wahl said.

"Her father is now in remission and she wanted to celebrate her birthday. ... When I showed up with the cake, this young woman literally jumped up and down with excitement. I think the saying is, 'That is why we do what we do!' That was joy for me."

Anyone interested in discussing cake options or appointments with Ruth Wahl may contact her at 631-9169, or at cakeracer@embarqmail.com. Hours are flexible; bear in mind the business is home-run. A week's notice for a cake order is preferred; minimum is three days.

Contact Mariann Hughes at mhughes@nvdaily.com


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