Pennsburg woman creates art out of sugar
Carolina Lara, of Bella's Confectionary Arts, shows off her $5,000 check for a first place finish at a Domino Sugar-sponsored competition in New York last month.
As a fashion designer, Carolina Lara has had the satisfaction of seeing her work hit the racks. But it is her work in a different medium that is garnering nationwide attention for pleasing both the eye and the palate.
Lara, a native of Puerto Rico, stumbled her way into sugar art four short years ago. Looking for the perfect cake for a friend’s party, she was appalled by what she found.
“The person we were looking at was charging an outrageous amount of money,” she said of a cake decorator in the Blue Bell area. “I thought, I’m artistically inclined, I have a BA in fashion design. I’ll give this a try.”
So Lara, an enthusiastic mother to six, poured herself into learning the craft. She called a pastry chef friend in Florida and got a three-hour crash course on baking and decorating. She learned how to do fondant icing and model figures. She spent all her free time reading online tutorials, blogs and magazines. She found she had a knack for creativity with sugar.
“The cake was more like a sculpture for me,” Lara said of the 3D cake she ultimately made for her friend. “The medium was just different. Things took off from there.”
As neighbors and friends started requesting cakes from her, Lara found herself at a crossroads. With a young autistic son, she was unable to work a conventional job. Starting her own business making custom, novelty cakes seemed to be the answer.
So Bella’s Confectionary Arts was born out of her Pennsburg home.
Lara’s high-quality sugar art didn’t go unnoticed for long. She was contacted in 2009 by WeTV after applying for a cake challenge with her friend from Florida. “Wedding Cake Wars,” filmed at the Great American Cake Show in Maryland, spotlighted her and her work.
“I wanted to do it, but I really didn’t expect it,” Lara said of filming the show. “I had only been doing it (cakes) for three weeks at that time. But it was fantastic competing against people that had been on Food Network. It was a great experience and everyone was so nice.”
Lara built on that event and applied to compete in more cake shows and decorating events. She has showcased her work at the world-famous New York Chocolate Show, a White Rose Cake Show, among other events, and has worked with the likes of UK sugar artist Robert Haynes, Chef Vanessa Greeley, decorator Karen Portalea of Highland Bakery in Atlanta, Georgia, and the pros at Swank Cake Designs, of TLC fame.
Her work is getting increased attention in the cake design/sugar art world. It has taken a little time to get used to the fast-paced, ‘lights, camera, action’ aspect of her new endeavor, but Lara said she is grateful to all the professionals she works with.
“I am self-taught but I learn by assisting them. I learn through them,” she explained.
Her most recent project netted her a paycheck of $5,000 from Domino Sugar. She and a fashion design student from Syracuse University partnered in the Domino Sugar All American Classic Edible Fashion Runway Competition Oct. 6 in Ithaca, New York. They won first place with a smart bodice, shirt, shoes and earrings made from sugar.
“I couldn’t even believe it when they announced we won,” Lara said. “It was a great experience. If you have the chance to do these things you have to go for it.”
At her busy home, Lara specializes in “dream” cakes. She begins with a drawing of each project to the client’s desires. A wide variety of moist, delicious cakes can be customized, many engineered with tubing in the middle to make them secure. Each cake, which can take upwards of 70 hours to decorate, is then hand-painted with edible paints or adorned with a rainbow of fondant and other icings.
Past cakes have ranged from a modern, multi-tiered 40th birthday cake with lifelike sugar flowers, to a primary-colored Mexican skull cake.
“For me, I don’t want the overhead of a cake shop. This makes it more affordable. Everyone wants a nice cake. For me it’s important to work with a client to make their dream cake,” Lara explained.
Her specialty, though, is wedding cakes, where her background in fabrics always seems to come out in her designs. She routinely makes her own molds using a piece of lace from the bride’s dress and utilizes that effect and beadwork in the cake. She also specializes in sugar flowers, down to the natural curl and veining of each petal, and kids’ cakes.
“I do it because it’s fun. It relieves stress from the kids for me. Art is my relief,” she said of decorating.
Lara also feels strongly about using her talents to give back to others. She works with local organization Teamwork Wins, which assists kids and their families with challenges like autism, ADHD and Asberger’s, and volunteers with Icing Smiles, a non-profit organization tailored to giving cakes to kids with terminal illnesses.
Many times, the organization calls her with little notice, saying that they need a special cake for a sick child.
“These children have really bad illnesses and we make their day,” said Lara of her work with Icing Smiles. “Having kids with special needs of my own, I feel so blessed. It makes someone smile; it makes their life sweeter.”
How sweet that is indeed.
For more information on Carolina Lara and Bella’s Confectionary Arts, visit www.mysugarartist.com.