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For rites of passage, bakers take the cake

Nothing is too elaborate in Cuban culture when it comes to cakes, say the bakers who whip up confections.

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 26, 2002

To celebrate the Santeria feast day of St. Lazarus, Greg Hernandez bakes miniature purple cakes.

To please Santa Barbara on her day, red is the obligatory color on the cake.

The cakes Hernandez bakes for clients who wish to honor Cuba's patron saint, Our Lady of Charity, must be dressed in golden yellow.

The saints, or orishas, like the humans they are said to watch over, have many faces and clearly defined personalities. They can go from posing as Catholic saints to, in the case of Yemaya, dictating ocean currents. They have particular likes and dislikes, favorite foods, colors, jewelry and even working tools.

There is one thing all orishas have in common: their appetite for towers of merengue.

Nothing is too elaborate in Cuban culture when it comes to cakes, says Hernandez, owner of La Caridad bakery, 4425 W Hillsborough Ave.

"It's the central part of Cuban celebrations," Hernandez said.

"Cubans like their cakes decorated extravagantly," agreed Angel Perez, owner of Florida Bakery at 3320 W Columbus Drive. "In terms of decoration we like to complicate ourselves more."

Because Cuban-American family and social life revolves around celebrations of rites of passage, a fabulous cakemaker can seem as important as a trustworthy mechanic or doctor. The cake must live up to the importance of the occasion.

"It's very important," Hernandez said. "The big thing is to celebrate by cutting the cake."

Indeed, cutting the cake marks a turning point in someone's life, said Perez. Like Hernandez, Perez serves a mostly Cuban-American clientele with very specific requests.

"No matter what the occasion, in Cuban culture you'll always have a cake," Hernandez said.

From baptisms, weddings, confirmations and first communions to anniversaries, birthdays and baby showers, confections run the gamut.

One variety Hernandez sells to Santeria practitioners is an inverted cone, covered in white frosting, atop a circular cake. The tower is an offering, he explained. In return, the Yoruban deities bless the faithful with ache, divine energy.

Many Cuban-Americans also commission cakes from individuals who work from their homes. Wherever there are large communities of Cuban-Americans not only is there a nearby bakery, but a neighbor, a grandmother, an aunt or a friend of a friend is at hand, ready to whip up a cake on the side for any occasion.

Wedding cakes are fancy affairs, Perez said. Think over the top. Cakes are made to order and are often three layers high and dressed by hand with fondant icing. Hernandez uses the same rolled fondant to add details on the cake such as lace, ribbons and ruffles.

He creates delicate flowers from sugar.

Looks are important, both bakery owners agreed. But even more important is taste. Cakes must be moist. Sponge cakes such as the capuchino variety and brazo gitanos, jelly rolls filled with guava, are beyond moist. They're soaked in a fine syrup.

"Every once in a while I'll get someone complaining that the cake they ordered was too moist," Hernandez said. "But you can bet they're not Cuban."

A signature characteristic of a Cuban-style cake is the sweet guava, pineapple and custard fillings between layers. These days, Hernandez said, even Publix makes cakes with fillings in a nod to the tastes of Tampa's burgeoning Latin-American population.

That was not the case in 1974, he said, when his family moved here from New Jersey and his father bought an American shop to open La Caridad.

"We would ask clients what flavor filling they wanted and they would ask us, "What do you mean filling?' " Hernandez said.

"Personally, I had never seen a cake without one."

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