Ahh, sweet summer is here and with it the glorious arrival of a everyone’s favorite flower – the peony!
With its spectacular display of colors (think pink, red, yellow and white!), lush, unbridled petals, and a delicate, intoxicating fragrance, it’s no surprise that the peony has been a delighting the senses for thousands of years. In fact, written records from as far back as 8 their enchanting beauty. Is it any wonder then that the peony is known the world over as “queen of the flowers?”
Today, peonies are just as stunning as ever and, thanks to new and improved varieties they're even easier to grow. There are three main types of peonies to consider when planting. The most common and widely available is the herbaceous peony (Paeonia lactiflora). Herbaceous peonies grow to about three feet tall, die back to the ground each winter, then sends up vigorous sprouts each spring. The other is the tree peony (Paeonia suffruticosa), a slow-growing woody-stemmed shrub that can reach up to six feet. The third is a hybrid of the two. A combination of all three makes for a spring garden that darn near looks like it jumped out of a painting.
As dazzling as peonies are, they’re surprisingly no-fuss and require very little attention (I’m talking to you, brown-thumbs!) They survive the harshest winters, are practically drought resistant, and aren't bothered by deer or rabbits. Though peonies fare best in cool climates, early-blooming varieties with low-chill requirements can thrive in even some parts of the deep South.
IF I HAD TO CHOOSE one word to describe Ron Ben-Israel, the word I would use is passion. He has a very deep and clear passion for what he does. He is known as the emperor of cakes, the ruler of buttercream, and the creator of the most amazing sugar flowers that have ever adorned a cake I spent a fun day at Ben-Israel’s studio, following him and his team while making their wonders. We even found some time to sit down and chat over… yes! Cake!
You are so creative. How did you end up with cakes? Why not a painter or fashion designer, for example?
I’ve had a strong allegiance to all things sweet, especially cakes, from a young age. My mother was born in Vienna, and I was brought up on strudel and tortes. I always liked reading baking books and playing in the kitchen. I ended up in art school, studying fine arts. Then I was introduced to modern dance and ballet and became hooked—for the next 15 years. The road back to baking happened toward the end of my dance career. I marvel at how everything came together for me—European baking influences, art, and design, and the discipline from the moving arts.
I’m obsessed with the flowers you and your team make. Tell me about them!
Like all great things in life, I was introduced to sugar flowers by mistake. I went shopping for cake pans for one of my earlier wedding cakes, and ran into the person who became my mentor. Betty Van Norstrand was teaching a course on sugar flowers, and I was absolutely fascinated by her and the product. And I never looked back. What’s the hardest flower to make? Certain exotic orchids, such as the Lady Slipper, are the hardest. They have unusual shapes and lots of colors and marking. What would be your dream cake to make? Without doubt—Versailles, especially the gardens. And for who? Dead or alive. I would have liked to create a cake for Chef Carême, who was known as the King of Chefs and the Chef of Kings, and was famous for his elaborate edible centerpieces during the late 18th century and early 19th century.
Wow. So you do workshops! Tell me about that.
I’m on the faculty of The International Culinary Center (founded as the French Culinary Institute) where I initiated a comprehensive course called Cake Technique and Design. Since moving to our expanded facilities at the heart of The Garment Center in New York City, I’ve added workshops and master courses at the bakery/ studio. We have various classes, usually lasting three full days, where the students are immersed in sugar flowers. It’s rewarding to include tours of my own work space, have the students meet my crew, and get to see how we operate. That sounds incredible. One final question—if you only could eat one kind of cake for the rest of you life, what kind would it be? That’s easy, I would be quite happy with a buttery yeast-raised Kugelhop with a simple dusting of powdered sugar.
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