Rebecca Wortman switched from lard to buttercream after the conquistador. She liked the consistency better.
The ingredients of the classic American-style frosting are sweet and simple: butter and powdered sugar whipped with milk and vanilla extract. Wortman’s buttercream creations, however, are anything but basic.
The up-and-coming buttercream sculptor creates edible works of art from the creamy combination known for holding its shape as well as being easy to mold. She uses the mixture as a kind of malleable marble, fashioning intricate freestanding figurines and cake toppers.
While she’s working to build a specialty cake-decorating business in her rural community of Clayton,, Washington, confectioners around the country are beginning to notice her work. Dessert Professional Magazine named the recently minted pastry chef as one of the Top 10 Cake Artists in North America for 2014.
“We are thrilled to salute her excellence,” editor Matthew Stevens said.
The magazine’s April issue features a profile of Wortman and several photographs of her sculptures.
“That is probably my biggest accomplishment,” said Wortman, who founded her business, Imagine Something Sweet, last fall.
Wortman’s elaborate designs include the horse-riding, dragon-slaying conquistador, modeled after an image she found online, and a copy of Michelangelo’s famous Pietà, also created from an online image.
She’s never been to Rome.
“That’s my dream, to see the real one in real life,” said Wortman, who draws inspiration from classical, neoclassical, Baroque and Renaissance sculpture.
While she aspires to someday visit St. Peter’s Basilica, home to the Pietà, Wortman is trying to make a name for herself here. She specializes in hand-sculpting vanilla and chocolate buttercream, creating sugar art and making custom cakes for weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, showers, trade shows and other events.
“I want to bring art into food,” she said.
Her dream sculpture: doing a reproduction of Bernini’s masterpiece, The Rape of Persephone, in buttercream. She has other dreams, too, like appearing on a Food Network show and owning her own commercial kitchen.
Wortman, 33, has “always kind of been artsy.” In her early 20s in San Diego, she airbrushed surf boards and motorcycle tanks for friends and others who heard of her work by word-of-mouth. Here and there, she also made and decorated cakes for friends. But she only recently discovered her passion for buttercream sculpting.
Wortman had gone to work right after graduating from Spokane’s Rogers High School in 1999. Two years later, she joined the U.S. Navy, serving most of the following four years in Southern California before returning to the Inland Northwest and meeting her husband. Rafe Wortman, 34, a diesel mechanic, encouraged his wife to go back to school and use her G.I. Bill benefits before they expired.
The stay-at-home mom to the couple’s two daughters – Grace, 6, and Bella, 4 – had no plans to start a business. But she did want to improve her baking skills.
“I wanted to be able to cook better for my family and to learn to do better cakes,” she said.
Wortman enrolled in the professional baking program at Spokane Community College, graduating last year.
“It was awesome. You name it, dessert-wise, we did it,” she said. “But when (SCC chef instructor) Harry (Wibisono) put that 50-pound brick of lard in front of me, it changed my life.”
That brick became a pillar topped with a classical Greek-style head – and her entry in the sugar sculpture category of the 2012 Washington State Sugar Artists Cake Show. It was her first cake-decorating competition. She transported the sculpture to the West Side in a cooler. And she won first place.
“I kept on getting good feedback from everybody,” she said. So she kept on, transitioning from lard to buttercream and using anywhere from 10 to 80 pounds per sculpture.
“I can’t tell you how much money I’ve spent,” Wortman said. “I’m doing a lot of this on my own dime. People don’t fork out thousands of dollars for artists they don’t know.”
While Wortman is relatively new to the medium, the sculpting, carving and molding of food is an ancient practice, dating to Roman times.
Butter sculpting gained popularity during the Renaissance and Baroque periods, when elaborate scenes were depicted for centerpieces at feasts for wealthy families. In modern America, butter sculpting is traced to the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, where a farm woman from Arkansas displayed a bas-relief. Butter sculpting remains a staple at agricultural and state fairs, particularly in the Midwest.
Recipes for buttercream began appearing with more frequency in the early 1900s. Wortman won’t divulge the specific measurements she uses – “It’s a secret” – but she will give tips on sculpting the stuff. “The secret of doing this is keeping it cold.”
Her tools of the trade include toothpicks, knives, clay carving utensils and freezing spray. She also uses water to smooth surfaces and add sheen.
“It’s forgiving,” she said. “If it doesn’t work, I just redo.”
Wortman wears gloves and rents a commercial kitchen for official jobs and demonstrations. To casually show off her skills, she uses her bare hands in her own home.
She sculpts other substances, too. For the grand opening of Total Wine & More in Spokane Valley she crafted an edible store logo out of cheddar and mozzarella, which shoppers enjoyed with crackers.
“I like people’s reactions when they see my work. That’s the best part,” Wortman said. “I like to be different.”
Wortman, a member of the International Cake Exploration Society and American Culinary Federation, served as a featured artist at the Chicago Fine Chocolate Show last fall as well as the Icing Smiles Buttercream Ball in Baltimore in February.
She recently returned from Las Vegas, where she demonstrated buttercream sculpting at the Chef Rubber booth as well as on the Spectacular Sweet Stage at the 2014 CaterSource tradeshow.
She’s slated to teach a two-day intensive buttercream sculpting workshop at Mother of Cakes Sugar and Cake Academy in Pennsylvnia in the fall. She also plans to participate in Spokane’s Fall Bridal Festival. And she’s in the process of scheduling buttercream sculpting classes at SCC – this time as the teacher.
Wortman said there’s one aspect of her craft that is challenging – fighting temptation to sample her own work.
“The chocolate is the hardest. You want to lick your fingers,” Wortman said. But, “I can’t eat my art supplies.”