Buildings good enough to eat
George Montilio is pushing cakemanship to the brink. Oh sure, his five bakery shops in Greater Boston crank out the usual mouthwatering array of eclairs, napoleons, and fudge cakes -- 360 varieties in 95 categories.
But George Montilio is not your run-of-the-oven lady-fingers baker. He is more of a cake contractor.
What he goes in for are Gargantuan goodies. He bakes them so big he charges by the ton, uses a forklift to load them, and delivers them in trailer trucks.
He cooks his cakes by the slab in a walk-in oven, assembles them on site, slaps on sometimes 500 pounds of frosting, and then climbs a ladder to decorate them. One of his 7,000-pound biggies feeds up to 28,000 people.
George goes for big personalities, too. He knew they were coming (to Boston) , so he baked a cake for Queen Elizabeth II, presidential candidate Jimmy Carter , Pope John Paul II, Liberace, and other VIPs.
For Jimmy Durante, George baked a life-size piano. "We even made the seat," George recalls, guffawing. "We have a picture of him eatin' it."
George's father, Ernest, who started the business in the mid-1940s and sold out to George seven years ago, also gets an enormous bang out of George's outsize creations. George, a Republican, promised candidate George Bush a cake when he got to be President. Bush came close. So the Montilios magnanimously concocted one of their towering tributes and donated it to President Reagan's inaugural ball.
They shipped it on a 40-foog long United Truck Leasing Corporation truck labeled, "WE Take the Cake," "Montilio's Cakes and Pastry, Where Baking is an Art," and "United We Stand Behind President Reagan." The Montilio clan insured the cake for $6,000, then conveyed it down to Washington with George's crack decorating team.
When assembled at the Army Navy Club, one of 10 ball locations, it stood 6 feet square, 7 feet high, weighed 3,742 pounds, and was triumphantly surmounted by a replica of the United States Capitol.
Its all-icing decor (except for 50 state flags), rich with cascading red roses and 50 golden eagles, featured a Montilio hallmark -- a double portrait of Reagan and Bush in full-color frosting. Remarkable -- and delicious -- likenesses.
For a big-is-beautiful guy like George, this is his most exciting cake so far. One reason is that he nearly wound up in the inaugural parade.
"We were just driving the truck downtown," he explains, breaking up with laughter. "We were going to get up on the roof and watch the parade go by because it was so hard to see it with all the people around. But the police read the signs on the side of the truck and waved us on. 'Keep coming! Keep coming!' they yelled. First thing you know, we were right on the main street."
For the Montilio creations, getting there is half the fun. Most of them are all cake. But occasionally "dummies" are used to enhance the impression of hugeness.
Once a couple of big frosted dummies were on their way to the anniversary celebration of a department store when the closed truck in which they were riding hit a low limb. "We had four boys inside who were going to carry the cake," George recalls, holding his sides. "They were just sitting in there on milk cases.We were doing about 30 miles an hour when the truck stopped short. They didn't know what happened. All the cake came at them. When we opened the door, boy, were they a mess!"
Another time George was delivering a cake in the shape of a 474 jet with a six-foot span to a United Airlines wing-ding.When he opened the truck door, it was lying in two. A total loss.
George never intended being one the world's biggest bakers. when he took over the business, customers started asking him to do giant jobs. One of the first orders was from the Hanover (Mass.) Shopping Mall. When he finished that assignment, he had built the whole shopping plaza to scale: a cake 20 feet square with a dozen buildings on it. "You can't leave out anything when you do something like this," he says. One quipster called it "the only kind of urban sprawl you can solve by eating."
Last July, George trucked in the biggest Boston cream pie in history -- a 3, 800-pound job -- to celebrate Boston's 350th anniversary in the city's Waterfront Park. It took five men to heft each slab of cake, custard, and chocolate icing into place under a striped tent. He put it together like a puzzle, fitting it around the tent pole.
One of his bake shops is adjacent to the park in Boston's famous Faneuil Hall Market Place. When the long South Market Building of the complex was renovated and opened in 1977, Montilio's celebrated by baking a 16-foot-long replica of the 22-building structure.
George's toughest cake assignment came in 1975 when the World Series was tied at three games apiece between the Boston Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds.
At the beginning of the seventh game, Montilio's got an emergency order from the Red Sox management for a cake as part of what it was hoping would be a victory celebration.
Faced with an 11 a.m. deadline the next day, George and his minutemen (and minutewomen) rolled up their sleeves at 4 that afternoon, worked through the night for a photo finish at 10 the next morning. With no advance warning, they reproduced the entire Fenway Park -- playing field, bleachers, and all. The Sox lost. Never lacking for words, George frosted in the consoling message: "Still our Champs!"
It's a wildly joyous kind of business George has built up. Wherever his imaginative, finger-lickin' creations show up, they leaven the atmosphere with incredulity, smiles, and squeals of delight. The younger the audience, the harder it is to handle one's self in the presence of sugar castles come true.
The Town of Wellesley, Mass., has a castle of its own for a town hall, a Richarsonesque structure of rich design. On April 5, when the town kicked off the year-long celebration of its 100th anniversary, George designed a three-part whopper to ride on a flatbed truck in a parade through town to the high school where free cake and ice cream were promised to all comers.
George carved the castle himself. It was a masterpiece of "brown fieldstone" frosting -- turrets, columns, curlicues, and clock, with hands pointed to the exact hour of the official opening.
He erected this architectural triumph on top of a seven-foot-high multitiered cake, then built a tall dummy cake on either side, and finished off the float with a flourish -- a centennial banner across the top.
High winds canceled the parade. The truck never left the Public Works Department garage. So it was a case of Muhammad having to come to the cake mountain. When the doors of the garage opened, a mass of humanity surged forward -- one of the few genuine subway-style jams on record in suburbia.
"We have a splendid program for you," the mistress of ceremonies said over the loudspeaker at the top of her voice. "But it will require your complete cooperation!" she begged.
hat was the last anybody heard from her. Laughter and chatter were at a pitch of excitement. The gaiety refused to subside. Children crawled over snow-removal equipment like ants. The carefully planned program went out the window. George's cake took charge. a happy time was had by all --except the frustrated speechmakers.
An hour later, the Montilio work of art looked like a bombed-out city. As beautiful as these works of art, they are too yummy to leave standing. And there's no such thing as a cake museum. So George hangs onto the memory of them with colored photographs he enshrines in his growing library of scrapbooks.
Big, complicated jobs like the $2,000 Wellesley cake take almost a week's work and cost about $1.50 a pound, though George says that one was "definitely a money loser." If it weren't for George's expert bakery staff who run things back at the ranch while he's out working on the gigantic specials, he wouldn't be free to have all this fun.
One of the mysteries of his business is how he can make a 7,000-pound cake as light as a feather. Is it an old family recipe? Nope, George says, the secret is mainly egg whites. They are crucial to a good cake. Most of his biggies are white cakes, since chocolate cake costs about twice as much to make these days.
"We make everything from scratch," George says. "We buy our eggs in 30-pound tins of yolks only, whites only, and broken whole eggs. There are very different variations of whites. The kind we buy is the best, the ones with the highest whipping quality.
"If whites have any water in them, they won't whip up and hold their firmness. The batch just won't come up, and that reflects right down the line in all the products."
The next critical factor is the whipping. George uses a four-stage batter-mixing technique. "We cream the sugar, flour, [shortening, and] smaller ingredients into a paste, then fluff that up by adding more sugar and some egg whites." He keeps repeating that process, whipping the batter to higher and higher levels in the bowl. "That's where you get the difference in your white cake," he explains.
George grew up in his Dad's bakery. In addition to this informal education, he learned the fundamentals of scientific baking during a year at the Dunwoody Institute in Minneapolis, Minn., where, he says, "We had six months of cake and pastry training and six months of bread and rolls."
He's also taken courses in oil painting and studied three years under a German woodcarver. "When you learn to carve in hard wood," he says, "cake is easy. It's nice to work with."
He admits that there is indeed at art to his cakemaking. The main thing is that he never plays things straight. "If you just made the subject itself and didn't put anything around it, it would be boring -- like making a swimming pool with no bathers in it or no furniture around it." What he likes doing is tying the whole thing together with a theme.
So far, the biggest thing he's tied together is the United States. Bakers from all over America were scheduled to come to Boston for the convention of the Retail Bakers of America. For the occasion, George designed what he called "The Great American Cake," an illustrated map of the nation that would have done Rand McNally proud. Each state featured specialities for which it is famous.
Then George has his maintenance man (Montilio's may be the only bakery in the world that hires a full-time carpenter) make plywood cutouts in the shape of each state. The idea was for every baker attending the event to bake a cake to fit the cutout and bring it with him to Boston.
"We gave them all specifications," George recalls. "Take Texas, for example: we called for Indians, a steer, a cowboy hat, a cow hornM and NASA headquarters -- all out of cake."
When the bakers arrived, the map was assembled in the lobby of a Boston office building. It was a huge success.
It's hard to foresee where George is heading with his cake architecture. Today he's baking in thousands of pounds. Tomorrow, who knows?Earth may not be big enough for George and his cakes.