Standing in front of a coffee shop in Huntington Beach, Shaile Socher is taking a photo of the potted succulents on the table. It looks like a typical centerpiece. “I won an award for this piece at the San Diego Cake Show,” she says.
It’s made out of sugar and the detailing is exquisite. Everything down to the texture and the color of the plant is lifelike. The leaves are plump and fleshy, shaded so that they look hauntingly realistic. You can’t even tell it's not a real plant — unless you touch it.
Socher gently brushes her fingers against the string pearls on the plant. “I’ve never seen these in real life,” she says. “I made them based on a photograph.”
A bookkeeper by day, Socher is an award-winning sugar artist and teacher. She has been making flowers and succulents and berries out of gum paste for over a decade now and is remarkably adept at realism. The paste is a homemade combination of powdered sugar, egg whites, Crisco and Tylose powder, a gumming agent. The texture is similar to fondant; it’s extremely pliable and sweet.
Socher's flowers, like her succulents, are breathtaking. Everything is accounted for: The leaves are intricately veiny, the tips of the stamen look like they have pollen on it, the petals look soft, like silk, as if they would bend in the wind. They don’t. It’s merely an illusion.
“The whole idea is to roll the paste really thin,” Socher says. The leaves are made from pressing the gum paste against a mold. The stamen is fashioned from string, painted with egg whites and then gently dipped in cornmeal so that it looks there’s pollen on the tips. Petals are made from pure gum paste, rolled out paper thin and then shaped into waves for depth. Everything is built on wires. Egg whites are the glue of the craft and the paint is called petal dust.
“They come in little jars and it’s a really fine ground chalk,” Socher says. “It’s a powder you apply it with a dry paint brush. You can also mix it with vodka for a smoother application.” The alcohol makes the dust into a painting consistency and then conveniently evaporates. She adds: “People in the South like to use moonshine.”
For Socher, a single flower takes five hours to make. It’s an excruciating process. Every part of the flower has to be individually made, dried, painted and then assembled together. “The smaller the flower, the harder it is to make."
The difficulty level of a flower is also contingent on the number of petals it has. Poppies have six petals. For roses, it depends on what variety you’re making. “Peonies have a lot of petals. I just keep on making them until I’m bored,” she says.
Climate can also affect the flowers and the paste. In places that are really humid, like England, they have to dehumidify the flowers or else the petals will wilt.
And yes, the creations are technically edible, though Socher has never tasted any of her own flowers. "The best part is that these are flowers that last forever," Socher says. Unless, of course, you decide to eat them.
Shaile currently teaches sugar flower classes at ABC Flowers in Orange and Bakers Bodega in Pico Riveria. You can see her class schedule here.