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Food

The story behind those colorful shag-rug cakes all over Instagram

Restaurant Critic

On a recent Friday afternoon, Alana Jones-Mann sat in her light-filled dining room overlooking the leafy hilltops of central Los Angeles. She was seated at the long, white kitchen table that doubles as her work space, with about a dozen pastry piping bags spread around her. The sound of classical music drifted in from another room. She took a deep breath.

“I don’t have a plan or anything when I start,” she said.

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Jones-Mann — slim, pale, with an easy smile and unerring sense of hospitality (visitors to her home are plied with drinks and homemade snacks) — was preparing to decorate a cake.

If you’ve spent any time on #baking Instagram in the last few years, there’s a good chance you’ve admired Jones-Mann’s work. She’s sculpted cactus gardens out of frosting; translated complex Mexican embroidery designs onto the surface of cookies; constructed super-glossy, wreath-shaped cakes out of retro candies.

On this day, her canvas was a tall, stiff-looking, densely layered lemon cake, smoothly frosted ahead of time with base layers of snow-white frosting. She hovered over it with the intensity of a championship swimmer about to launch off the diving board. Without taking her eyes off the cake, she gripped a piping bag filled with sky-blue buttercream and began flicking small, sharp dots onto its pale, rounded surface. Up close, every stroke looked as sharp and tactile as a spike. After a few minutes of decorating, the tightly spaced points of color grew softer, forming fuzzy, undulating waves.

LOS ANGELES - MARCH 25, 2019: Los Angeles based baker and cake designer Alana Jones-Mann has become
Los Angeles-based baker and cake designer Alana Jones-Mann has become known for her colorful cakes inspired by things like vintage shaggy rugs and traditional textiles.
(Joe Toreno / For The Times)

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Two hours later, more or less, she was done. The finished product was a quintessential Jones-Mann creation: a richly colored “shag cake” with a carpet-like texture evoking the deep pile rugs of 1960s- and ’70s-era American interior design. Like many of her cakes, it was a three-dimensional showstopper of texture and psychedelic color, almost too pretty to eat.

Her free-form piping technique gives her cakes a sense of movement and tactility; their bright, cheerful colors seem designed to elevate even the sourest moods. More than anything, her cakes embody that elusive quality that separates the talented home baker from the bona fide baking celebrity: a sense of preternatural originality.

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“What’s weird about the shag cakes is I think a lot of people think I purposely made it to look like a shag carpet. And that was never the plan,” Jones-Mann told me recently. “Other people started calling them that.”

She takes no issue with the “shag cake” label, or with her growing reputation as the doyenne of L.A.’s hip-chic cake universe. She’s the first to point out the connection between her signature cake’s vintage aesthetic and her obsession with ’60s and ’70s fashion, design and music. (“My musical comprehension doesn’t really span past 1974,” she jokes.) More than anything, she sees the shag cake as a major step in her development as a baker and artist, two titles that, until recently, she had trouble embracing with confidence.

“The shag cake, for me, shows my evolution as an artist and how I found my own personal style,” she said. “It’s hard when people are like, ‘This is the trendy cake of the moment now.’ Because [this cake] is kind of me, you know? It’s who I feel I am as a person.”

LOS ANGELES - MARCH 25, 2019: Los Angeles based baker and cake designer Alana Jones-Mann has become
Jones-Mann is fond of working with basic decorating tools and buttercream frosting.
(Joe Toreno / For The Times)

A San Diego native, Jones-Mann spent her 20s working in event planning and marketing in New York. The combination of long hours, coupled with a growing sense of stymied creativity, led her to seek respite in home baking. She baked a cheesecake, which her then-boyfriend took to the restaurant he worked at. The dessert sold out.

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The bump in confidence inspired her to study baking in earnest. She watched online tutorials and put in long hours in her tiny New York kitchen. Eventually, she started experimenting with using decorating tips to create waviness and texture, and began to focus her energies almost exclusively on cake-making.

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“The reason I moved on specifically to cakes is because of their surface area. I felt like I had a proper canvas to really work on,” she said. “Cake is my medium.”

She is partial to the kind of entry-level decorating tools you’ll find at any crafts supply store: a universal No. 2 round piping tip, a small offset spatula, basic food coloring gels. Most intricately designed cakes rely heavily on rolled fondant icing for dimension and texture, but Jones-Mann eschews the Play-doh-like layers of sugar and gelatin in favor of old-fashioned buttercream. She loves a dense, ultra-moist cake filled with fruit curds, and she’s developed a sophisticated arsenal of buttercream blends made with strawberries, pistachios and figs. Her cakes look good, but they’re also engineered to be delicious.

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A "technicolor" shag rug cake designed by Jones-Mann.
(Alana Jones-Mann)

“I spent probably a year developing my own recipe and figuring out what base I liked the best and what works for me in terms of cake flavor,” she said. “The biggest compliment is when someone says, ‘That was the best-tasting cake ever.’ I’m proud of my designs and I would never hand off a cake that I thought was ugly. But when someone comes back and raves about the taste of the cake, that’s all I want to hear.”

Jones-Mann, who has been baking professionally for about a decade now, moved from New York to L.A. about three years ago. She describes her return to Southern California as a period of newfound inspiration and visibility for her work.

“I feel like all my desserts were always Southern California-inspired, just sort of colorful and reflective of my roots,” she said. “It’s ironic that now I do a lot of New York work in terms of editorial stuff, and that New York clients out here visiting are interested in them. I’ve been making [the shag cakes] for five years now at this point. But when I was in New York, I could not get anyone to order them.”

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Jones-Mann's cake designs are often inspired by textiles, such as this "raffia" basket weave cake.
(Alana Jones-Mann)

Her cakes are now commissioned by celebrities (Reese Witherspoon and Aidy Bryant are fans) and featured in glossy magazine spreads. Friends of friends frequently request them for their weddings. (For current availability, you can contact Jones-Mann through her website, alanajonesmann.com. Outside of baking, Jones-Mann has a long-standing partnership with Scripps, the media company that owns the Food Network, where she contributes tutorial videos and other editorial content.)

What do you do after your cakes have been splashed across every major design blog in the country, and imitated so widely that there are now whole YouTube channels dedicated to DIY shag cakes? If you’re Jones-Mann, you head somewhere like the Brand Library and Art Center in Glendale, where she goes to page through old advertising catalogs and art books. She can spend whole afternoons lost in the 700 section of any public library, she says. Recently, she became preoccupied with an ornate 16th century embroidery she found in a book, and she’s begun to experiment with smaller decorating tips capable of producing highly intricate and precise designs.

She knows she could make more money by opening a bakery, or possibly find other ways to churn out shag cakes at a higher volume. But she’s happiest when she’s working for hours on a single design. It’s a luxury many commercial bakers don’t have.

“It’s such a meditative, enjoyable process,” she said. “If you take [a shag cake] to the bakery, they’re going to be like, ‘We’re not making that here. We’ve got things to do,’ ” she laughed.

LOS ANGELES - MARCH 25, 2019: Los Angeles based baker and cake designer Alana Jones-Mann has become
Los Angeles-based baker and cake designer Alana Jones-Mann in her home studio.
(Joe Toreno / For The Times)

patricia.escarcega@latimes.com

Twitter: @piescarcega

Instagram: @holynopales


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