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Annandale is home to TV cake stars | Arts & Culture

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Annandale is home to TV cake stars

If you’ve ever been enthralled by the elaborate, artful cakes on TV cooking shows, you might be surprised to learn that a winning contestant on several of those shows lives and works right here in Annandale.

Norman R. Davis and Zane Beg of the “custom cakery” known as The Sweet Life competed in more than a dozen Food Network Challenges. Norm won four times, and Zane came in second in his first solo challenge. Norm has been on TLC’s “Ultimate Cake Off” four times and won once. He is also often featured on the TV show “Historic Tours and Recipes.” 

The Sweet Life doesn’t have a store, though. It operates out of a house near the intersection of Braddock and Backlick roads. Their work is by appointment only.

Norm, the owner of The Sweet Life, was named one of the top 10 cake artists of 2010 by Dessert Professional magazine and is in the ICES (International Cake Exploration Societe) Hall of Fame. And he is just one of 13 “certified sugar artists” in the United States. Getting certified is a grueling eight-hour test calling for candidates to demonstrate their cake-decorating skills, he says. Only 12 people can take the test a year, and when Norm took the test in 2008, only six people passed. 

Zane, who is also a real estate broker, has worked with The Sweet Life for the past 16 years and has already started teaching his two daughters, ages 3 and 6, the basics of cake baking.

Cakes from The Sweet Life range from 8-inch round birthday cakes for $32.25 to elaborate, huge wedding and birthday cakes for $300 and up. “Birthday cakes can actually cost more than wedding cakes because they often have a more elaborate theme,” Norm says. Their most expensive cake was a birthday cake for billionaire T. Boone Pickens served to 350 guests at a charity event at the National Museum of the American Indian last May for his wife Madeleine’s foundation, Saving America’s Mustangs. Norm was commissioned by the Washington Post to create a cake for President Clinton and by People magazine to create a cake for Virginia, as part of a Cake from Every State feature.

Norm and Zane have appeared in American Cake Decorating magazine, and Norm has been featured in Cakes and Sugarcraft, Cake Craft and Decoration, Food Arts, The Washington Post Magazine, Washingtonian, and Pastry Art and Design magazine. Norm has given demonstrations at the Smithsonian and has taught at Stratford College School of Culinary Arts. He is a past president of Cake and Sugar Artists of Northern Virginia.

In September, the two of them gave cake decorating demonstrations and taught classes on a “cake cruise” around Alaska. They also frequently participate in charity events. Their most recent one was a cake competition in Oklahoma City. The cakes were auctioned off with the proceeds used to support the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. They took part in another cake-decorating event in South Dakota that raised $16,000 for the Children’s Miracle Network.

Norm and Zane will participate in the National Capital Area Cake Show March 26-27 at the Annandale campus of the Northern Virginia Community College.

Norm credits the growing popularity of elaborately decorated cakes to the proliferation of TV food shows. But, he says, “the public still has no conception of what it takes to make those cakes.” It’s the hours of labor that makes a handmade cake so expensive, although Sweet Life also uses high-quality ingredients. One of their specialties, “the white chocolate pearl” wedding cake, features three-dimensional carving. It’s the combination of taste and design that makes cakes like these so special.

If you want to try your hand at cake decorating, check out their book, Wedding Cake Ensembles. They are working on a new book, Cakes on the Cutting Edge, and they’re also planning to teach some classes in Annandale. See their website for details.