Whooooo’s for Cake?

Patchwork Owl Cake

Patchwork Owl Cake

If you were up for some cake, it would not be a piece of this one. It is many weeks old and was baked and decorated for practice purposes only. Why? Because I have decided to go in my first ever cake decorating competition, at the Perth Royal Show.

The Royal Show is a community event staged annually by the Royal Agricultural Society in September/October and has been running for an incredible 170 years! “The Show” as it is familiarly known locally, showcases Western Australian agriculture, rural communities, small business and entertainment at an event in our capital city, Perth, for ten fun-filled days. There is everything to offer from animal showing, wood chopping and baby animal farms, to stunt shows, equestrian events and the ever popular sideshow alley and showbags. Never mind that you have to mortgage your house to afford a day spent at the Show.

A wonderfully old-fashioned and yet timeless element is the range of competitions run for bakers, sewers, craft enthusiasts, amateur artists, woodworkers and so forth. Prize money is generally very small but the glory lies in the receiving of ribbons and awards and competition can be fierce.

So I have decided to enter a cake (or two) in the decorated cakes section, in either the Student or Amateur categories, or perhaps both. The pictured patchwork owl cake is from a design by Lindy Smith and could potentially go in a Novelty Class.

Embossing fun with cutters

Embossing fun with cutters

I am fairly pleased with it even though I learnt a number of lessons along the way, and can’t help but look at it with a critical eye. It was carved out of a 25cm Madeira Cake, which is great for carving but always seem to come out horribly dry despite an inordinate amount of butter being in the recipe. I enjoyed the carving and found it much easier than I imagined it would be.

Given my previous post on furry edges, I can see that I need to smarten up my act in that respect. Another challenge was the embossing of some of the panels of colour with daisies, leaves, etc. Too light a touch left me with vague and indistinct patterns, and too heavy a hand made the patterns liable to stretching and distortion when I laid the panels on curved parts of the cake. The top of the head, which is judiciously hidden in these photos, looks a complete dog’s breakfast because of this problem.

Elaborate but effective eyes

Elaborate but effective eyes

Hollowing out those eye sockets was no picnic either. Creating identical hollows was nigh on impossible and it became a classic case of the more you tried to correct bits, the more damage you did to the end result. I need a creative solution for scooping out neat concave hollows. Any suggestions?

But the greatest challenge was that of neatly abutting the different “fabric” panels against each other. The joins between wings and head are pretty rough and definitely need to be improved upon. Well-wishing friends tell me otherwise, but my OCD dances a merry jig when I look at those joins and I just can’t be happy with the disorder. Ah me!

Claws, not carrots!

Claws, not carrots!

Flaws notwithstanding, it all seemed to come to life when the beak and claws were added. Not that I have ever seen an owl with orange beak and claws, but then neither is it common to see owls with gerberas for eyes and maple leaves and daisies adorning their wings. A friend made me laugh when she declared that the claws looked like carrots and were making her hungry, but not nearly so much as another (male) friend who, swept away with the enthusiasm of it all, suggested how I might improve it by adding sharp brown claws. I told him that as a child’s cake it was meant to induce joy and pleasure, not trauma and nightmares! To be fair, he was in hospital after a nasty road accident, and drugged to the eyeballs with painkillers…

My verdict on this cake – many hours of work, and many lessons learnt, but a visual feast (albeit inedible by the time I had finished).


The True Meaning of PDF

Merry Berries

Merry Berries

Never mind Portable Document Format, I’m talking about Purely Decorative Food!

Christmas  this year has, for me, been characterised by a great deal of fun had baking. But not everything I made had to be eaten, although much of it was. These little Santas were incredibly easy to do and they looked great. The idea came from the Coles Magazine app, and consists of little more than mixing 125g of cream cheese with 2 tablespoons of icing sugar, and piping on the heads, pompoms, and buttons. Larger strawberries could have accommodated beards as well. Some chocolate ganache I had on hand was added to the mixture to pipe the eyes. Simple, effective, and they tasted darn good too!

Santa's little helpers

Santa’s little helpers

Another decorative project I indulged in was this Meringue Tree which became the centrepiece of our table at Christmas Day lunch.

Meringue Tree

Meringue Tree

This was actually a nifty little kit put out by Coles (a gratuitous plug, I know, but look – I live near a Coles Supermarket so I’ll probably never mention Woolworths  in my blog, other than right now). Everything was included, except the little figurines which I plucked from my snowy village tableau, which I couldn’t be bothered putting out this year because, ironically, the day I did my decorations was too hot. (Curse these Antipodean opposites!)

Halfway there

Halfway there

It even included the gold lustre dust, the paper cone and the white chocolate melts to stick the meringues on with. The lidded plastic trays that the large meringues sat in will be usefully re-purposed for other baking projects. Note the taint of OCD which made me position each meringue with its swirl pointing in the same direction. It also caused me great angst to find that the meringues were not proportioned to exactly fit in offset concentric circles around the cone.

Meringue parts

Meringue parts

Last year I took advantage of a similar kit (from the same supermarket chain) to make a Gingerbread house, but as far as my OCD was concerned, that was like a red flag to a bull – sooooo untidy! This, at least, was acceptably neat.

Then of course there was my Christmas plaque from a previous post. Here’s a quick visual reminder.

Sugar paste Christmas plaque

Sugar paste Christmas plaque

But my pièce de résistance was the Christmas cake. I used the same recipe for the fruit cake as I did for the mini Christmas cakes.

Christmas Cake

Christmas Cake

I followed the recipe and instructions for the spiky Royal Icing given by Mary Berry in a Great British Bake Off Christmas Masterclass. As amazing as it looked, there were two hard lessons learnt (unintended pun alert!): the quantity of icing was rather excessive for the size of cake it was intended for; and it sets like plaster. It took considerable muscle power to crack that shell when I served it up for extended family at a Boxing Day morning tea, and was the cause of great mirth as a result. But even so it tasted good.

All in all, a very satisfying Christmas. Probably the first such Christmas in years.

Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush

Mulberry vodka

Mulberry vodka

Why do we go round the mulberry bush? And why do we do it on a cold and frosty morning? These questions, and many more, came up for me as I started to think about writing this post about a batch of mulberry vodka I have made. More about the vodka shortly, but what about that perplexing nursery rhyme?

A quick but comprehensive survey of colleagues in the office (actual sample size = 2) showed that I was alone in thinking that the final line of each verse is, “on a cold and frosty morning” and not, “so early in the morning.” Further research (on the internet) seemed to favour the latter, along with regular mention of an (unconfirmed) theory that the rhyme originated in Wakefield Women’s Prison in the UK. Coincidentally, I have been vindicated in my memory of the line on Wakefield Council‘s own website, where the lyric is listed as “on a cold and frosty morning.” The subsequent verses of the nursery rhyme deal primarily with daily life and domestic chores.

Singing about going ’round and ’round a mulberry bush, for no obvious reason, is an eerily appropriate representation of the most problematic symptom of OCD that I must bear with – singing , circular motion, and lack of obvious purpose for both. I have snippets of songs, or sometimes parts of phrases, that, under influence of anxiety, cycle over and over in my head. Not when when I am concentrating in a focussed manner on a task, like when reading, writing, watching something, or in conversation, but at most other times.

There are two great burdens to bear with this affliction. The first is that it is has never been as easy to treat as  other, less intrusive OCD symptoms, and it therefore almost drives me crazy when at its worst, and the other is the preconceptions people hold about OCD. Treatment for OCD usually involves Exposure Response Prevention Therapy (ERP), during which a therapist helps you to defuse each behaviour, so to speak, by first determining the overarching anxiety associated with it. Therein lies my problem. In therapy I have never been able to get to the bottom of the anxiety that has triggered this repetition. Without this base understanding, it is an almost fruitless task trying to apply ERP to this particular behaviour.

The second problem, misconceptions about OCD, is exemplified by the following additional coincidence in this story. While searching for answers to the nursery rhyme question above, I came across an attempt at humour on Cracked.com which quips that this particular children’s song may be a “jaunty” list of symptoms for an OCD sufferer. I could let that go, except that the accompanying stock image of someone washing their hands is captioned “This is the way we wash our hands, until they bleed, until they bleed…”

Having lived next door to an elderly woman whose OCD and fear of germs kept her a virtual prisoner in her own apartment, and whose wealthy adult children had relinquished all responsibility for her welfare, I can say this: it is not a joke to scrub your arms and legs raw, as she did; to be paralysed with fear that anyone may enter your home against your will, bringing their contamination, as she was; to have health authorities bring a locksmith to allow the police and paramedics to enter your home and forcibly remove you to a hospital, as happened to her; or to have your apartment, damaged by your constant running of water, and infested with vermin and mildew, declared unfit for human habitation by authorities, as hers was.

Ultimately my point is this: leaving aside the fact that OCD is not a joking matter, it is a much more varied problem than just being afraid of germs, or lining up objects on a table. I do not have a germ phobia. I am not a neat freak. I am not beset by fears that I have not locked my front door. And because of this, the response I most commonly get from people hearing that I have OCD, is the following exclamation, heavily tinged with doubt: “Oh really?”. I don’t seem to fit their perception of an OCD sufferer, so I must not really have it.

Frustratingly, I have the same problem with ADHD. To most people who know me, I seem to be the calmest person on Earth, so how can I possibly have ADHD? Well, let me set the record straight right now.

  • Many compulsions in a sufferer of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder involve mental rituals, not overt behaviours.
  • Adult ADHD has two subtypes – Inattentive (ADHD-I) and Hyperactive/Impulsive (ADHD-H). Inattentive symptoms generally manifest cognitively, not behaviourally, and most adult sufferers develop coping or compensatory mechanisms to manage or hide them.

The lesson to be learned is that just because you can’t see it yourself, does not mean that it is not just as intrusive or destructive for the sufferer, or that it is not there at all. Even as I write this post, I am struggling to keep the mulberry bush song from waylaying my efforts.

Small mulberry tree

Bill Nicholls [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Enough of my rant, now for some vodka.

One of the great delights at my workplace (a university campus) is that a small-ish mulberry tree grows not 100m from the front entrance to our building. I am not certain, but I think it is of the species Morus Nigra, or Black English Mulberry, and it looks a lot like the one in the photo above, only slightly larger. We have just reached the end of its prolific fruiting season and I took full advantage of the opportunity throughout the season to enjoy these delectable fruits. Apart from eating them fresh off the tree, I made Mulberry Crumble Cakes, Mulberry Bakewell Tart, and the batch of Mulberry Vodka pictured at the top of this post.

This voluminous jar lurks at the back of a shelf in my pantry and every time I see it I dutifully turn it on its head, (or back the right way up, whichever is next), and it is due for the great taste test in three weeks time. Yes, folks, it’s going to be a VERY MERRY Christmas this year!

A Brief Cameo by the Author

Cameo Cookies

Cameo Cookies

I made these cookies after coming into possession of a silicone cameo mold. I was pleased as punch with how they looked, especially as this was my first go at dot trail piping. (Actually I’m not sure if that is the proper name for it – I’ll have to check on that…)

Also made by hand was the modelling paste I used for the cameo part. I made the sugar paste from a recipe, rather than buying RTR (ready to roll), and added tylose powder to turn it into modelling paste. I did this against all the advice given in books about not making your own sugar paste when ready made is so good already. But being a little obsessive about making things from scratch, I just had to have a go. The result was a modelling paste strongly reminiscent of tyre rubber, which fact I did not discover until I had gleefully trotted out these cookies at a charity fundraising morning tea at the office. My colleagues, bless them all, said nothing of course about the rubbery cameos.

As I look at this picture of the cookies I note what pains I took to exactly align both the cookies and the cameo faces on the plate. I know that I would have felt mildly anxious at the time about ensuring everything was aligned. It’s truly a curse.

Post Script: I just noticed two of the cookies are definitely not aligned properly, and the perplexing thing is that it makes me anxious to think it is now fixed like that for ever, and I cannot amend it(!)

Fluttering at food

Food Still Life

Still Life with Meat Pies and Roast Chicken, Unknown Flemish Artist in 1600s

My Mum once said of me that I “flutter in all ways, and fly in none” (gee, thanks Mum!). Well actually she didn’t say it quite so prosaically, but her gist was the same.

In truth those are the words of a George Eliot character  (Philip Wakem in The Mill on the Floss), and they struck a chord with me more than twenty years ago because this was how I was perceived.  Here’s the passage from which it comes:

I think of too many things – sow all sorts of seeds, and get no great harvest from any one of them. I’m cursed with susceptibility in every direction and effective faculty in none. I care for painting and music. I care for classic literature, and medieval literature and modern literature: I flutter in all ways, and fly in none.

On the surface, this seems an uncanny likeness, and even on a deeper level, it speaks of  diagnosed facets of my inner self, namely ADHD and OCD . I do indeed think of too many things, and am cursed with susceptibilities in all manner of directions, usually taking things up obsessively and dropping them if my progress to perfection is too slow.

My flutterings in the past have included oil painting, guitar, cross stitch, papercrafts, clarinet, mandolin, Spanish, writing, woodwork and a gazillion more. Don’t get me started on how much money I could make selling all the gear!


Flutterbies: An early attempt at learning outlining and flooding

Well one thing I have  fluttered at long enough to feel I am finally starting to fly, is cooking, and in particular baking. My family consider me the Queen of Desserts, and I am a dab hand at making cakes. So recently I have developed a deeper passion for the art of baking and have decided to lengthen my journey by trying my hand at pastry making, bread baking, and most importantly, cake decorating and sugar art.

I cannot deny, that some elements of my exploration are obsessive, often hyperfocussed, and a little bit out of control. And so as I chronicle my baking efforts, I will not be able to avoid straying into the path of OCD behaviours. Nevertheless I think it will be worthwhile, and helpful, to express and share both sides of the coin in this baking blog. Rest assured I am living with two types of OCD, the baking kind AND the medical kind and it is not my intention to belittle the latter.