One Man’s Minute is Another Man’s Hour

Sewing Basket Cake

Sewing Basket Cake

That’s not an actual saying, I just made it up, but it suitably represents one of the themes of this post, which I will get to in a bit. But first to the cake pictured. This is the cake I finished on the weekend for my (former) boss who retired on Monday. I think you can guess where her passions lie… (If you are interested in sewing/knitting/felting then check out her popular blog, Fadanista).

This cake took up the better part of seven evenings and a whole weekend to complete. Leaving out the baking time, and time spent ganaching the basket and the lid, I probably spent close to 10 hours decorating. Which brings me to the title of this post. This sewing basket was a project taken from the Cake Decorating series of magazines, published by DeAgostini, which I have subscribed to and seem destined to keep receiving until I am cold in my grave. (Frankly, the featured projects in each issue after about issue #100 are just plain ugly). This is a typical example of a project found in this magazine for which the decorating time is given as 2 hours!!! Seriously? I am not a novice, and it took me ten. Here is their project:

Magazine cover

Magazine cover

And here again is mine:

Pin cushion and yarn

Pin cushion and yarn

Pretty similar? So where do they get 2 hours from? It was at least 30 minutes covering that yarn ball. That’s a lot of sausage rolling! Ok, so it was a labour of love with a pleasing end result, but a project I may have thought twice about if I had known exactly what I was in for.

Anyway, here are some details. The basket part was a 9″ square chocolate cake covered first in chocolate ganache. Then I covered the top of the cake with a thin layer of marzipan and an additional layer of black RTR icing (sugarpaste). The sides were covered in chocolate brown RTR. The lid was a 1″ layer of additional chocolate cake on a 9″ cardboard cake board. The top of the lid was covered in ganache and the sides were in chocolate brown RTR. Then the top of the lid and the sides of the basket were piped in a basketweave pattern with chocolate coloured royal icing. The lettering was also done in royal icing. All other decorations were made with coloured RTR and modelling paste. I used various silicone moulds, texture mats, stitch wheels, embossers and my good old hands.

The non-edible parts were the two “pins” made from standard cake decorating flower stamens, the ribbons around the board and the lid, and a polystyrene foam ball inside the ball of yarn.

Boy was this sucker heavy!

One major problem was the fifty shades of brown I had to cope with between different brands of chocolate RTR and different batches of royal icing I mixed myself. In this photo you can see a marked difference between the lid and the basket. It was basically tantamount to the difference between milk and dark chocolate.

Fifty Shades of Brown

Fifty Shades of Brown

Thankfully the dark brown ribbon I put around the lid seemed to bring the tones closer together, and a lot of it was covered by the piece of “fabric” that adorned the top.

Now, I do love it when you find a great tip on the internet. After baking the first of two cakes for this project I was frustrated by the amount of waste that occurs when you have to cut off a domed top. Especially if what you are left with is not quite as tall as you would like. A quick trip to Googleland took me to a blog called A Cozy Kitchen where I found a great tip about tying a wet towel around the tin. No, not a whole bath towel. Something more like a long-ish hand or gym towel. A clean one…

Here is the difference between the first and second cakes:

Without towel

Without towel

With towel

With towel

What a difference! I gained at least an inch of height by not having to remove the dome. Thank you Cozy Kitchen person!

The domed cake became the source of my cake lid and I had to cut it twice to: a) remove the dome; and b) halve the remainder. Here is my own tip for bakers on how to cut even layers with just a ruler, some toothpicks and a nice long serrated bread knife.

Step 1: Stand your ruler up against the side of the cake and insert a toothpick at the desired cutting point.

Step 2: Repeat this around the whole cake spacing the toothpicks about 3 inches apart. Be sure to push the toothpicks in for about two thirds of their length, and make sure they are horizontal(!) I pushed mine in further after taking this picture.

Toothpicks level

Toothpicks level

Step 3: Start cutting with your bread knife literally resting on the top surface of one of the toothpicks. Don’t start at one side and try to cut all the way through to the opposite edge. Instead, using a back and forth gentle sawing motion, only cut about one third to one half of the way in and keep rotating the cake as you cut.Having it on a turntable is ideal. Make sure you can always feel the knife touching the tops of the toothpicks.

Step 4: Once you’ve done a full circuit you can cut in a little deeper until the layer has been cut through.

When you remove the cut layer, if you kept your knife resting on your toothpicks you should see the toothpicks nicely exposed but still lightly embedded in the bottom layer.

Exposed toothpicks in bottom layer

Exposed toothpicks in bottom layer

Using this method I can almost guarantee you’ll end up with neat level layers of equal thickness all around.

Level layer

Level layer

And the leftover dome? Goes well with leftover ganache! Or better yet, freeze it and keep it for cake pops, rum balls or some sort of fantastical invention involving warm chocolate sauce and cream…

A final note in this extraordinarily long post, on basketweave piping. This was my first ever attempt and after producing deliciously straight lines on the lid I thought it was a piece of cake. (Pun intended!)

Easy peasy basketweavy

Easy peasy basketweavy

I changed my tune considerably after attempting to do the vertical sides of the basket part of my cake. Lesson learnt? Get your royal icing consistency absolutely right and try it out before you start on vertical surfaces! When the horizontal strokes start sagging southwards it really bursts your balloon. It needs to be quite close to firm peak consistency. And it really helps if the RTR you are icing on to is set hard already because you can scrape off your mistakes and do-over.


A Birthday Blessing

Patchwork Owl Cake

And the winner is…

Back in June I posted about entering an annual cake decorating competition during the Perth Royal Show. Well today (September 27th) is the first day of “The Show,” and is the day on which all the competition winners were announced, AND it is my Birthday. All three things made the day a bit special for me, not least because I had some success in the competition. Huzzah!

The Patchwork Owl cake pictured above is my second attempt at this cake, and the one I entered in the Novelty Cake Class (Amateur Section). Below is a reminder of my first attempt.

Patchwork Owl Cake

Patchwork Owl Cake Take 1

My immediate observations about my second attempt are: the eyes are less weird; the eyebrows are much less imposing (are they eyebrows? Who knows?); the wings are more symmetrical and evenly shaped; and above all, although you can’t see it from the photos, all the joins between panels are sooooo much neater. I was tremendously pleased with my entry, all the more so because I won 1st prize in the Novelty Class, and the Lady Rita Court Prize for the Exhibitor Gaining Highest Points in the Amateur Section.

Even though I took much greater pains over the second attempt, trying to achieve perfection, I was much quicker about completing it this time and could easily knock this one off in a weekend. I think I prefer the colours I chose this time around as well.

Owl Face closeup

Whooo’s looking at you kid?

Side view

Side view 1

The cake inside is Madeira Cake, which is especially ideal for carving.

Side view

Side view 2

The other class I entered was the Decorated Cake Class in the Student Section. This had to be a 1 tier decorated cake fit for a special occasion. This was my entry:

Bone China Cake

It is called a Bone China Cake, and I consider it an homage to Wedgewood. It had to feature a message of some sort to denote the occasion, and obviously I made it to be for a 60th Birthday celebration. The cake inside is a chocolate mud cake with a chocolate ganache crumb coat.

And how did I go? My cake came 3rd. Huzzah again! Although I wasn’t in 1st place, I was very pleased to see that the winner was a fellow student from the cake decorating course I am attending. Well done Dana!

Top view

Top view

Side detail

Side detail

And to top all of that off, the points I earned with these two entries earned me the Roma McLaglan Memorial Trophy and Sash for Exhibitor Gaining Highest Points in the Student/Amateur Sections! (Phew! That’s a mouthful). Now isn’t that just the icing on the cake? Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun, but do please pardon it.

But wait, there’s a little bit more. Several friends messaged me this evening to say that they saw my Patchwork Owl cake in a new story on TV this evening which was covering the opening day of the Royal Show. What a shame I didn’t see it. Sadly I have to wait until next Friday to go to the Show myself and see my cakes on display with all the others. I shall be on tenterhooks all week.

So, a very pleasing milestone in my cake decorating learning journey, and a wonderful blessing on my Birthday. It is all starting to feel quite worthwhile! I will finish with a big thank you to my teacher at Cake Tinz n’ Thingz, Tammy, for her encouragement to enter. Thank you Tammy!

Furry Edges, Florist’s Tape and other Flings

Flower Spray

Sugarpaste flower spray

When first I began my cake decorating course I had the idea that the real skill in cake decorating lay in a person’s creativity. But as time has gone on I have begun to see that dexterity, or finger finesse as I like to call it, plays a far bigger part.

One of the projects we recently completed in class provides a good case in point. For the purposes of learning some traditional techniques associated with creating wired roses and leaves, we made these simple flower sprays. The leaves, roses, buds and small blossoms were all made with modelling paste, while the ribbons, wires and stamens are of course all non-edible.

Although I am not much drawn to the more traditional floral aspects of cake decorating, I did quite enjoy this project, not least because of the lesson learnt about finesse, and the progress I felt I made in developing some of it!

Let’s start with furry edges. Whenever you cut a shape out of sugarpaste with a cutter or scalpel, you are typically left with a slightly furry edge rather than a clean cut. While in some parts of the world this is generally held acceptable, it seems that in Australian cake decorating circles, particularly in the competitive realm, it is most definitely not acceptable. In class we were shown very early on how to remove furry edges from cut shapes by gently running a finger down over the edge, effectively rounding the edge over and removing the furry bits. Easier said than done.

I remember at the time our teacher saying “don’t worry if it looks like it isn’t working, just keep doing it and eventually you will get it.” I also remember thinking this was not helpful advice, because it did indeed look like it was not working, and how could I get it right if I was consistently doing it wrong? Nevertheless I pushed on through various furry-edged projects until one day at home, while completing homework for the flower spray project, I was going through the motions of running my fingers off the edges of my petals when, what do you know? the furry edges were coming off! My teacher was right – eventually I got it! And I could only conclude that somehow, through repeated practice, I had developed the necessary finesse with furry edge removal.

The finer details

The finer details

Finesse was equally required in covering all the wire stems with florist’s tape, as well as in taping the whole ensemble together. It needed a deft twirling of the stem with the fingers of one hand, while stretching out the tape on the other without breaking it. Likewise with taping all the elements together into one stem. The weight of the leaves and flowers together had the annoying habit of constantly spinning the whole around to the back. Much patience was also required.

The flowers and leaves in this project were not made with coloured paste, nor through being painted with petal dust, but rather through dipping. This is a technique I haven’t tried before but will definitely do again in the future.

Dipped leaves

A flotilla of foliage drying after being dipped

I rather like the variations in depth of colour produced by the coloured dipping solutions. The handy thing is that if you run out of the white alcohol used in this technique, a quick trip to your liquor cabinet can provide an easy replacement. Clear alcohol such as gin or vodka serves just as well. In my case I sacrificed some Sapphire gin I had in the cupboard to provide an un-tinted wash I could dip my tinted blossoms into to lighten the colour a little. The silly post-script to this story is that I was left with about 40 ml of pink-tinged gin that it seemed a waste to tip down the sink. I thought “what the heck” and took a slug, forgetting it was neat! After the burning in my mouth subsided I carried on with my project sporting quite a rosy glow! (no pun intended, but it works rather well…).

I did try the technique of dusting parts of my roses with a dark petal dust prior to dipping, but hadn’t chosen a colour sufficiently more dark than the dipping solution and so the roses came out fairly uniform in colour.

A dusted rose pre-dipping

A dusted rose pre-dipping

Finesse played a tiny part in the dipping process. Immediately after having dipped the flower/leaf into the solution you must twirl it inside a tall jar (or the jar of solution itself, if of a sufficient width) to fling off the excess liquid. It required a certain amount of careful skill not to wallop them against the sides of the jar. (This was one stage at which it helped to have made spares).

More dipped leaves

No need to see the leaves again, but I like the photo effect!

Although I haven’t yet seen any obvious use for the flower spray, as an artefact of my learning it serves as a visual reminder of the progress I am making, and the finesse I am most definitely developing.

Cakes and More Cakes

Flower cake

My first term of cake decorating classes ended just before Easter, and our final project was a covered fruit cake with flowers. I don’t especially enjoy making sugar flowers purely because of the time involved. For someone with back and pelvis injuries like me, it is never easy to sit for long periods working on something like this. This saddens me a little, because at the end of it all, I really rather liked my cake.

The flowers we made in this project are dog roses, eriostemon, and basic blooms. They were coloured using petal dust and finely grated artist’s pastels (non-toxic). The great thing with the pastels is the ease with which you can mix your own colours. The leaves are rose and ivy. I was never very sure about the colours I was choosing, but they seem to harmonise well. It felt a great shame to have to break them off the cake before cutting it.

At around the same time my brother came home to Perth for a visit from the UK, where he lives, and we were able to celebrate his 50th birthday with him. This is the cake I created. I feel I am truly getting the hang of covering fruit cakes smoothly now.

50th birthday cake

50th birthday cake

And finally, I made another cake for a colleague leaving our office. He is a devoted fan of a local Australian Rules Football team called the Fremantle Dockers, and so I decided to make a little team guernsey to sit on the cake. I made a template for the guernsey in Photoshop, with each block of colour being a separate black shape. Then it was just a matter of cutting out the shapes and sitting each piece on the purple background guernsey shape.

Fremantle Dockers cake

Fremantle Dockers cake

While trying to use some plastic letters to lightly imprint the covered board, so that I might use the imprints as a piping guide, I pressed too hard and left a rather deep imprint. I am increasingly finding that the greatest area of creativity in cake decorating lies in covering up your mistakes! The solution here was to press all of the letters in, and fill in the imprints with the mauve royal icing I was going to pipe with. I actually rather liked the effect in the end!

Cornelli Lace, and a Pretty Face …

Candy Egg

Candy egg with Cornelli Lace piping

(Ok, I know the lyric is “Chantilly Lace”, but I’m trying to be inventive.)

Last week I completed the first term of a cake decorating course for beginners. The predominant emotion throughout the seven weeks of the term was frustration, as I battled my own impatience at not being able to master everything immediately. Let’s just say, the road was a little bumpy, although by the end I was quite proud of my efforts.

The hot temperatures of the Perth Summer made it hard to combat modelling paste, fondant, candy icing, etc. drying out too quickly and causing the dreaded “elephant skin” look on surfaces that should have been  as smooth as a baby’s you-know-what. Then as the weeks went on tiredness, pelvis injuries and other life intrusions made it hard to keep up with the homework. My Ragdoll kitten sent me back to square one when she knocked all my sugar flowers for a cake project to the floor, causing every single one of them to smash into pieces. I spent a whole weekend re-making them all…

And don’t anyone ever mention the words “floppy flowers” to me again – it seems I have hot hands and little patience for floppiness as I never did succeed in creating one single floppy flower that didn’t look like a dog’s breakfast (so to speak). Actually I don’t think even a dog would have eaten my floppy flower disasters. I did in fact produce one flower in class that was halfway there, but then stupidly left it in the plastic container in which I transported it home, and true to name it became very floppy and had to be thrown away (fondant icing turns soft in airtight containers).

The pictured candy egg above is part of another project we did this term, which was an Easter plaque featuring a decorated candy egg and a sugar paste bunny. (I can’t help but wonder what the two lovely Muslim ladies in our group did with theirs!) My plaque is currently brightening our team’s work area at the office. Candy eggs are rather fun to make (eventually) but I can’t help but smile at the memories of disappointment we used to feel as children if ever a candy egg was received at Easter, instead of the expected chocolate ones traditionally given in Australia.

I say eventually,  because they too were a cause of frustration for me. Making the eggs before decorating them was a challenge as the pictures below show. Getting the egg halves off the moulds typically resulted in baggy, wrinkly, and let’s face it, ugly surfaces.

A not so smooth egg half

A not so smooth egg half.

And it was very difficult to cut the edges neatly when removing the overhanging excess.

Rough edges

Rough edges

Then, once dried, dropped or mishandled, the egg halves occasionally came to an unhappy end…

Broken egg

An unhappy (but tasty) end to this egg!

I am happy to say that while having another go at it at home, I did come up with some solutions to some of these frustrations. To whit: plastic food wrap placed over the moulds before laying on the rolled out candy icing made removal of the egg halves a breeze and therefore reduced the risk of stretched or wrinkled surfaces. And as for the rough cut edges, my teacher (who occasionally reads this blog – gulp!) would be horrified to know that I found it very effective to rub the edges of the dried halves on fine grain sandpaper(!). Obviously I wouldn’t do that if it was my intention that anyone would actually eat my Easter plaque.

Sadly I missed the class during which we were shown how to join the egg halves and decorate them, but I had a go at home using a bit of common sense and was quite pleased with the result (shown at the top of this post). The little decorative “brooch” in the centre of the egg was made with some modelling paste and a silicone mould, and the wiggly piping was my first attempt at the “Cornelli Lace” piping technique. There were some lessons learnt the hard way about spacing piped dot borders, and the nozzle size used for the Cornelli pattern (i.e. a finer nozzle would probably have been better for such a small surface area), but overall I was quite pleased with the attempt. Joining the two halves and piping over them to cover the join was made much easier thanks to my sandpaper caper. 🙂

On a side note, I made a (half-hearted) search on the internet and could not find an explanation of the origins of Cornelli Lace. I suspect it is a dressmaking or fabric-based term that has made its way into cake decorating, but if anyone can enlighten me…

This term we also learnt how to make various simple flowers, and were introduced to basic figure modelling. The latter involved making a bunny to go on the Easter plaque, and my first attempt featured ill-judged colour choices and an onion-shaped head that snapped off some weeks later during the kitten & smashed flowers incident mentioned earlier. I wasn’t particularly pleased with the cracks in the ears either, which were the result of the quick-drying effect of the fore-mentioned hot weather.

First bunny figure

Bunny #1

I was rather more pleased with Bunny #2, despite accidentally smudging black food colour on his stomach.

Bunny #2

Bunny #2

I’ve just noticed my injudicious placement of an Eriostemon flower, as if protecting his modesty. I might need to add a few more around his feet to reduce the effect!

And the end result…

Easter plaque

The finished Easter plaque

… complete with M & Ms Speckled Eggs…

Side view of plaque

Side view

.. and hand made Daisies, Eriostemon, and Ivy leaves.

Eriostemon flowers

Eriostemon flowers



Secretly, I’m rather pleased with the whole.

And now for the pretty face of the title, who was also the culprit in the flower-smashing incident – my young Ragdoll called Audrey. Butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth…

Ragdoll cat called Audrey


O Toothsome Titbits!

Salted Chocolate Pistachio Fudge

Salted Chocolate Pistachio Fudge

A recent spurt of inventiveness led me to carry out a couple of baking experiments that by some miracle came out out nicely. To be truthful I can’t really credit a capacity for creativity when in actuality it was more a matter of laziness – I simply couldn’t be bothered browsing through recipes and making trips back to the supermarket, when on both occasions I was passing the supermarket on the way home from work.

For this first one I had a basic recollection of a fudge recipe, and so knew what I needed and what I had at home. And while making it I decided to improvise a little, and the result – Salted Chocolate Pistachio Fudge.  Here’s the recipe:

Salted Chocolate Pistachio Fudge

1 cup shelled pistachios, coarsely chopped
250g dark cooking chocolate
250g dark chocolate melts
395g can sweetened condensed milk
65g butter
Malden sea salt flakes

Melt the chocolate, condensed milk and butter in a small saucepan over a low heat, stirring until completely smooth and combined. Add the pistachios, and then sea salt to taste (I used about 1 scant tablespoon).

Pour the mixture into a 20cm square cake tin lined with foil and smooth it out as best you can. Work quickly as it stops being spreadable pretty quickly as it cools. Refrigerate until set. Cut into 1″ squares.

The basic fudge recipe comes from an old Christmas Recipes book put out by Family Circle, and even without the salt is a sure hit. But be warned, it is so rich you can’t eat more than one square at a time (I know this for certain, I’ve tried!).


These sweet and sticky beauties I came up with from scratch as I wandered around the supermarket looking for inspiration. I call them Caramel Ginger Pods. My Mum once made a recipe that used Arnott’s Gingernut Biscuits as a ready made casing for some sort of lime and cream cheese filling. I was taken by the simplicity of the concept but quite unhelpfully, Mum had no recollection of it whatsoever.

I knew, though, that you had to heat the biscuits in the oven, sitting in a round-base patty tin, to soften them. But for how long, and at what temperature, I knew not. But I thought I’d give it a go anyway. I wanted to do a gooey caramel filling instead of cream cheese, and thought immediately of Nestlé’s Top ‘n’ Fill Caramel. I took inspiration from a recipe on the back of the can, which combined the caramel with white chocolate melts.

(The appearance here in this blog post of two related products that sit side by side on the supermarket shelf – Sweetened Condensed Milk, and Top ‘n’ Fill – is purely coincidental!)

Back at home I had a vague inkling that I might in fact have had a recipe somewhere that used the Gingernut technique for its base. My memory served me well and I found the recipe in a little Women’s Weekly /CSR recipe book called Cakes, Biscuits and Slices. The amazing thing is the recipe was called Caramel Meringue Pies! The difference was that it required Butternut Snap Biscuits, and used Top ‘n’ Fill on its own as the filling. Plus I wasn’t doing a meringue topping.  So I now had the oven temperature and time, and the rest is history. Here’s my recipe:

Caramel Ginger Pods

250g packet Gingernut Biscuits
380g can Top ‘n’ Fill Caramel
1 cup white chocolate melts
1 tube white chocolate writing fudge (alternatively use melted white chocolate and a piping bag)

Preheat oven to 160C. Place one biscuit in each hole of a 12-hole round-based patty pan and bake for about 10 minutes, or until the biscuits feel soft. Immediately on removing the biscuits from the oven, press each one down into the patty pan hole to make them into a concave shape, and allow to cool.

Meanwhile melt the Top ‘n’ Fill and white chocolate in a small saucepan and stir until smooth. Spoon the filling into each cooled biscuit cup and refrigerate until cool. To finish off put a squiggle of the writing fudge on top of each.

Tip #1: I found the Gingernuts had a tendency to try to revert to their flattened shape when I pressed them down with a spoon. A much more effective measure turned out to be pressing them down with the large marble mortar from my mortar and pestle, which exactly matched the size of the biscuits. Be quite firm.

Tip #2: Butternut cookies could work as well for the bases.

Tip #3: You could try substituting caramelised Sweetened Condensed Milk for Top ‘n’ Fill if you can’t find it, but there’s obviously a little more work involved in boiling the can of condensed milk to caramelise it.

Tip # 4: Like the fudge, they are rich and sweeeeet!

Now finally, a word about the title of this post. Toothsome is an old-fashioned word you don’t hear much these days, but which I had always thought described a figure with prominent teeth, as in the minion below that I recently made out of sugarpaste. In fact it is an adjective to describe something delectable or appealing in appearance. You live and learn…