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!

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Bye Baby Bunting

Baby Shoes Project

Baby Shoes Project

This is a finished project from Term 2 of Beginner’s Cake Decorating class. There were two parts to the project – make the baby booties and decorate the cake. Actually it isn’t a real cake, but a foam block, but that’s neither here nor there…

The significance of the title of this post is that we were meant to decorate the cake with bunting but I said goodbye to that idea because I had just got the silicone mould for the lace trim (around the bottom of the cake) and I wanted to try it out on something.

Streamers to boot

Streamers to boot

The trim on its own was a little too minimalist so I decided to have a go at the streamers and I really like how it has all turned out. Perhaps the lace is a little out of place, but what the heck!

Cute as a button

Cute as a button

Making the booties was a lot of fun. They are made with a half-and-half mixture of modelling paste and fondant icing. We were given a template to cut out the shoes, and I made another for the teddy bear faces. I saw the idea for the teddy faces on a website that I can’t now find again, so I offer my apologies to the owner of the design!

Strange as it may seem, my favourite part of this whole project is the tiny little buttons on the sides of the booties. So simple but so endearing.

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).

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.

Ooooh Baby Baby …

Baby hands and feet cupcakes

Baby hands and feet cupcakes

When my dabbling in cake decorating was first in its infancy (oh dear, pardon the pun), a very good friend of mine did me the very great favour of falling pregnant and holding a baby shower. So of course I had the opportunity to make and decorate cupcakes for the shower, which had a theme of high tea.

An excited excursion to my local cake decorating store, saw me returning home with two silicon moulds of baby hands and feet. Silicon moulds are a fantastic invention, and so very easy to use with great result. To the uninitiated it makes you seem very clever when in fact what you’ve done was really so very simple.

At any rate coupling the hands and feet with a simple embossed quilted pattern proved very effective, for minimal effort. It is as easy as colouring some modelling paste, pressing a small amount into the mould, which you have coated lightly with white vegetable shortening, trimming the excess off the back so that you have a flat surface, and pressing out the finished shape. Voilà!

A short while later the same friend, who is also a work colleague, went on maternity leave and I was able again to take advantage of the occasion to make her a farewell-and-good-luck-with-the-baby cake. For this cake I took inspiration from one I saw in a book, and modified it slightly to suit my own experimental purposes. I decided to model a tiny sleeping baby placed on top of the cake and surrounded by various mini creatures including my friend’s ginger cat.

Sleeping like a baby

Sleeping like a baby

Baby cake with animals

Note ginger cat …

As happy as I was with most of it, the art of modelling animal ears was proving illusive until we were given an impromptu quick lesson in modelling a reindeer at the end of my class this week. Ears are much easier than I supposed now that I have seen how. Can’t wait to try it out.

Easter figurines

Easter figurines

The bluebirds and bunnies made a return appearance on some Easter cupcakes I did for a friend’s 4 children. I hadn’t met the kids before, and was worried when I saw how old they were, that they would find the cupcakes a bit kidsy. But to my great delight I found out that they have kept their figurines ever since and they sit in a display cupboard with other family treasures! (The figurines, not the kids. I do not condone the preservation of children in display cabinets).

With Flair and Ganache

Covered cake with roses

Covered cake with roses

After my recent lament about the frustrations of covering a cake with rolled fondant, I have finally gained some insight into techniques for success. It seems the answer lies in your geographical location!

A great many books I have read about cake decorating, or sites I have visited, advise you to cover your cake with buttercream in order to smooth out its contours before covering. This is what I have been attempting. But here’s the hot tip I picked up in my cake decorating class this week – climatic conditions in Australia make ganache a better product for covering cakes than buttercream, which is generally what UK and US folks recommend. If I may quote Aleksandr Orlov, the Russian meerkat – simples!

So in class we all had a stab at covering our cake projects and here is my finished cake. Aside from a slight case of elephant skin, only visible on extreme close-up inspection, I am pretty happy with it and confident I can get it closer to perfect with a bit of practice.

The cake was duly devoured at work the next day by willing colleagues. Even the roses and leaves, which quite frankly leave a lot to be desired given that they are made of petal paste. Not nice.

Things That Go Lumpy in the Night

IMG_0046

Petal paste rose

Tonight I attend week 3 of a cake decorating course I enrolled in after finally admitting to myself that all the book reading and internet searching in the world was not going to make it any easier to cover cakes flawlessly. In week 1 we created petal paste roses and in week 2 (last week) we tackled leaves, and tinting our roses.

I am particularly excited about tonight’s class because it is the week where we do actually look at cake-covering, and it can’t come soon enough for me! The mini cake making an embarrassed appearance in this blog is the most recent in a long line of exercises in frustration, and rampant over-decorating to hide a less than flawless surface.

This mini cake is made up of two little cylinders of chocolate mud cake sandwiched together with a little bit of buttercream. Since I baked them in a mini cake tin, and levelled them with a cake leveller, they were exactly the same size and had very neat, crisp, edges and sides. I crumb-coated them with buttercream, very sparingly, and then had a crack at covering them with the rolled sugarpaste. So far so good.

After giving the mini cake a good go over with a smoother I was fairly happy with the result. Next morning, however, seeing my efforts in the cold, unforgiving light of day, I found it had taken on distinctly pyramidal proportions, and a serious case of middle-aged spread. Have I perfected the world’s first muffin top mini cakes?

Covered mini cake

Do I look fat in this?

Since this was intended as a Bon Voyage + Happy Birthday cake for a friend, I decided to push on and endeavour to mitigate the night bulge with some judicious embellishment. The first step in this direction was to add an embossed border. Mental note #1: make embossed borders thinner!

Mini cake with border added

Mini cake with border added

I probably should have stopped at this point, but decided nonetheless to mix up some royal icing and pipe a dot trail at the base of the border. Mental note #2: I suck at dot trails…

I had made so much royal icing that when I had finished I began to look for ways to use up the leftover icing. I tried my hand at lettering, piping my name all over the kitchen counter, but then fell victim to the temptation to pipe more things on my mini cake. BIG MISTAKE. I had the idea that a pattern of dots would help hide the lumpy, bulgey, and occasionally finger indented surface. Despite my best efforts at flattening the little peaks on the dots with a dampened finger, as one is apparently meant to do, I can’t help thinking my cake looks like it has developed a multitude of extraneous nipples. Oh dear …

You can judge for yourself.

The finished cake

Should have quit while I was ahead.

The final touch was some gold lustre on the leaves to match the rose. None of these efforts was ever going to hide the undulating roughened edges of the cake board but I finally knew I ought to stop. Let’s not talk about the edge that I put a glass down on (and judiciously moved to the back while taking photos).

Needless to say my friend still loved it. Don’t you just love forgiving friends?

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!

IMG_0001

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.