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Some of my worst cake disasters have resulted in my most poignant cake design lessons. I won’t be posting any photos here–they’re too embarrassing– just sharing what I’ve learned in the hopes of saving you the same pain. Sorry in advance if this causes you to cringe.
1. Little Marissa was about to turn one, and her mom, a neighbor in the apartment building I lived in, asked me to make her birthday cake. This was about 15 years ago, long before my move to California, way before owning my own shop even hinted at reality, and pre-fondant. I made the cake, carefully iced it with my made-from-scratch French buttercream, and put it in the fridge for the party the next day. Marissa loved her cake (Sesame Street-themed), as much as a one-year old could love a cake, and her mom carefully sliced and plated it. I took my first bite, and noticed after I’d swallowed that there was a garlic-y after taste. I didn’t remember eating anything with onions or garlic that day that would explain the taste in my mouth, but it was there, and it lingered. Another bite, same aftertaste. A third bite, same thing. I didn’t really get it, until I returned home, opened up my fridge, and was greeting with a waft of onion-filled air from the onion I had left unwrapped in the fridge. The butter had absorbed the onion odor, leaving a palpable taste on the tongue.
Lesson learned: Don’t store onions (or garlic, scallion, salami, etc.) in the same fridge with your buttercream.
2. I admit it: I’m thrifty. (You can read more about it here.) One time I decided that the trouble I’d had in the past with the less expensive fondant was due to my inexperience. I convinced myself that now, as a more seasoned cake artist, I had mastered fondant and could easily save money by avoiding the more expensive brand and returning to the less expensive one. Wrong. What should have been an easy fondant job turned into an eight-hour fiasco.
Lesson learned: Quality ingredients, although often more expensive, are priceless.
3. One of my best clients asked me to make a cake with pink gumpaste hydrangeas for the shower she was throwing for her sister. I had just switched to a new, less expensive brand of Tylose (see Lesson #2, above) and didn’t know that my new brand would yield different results. I made my gumpaste and carefully calculated the number of hydrangea petals I would need. I allowed the petals, perfectly pink and beautiful, to dry for several days, and on the day of the shower I set about arranging them on the cake. Unfortunately, the new gumpaste was extremely hard and brittle, and all but a few of the hydrangea petals broke. I didn’t have time to make new ones, and luckily was able to compensate for the broken ones, but it reminded me of something every sugar artist knows: always, always make more than you need to allow for breakage. And just when you think you’ve made enough, make some more.
Lesson learned: Always make extra.
4. There were several lessons to be learned from this cake, but they deserve a post unto themselves. For now I’ll just say that I decided to try a new technique on the eve of a wedding. I pulled an all-nighter trying to correct it.
Lesson learned: Always do a dry run when testing new techniques, and never test them on someone’s wedding cake.
5. It was getting late, but I wanted to finish the pleats for a cake I was working on. I’d convinced myself that they needed to be perfect, but with each pass through the pasta roller the fondant became drier and harder to work with, the pleats increasingly flawed, and I more frustrated. It was 3am before I knew it, and I was getting delirious and near tears. Finally, almost at my breaking point, I decided to call it a night. The next day, after a good night’s sleep, I approached the pleats again. This time, I was able to finish them in a single pass through the pasta roller. And they were pretty darn near perfect.
Lesson learned: A clear head and a good night’s sleep are sometimes all that’s needed to execute a challenging design.
6. I’ve been designing cakes for about 15 years, but only started professionally about six years ago. By that time, I had a husband, a daughter, and one one the way. I’ve always felt hampered professionally by the demands of family, and always lamented that I’d be so much more successful if I were single. Last spring, my husband took the girls camping for the weekend. I was excited for some time alone to recapture my single days. I spent a good part of the weekend doing exactly what I planned to do–working on new techniques I’d been wanting to try–with great success. But there was something that felt lonely and empty. The house was too quiet, I missed my kids and husband, and there was no one to share my new creations with. Success suddenly seemed much less important.
Lesson learned: The greatest measure of success is happiness.
May you learn from all your mistakes.