My baby turned three last week. Three! It took her a long time to decide on the design for her birthday cake. At first she wanted Strega Nona, one of her favorite books, but that was a while ago. As her birthday came closer, she vacillated between Hello Kitty and Strawberry Shortcake (with some random other cakes like owls, Dora the Explorer, and monkeys thrown in the mix) until she finally settled on Hello Kitty. The flavors were an easy decision: vanilla with raspberry. (But not for preschool. For preschool she wanted banana cupcakes with blueberry buttercream.)
I cut a chevron template out of paper (I’ll be doing a DIY on this soon) and used it to cut the pink fondant chevron I appliqued to the bottom tier. For the plaque on the top tier, I cut a pink round out of fondant and hand-cut the lettering and number. Hello Kitty was made of gumpaste, except for her clothes which were fondant. And for Hello Kitty’s mini cake I molded gumpaste by pressing it into two well-cornstarched round cutters and allowing it to dry overnight.
This idea was inspired by a post I saw on Such Pretty Things. I forget what I was searching for when I stumbled across it, but I immediately thought the hearts would be just lovely in an ombré. (Until about a year ago and a half ago, I thought ombré was some kind of silken fabric. Silly me. Merriam-Webster defines it as “having colors or tones that shade into each other —used especially of fabrics in which the color is graduated from light to dark”.) This DIY originally appeared on The Wedding Chicks.
I should preface this post by warning readers about the dangers of consuming raw and/or undercooked eggs. I provided a safer alternative to egg whites that I termed “liquid meringue”, a mix of meringue powder and water. Feel free to weigh in on the safety of these ingredients.
Also, this DIY was created for both non-professionals and professionals alike, so I tried to use easy-to-find ingredients. Although I don’t necessarily recommend Wilton’s meringue powder to professionals, it is the most widely available to home bakers.
What you’ll need
Two cups sugar (or more, depending on the number of colors you want), divided
4 teaspoons (or more) egg white or liquid meringue (1 teaspoons of meringue powder mixed with 1 tablespoon warm water)
Paste food coloring (found at local crafts store)
Large cutting board, baking sheet, or other flat surface, lined with silpat or parchment paper
Baking sheet lined with silpat or parchment paper
Ateco aspic cutters or small cookie cutters
Small and medium bowls, spatulas, rolling pin, measuring spoons, measuring cups, ziplock bags, butter knife
3 x 4-inch treat bags, colored ribbon, cake to decorate
Place ½ cup sugar in medium bowl. Add a small amount of paste food coloring (we used a combination of Wilton’s Rose and Violet), and mix thoroughly. This will be your darkest color. (Hint: A little goes a long way and will darken once liquid is added in next step.) Add more if needed until desired color is achieved.
Add 1 teaspoon egg white or meringue liquid and mix thoroughly until the mixture resembles wet sand. Be careful not to add too much liquid or you will dissolve the sugar.
Empty contents onto silpat or parchment lined cutting board or baking sheet. Spread with hand or spatula and pat down, then roll over mixture with rolling pin to compress. Ideally, the flattened mixture should be as compact as possible and level, about ¼”. Press heart cutter into mixture and lift up. Place hearts on lined baking sheet. If cutter will not release heart, gently tap with the back of a butter knife. Repeat 10-20 times or as many as desired. If hearts will not hold their shape, add more egg white or meringue liquid in small increments and mix thoroughly. If sugar builds up in cutter, rinse with warm water and pat dry before continuing.
Pour remaining colored sugar back into bowl and proceed to Step 3.
Add ½ cup sugar to colored sugar from Step 2 to lighten. Mix thoroughly. Add 1 teaspoon egg white or liquid meringue. If desired color is not achieved, continue adding additional ½ cup sugar plus 1 teaspoon egg white or liquid meringue and mixing thoroughly until desired color is achieved.
Repeat Step 2.
Continue with Steps 2 and 3 until desired shades and number of sugar hearts are achieved. We recommend at least three to five shades. Leftover sugar can be stored in ziplock bags for future use.
Heat oven to 200 degrees. Heat hearts in oven for 10 minutes. Allow to harden overnight. Sugar hearts will be the consistency of sugar cubes.
Place 10-20 sugar hearts in treat bag. Staple ribbon to bags. Tie ribbon. Can be given as gifts or used as favors.
For cake: Attach sugar heats to cake using royal icing. Begin with darkest color on smallest tier. Continue with lighter colors.
Special thanks to Brooke Allison of Brooke Allison Photo, a genuine talent and all around funny gal.
Since I’ve set out to open my own shop, I’ve gotten a lot of emails from people curious about how to go about starting a cake design business. I am referring, of course, to the real-deal-legit-business-in-a-commercial-space cake design business, not the one run out of your kitchen like I did for many years. (What? You thought you were the only one baking in your home? Don’t worry…everyone starts out of their home kitchen.) Since many of the rules, laws, standards, and codes that apply to commercial kitchens differ from state to state, I can’t give specific advice. I can, however, share my own personal experience opening up shop (well, it’s almost open) in Hamden, CT.
First, you should know that I do not come from entrepreneurs. My mother was a teacher and my father a social worker. Both earned a predictable and steady salary and retired with sizable pensions. My mom ingrained in me from a young age the importance of having health insurance and saving for retirement, so the thought of opening my own business–with unpredictable income, no retirement plan, and no company-supplied health insurance–essentially scares the shit out of me. I probably would not be doing this were it not for two people. Brian Smith of Ample Hills Creamery has been hugely inspiring to me. He is married to one of my best friends, Jackie, and for years we both talked about opening up our own respective shops. I didn’t realize he was serious, since no one I had ever known actually started their own business. I just thought it was something we both dreamed about. Then he actually went out and did it, and he’s wildly successful. That was the first indication that maybe it was something I too could actually do. I also would not be here without my sister, Jessica. We are sharing the kitchen at my new space (the front will be divided between my consultation space and her soup and salad retail area). She is just as scared as me, but we encourage and support each other, and it all seems okay.
We signed our lease on December 15th and expect to be open February 15th. Here is a brief (and in no way comprehensive) outline of the process, which is still very much in progress.
1. Write a business plan. I know this is something you don’t want to hear and don’t want to do. I didn’t want to do it either, but I’m so glad I did. Writing a business plan helps you focus on your goals and form a business philosophy, anticipate potential pitfalls, analyze the competition, and take inventory of your finances. It’s not fun, but in the end it is vitally important. I needed some ass-kicking to get started, so I took an online business plan course that was structured and gave assignments with deadlines (I need deadlines) so that I got the bulk of my plan written. I still needed help with the financial section (See Step 2).
2. Meet with advisors. Your local SBA and SBDC have advisors who can help you write your business plan, obtain financing, create a marketing plan, etc. Most of their services are free of charge. The SBDCs also offer inexpensive and worthwhile classes in everything from promoting your business using social media to Quickbooks.
3. Obtain licensing. A few of the local agencies in your city or town you’ll need to get to know could include the buildings department, health department, water department, water pollution authority, zoning department, and fire marshall, to name a few. You might also need a city-issued business license (in Long Beach I did; in CT I don’t).
4. Contact your state. The state might require additional licensing (in Connecticut the Department of Consumer Protection oversees bakeries. This is in addition to the local health department). Also contact your state taxation or franchise board. If you want to incorporate, it is done at the state level. You might also need a food handler’s license.
6. Obtain financing. Do this before you sign a lease. The SBA provides low-interest rate loans to small businesses. Many startups have recently opted to fundraise instead of taking business loans using websites like kickstarter.com
7. Find the right location. A pre-existing space that needs only some renovation is the most cost effective. My sister and I, because of our unique needs, could not find a space that worked for us, so we are doing a complete buildout.
8. Get contractors who are reliable, punctual, licensed, and insured. Get at least three bids for each job. Your contractors (plumber, electrician) will pull the appropriate permits and schedule inspections of their work. Other inspections, such as the health department inspection, you might need to schedule on your own.
9. Signage. Most cities regulate the maximum size of your sign and other design elements. Work with a sign company familiar with the regulations that can guide you through it.
10. Prepare to work your ass off. If you’re not willing to put the blood, sweat, and tears in to get your space off the ground, you’re either super rich or you might want to reconsider. This is your baby. Treat it as such. Be there every step of the way so you know what is going on and know that it’s done right and to your specifications.
Here are some photos of our progress.
Pendant lights in the front window are up:
Dry wall is up, taped, and mudded on Jessica’s side:
All the brick is exposed on my side. Walls and pendants are up. We still need to install the floor:
I painted the hutch I bought at a thrift store. I’ll be using it display my cakes and stands:
We have almost all of our kitchen equipment, but it’s not all installed:
My consultation space still needs floors and paint, but I just had to see how some of the furniture would look:
The tin ceiling is completely exposed, primed, and painted. I love it:
If you already use Pinterest, you probably love it. If not, try it, and you’re sure to become addicted. Pinterest is a curated collection of searchable images, meaning that the images are selected by users. Pinterest users are just like you and me, and their searches are our searches, so when you search “wedding flowers” on Pinterest, your results will return only photos of wedding flowers Pinterest users deemed worthy of pinning (rather than the photos of, say, random Equadorian rose wholesalers you get with a Google images search). Users create “boards” (think of them as pin boards used to hold photos with a push pin) to organize their pins. Although some people use Pinterest as another social media outlet, recommending other users to follow, tallying up the number of followers they have, etc., I use it as my own personal inspiration board. I used to have my “Images for Inspiration” folder on my desktop–you know the drill: right click, save image as, etc.–but now I just use Pinterest. And I get inspiration not just for cakes: I have boards for my living room, my studio, even my mudroom.
Below are two images I found on Pinterest that I just had to turn into cake. The first cake is a loose interpretation of the image. (I plan to revisit the sunset rose in the near future.) The second is pretty much a reproduction in sugar. All the decor on each cake is made of gumpaste and is edible–right down to the pine cones. And, just for fun, I’ve included a little Pin It button above each image. Enjoy.
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.
And if you’re really lucky, the team from Branco Prata takes the photos. Dying to see more of their work? You can see the complete Branco Prata gallery here. Special thanks to Sofia and Andre for their beautiful images.
I am infamous amongst family and friends for my thriftiness, but when it comes to cake design there are several things I won’t skimp on. I am sharing a few of them here. For the most part, this list evolved out of my cheapness in that I went for the cheap brand, found it didn’t work, and ended up spending more than I would have because I had to purchase the item twice. Benefit from my experience, save yourself time and money, and don’t cheap out on the following.
1. Fondant. Buy quality fondant. I like Satin Ice. Although Wilton is readily available and relatively inexpensive (for 40% off at Michael’s), it dries out quickly and is difficult to work with. By the time all is said and done, you’ll spend more re-buying than you would if you purchased a 20-pound bucket of Satin Ice. A good resource is bakerskitchen.net
2. Cream Cheese. When it comes to cream cheese, there’s only one option: Philadelphia. It’s the tangiest, cream cheesiest cream cheese there is. Don’t waste your money on anything else: I haven’t found another cream cheese that comes close. Costco sells Philly in large quantities. For baking and icing, always bring it to room temperature first.
3. New X-Acto blades. I find it ironic that something practically invented for cutting paper is so immediately dulled by it. X-Acto blades are cheap. Replace them after cutting paper and as soon as they seem dull. If your blades are not making smooth cuts but are instead shreadding or tearing your fondant, it’s time for a new blade.
4. Butter. European butters typically have higher fat than American butters. Higher fat means lower moisture, so your cakes rise higher, cookies crisp more evenly, and pastries bake flakier. (You can learn more than you’ve ever wanted to know about butter here.) Although most European butters have upwards of 13% butterfat, butters in the U.S. typically have 11%. The “European-style” Plugrá butter is a favorite of mine. Although it contains the standard 11% butterfat, it is made using ”a slow-churned process that creates less moisture content and a creamier texture”, but can be hard to find. If I’m limited to my local supermarket, I like Land-O-Lakes.
5. Acrylic (or polyethelene) rolling pins. The more expensive rolling pins tend to be heavier and denser yet narrower, making rolling fondant and gumpaste easier. Splurge here. Brands to try: PME.Brands to avoid: Ateco, Wilton.
My sister-in-law, Ashley, got engaged last year and planned a November 2011 wedding. I first met Ashley when my now-husbandtreated her to a two-week adventure travel tour of Costa Rica for her 18th birthday. My friend Jackie had convinced me (coerced is more accurate) to go on the same trip, which is where I met and fell in love with Cory. That was seven years ago,and had it not been for Ashley, I would have never met my husband, so I wanted to do something special for her shower.
I decided to host the shower at my home in California (before we relocated to Connecticut) because I wanted it to feel cozy and informal. Let there be no doubt that I worked my ass off on this. I planned the menu, created the invitations, catered the whole thing, and even schlepped to the the L.A. flower market to buy the flowers. I designed every aspect, and executed it all by myself (with special help from cousin Molly and Megan from Honey and Poppies). It was a lot of work but well worth all the effort. One of the bridesmaids told me that the it was the best bridal shower food she’d ever had, and although she qualified “best food” with “bridal shower”, I choose to consider it the highest of praise. Most importantly, Ashley loved it.
As guests arrived, they were greeted by a small flower arrangement that Megan made of hydrangea, roses, dusty miller and licorice displayed in a vintage wine glass (below, left). I repurposed a small wooden ladder (perhaps you remember when it was yellow?)by spray painting it a satin-finish pink. I secured a damask pattern scrapbook paper print to foamcore board, and used decorative brads to attach cardstock with Welcome printed on it. I then fastened a ribbon to the back of the foamcore, and hung the small sign from the glass. I’m no graphic designer (although I fancy myself one), so for the invites, I bought some scrapbook paper that I scored into a tri-fold using my indispensable Martha Stewart scoring board (I like to think of myself as a younger, hipper, more socially conscious, urban Martha), and printed the invites in the fanciest font I could find.
For the centerpieces, Megan and I used hydrangeas in shades of pink and peach as well as stock, peonies, lisianthus, snap dragons and roses. She also incorporated dusty miller and licorice from my garden. (I like to think I helped a lot, and not in the way my kids “help” when I’m cooking.) The centerpieces were displayed in footed glass urns from Megan’s personal collection.
For the backdrop (above and below left), I hung a large white sheet from a photography backdrop stand and overlaid inexpensive gray broadcloth secured with ribbon to create a draped look. The tablecloth was just inexpensive broadcloth (about $2.99/yard). For the bunting on the front of the table, I made a template out of foamcore board. I used the template on 12″ x 12″ scrapbook paper and overlaid the cutouts on contrasting paper (actually, this is the part Molly did), securing them with double stick tape. To secure the squares to the pink ribbon, I spray painted binder clips in a glossy pink. For the brunch, I made baked French toast casserole (excellent and easy, and extremely high-calorie), egg and sun-dried tomato souffle (delish and simple, but not for those on a diet), rosemary potatoes, berry salad, a yogurt bar, homemade biscotti, homemade banana crunch muffins, and a bellini bar (friggin’ fancy).
Look closely…See how I put the French toast label in front of the egg casserole and the egg casserole label in front of the French toast? Yeah, well, I didn’t notice until it was published in The Knot Magazine.
Ashley’s husband-to-be is a yoga instructor, so we thought it would be fun if we handed out flash cards with various yoga positions and had all the guests what position Ashley was in. It was equal parts goofy and fun. For the ribbon backdrop (below), I stapled ribbons of varying widths to a horizontal piece of ribbon and printed out L-O-V-E on 5″ x 7″ cardstock. Ashely knew exactly what she wanted for her cake, and although I’m a little out of practice with my piping, I think it was up to her standards.
This post is an editorial, so no fancy pictures, just my thoughts. However, unlike most editorials that take a definite position, this one is filled with ambivalence.
When I tell people what I do for a living, their first question is always, “Oh, so do you watch the cake shows?” I know just what they’re referencing, of course: The Cake Boss, Ace of Cakes, the Food Network Challenge, Amazing Wedding Cakes, etc. The list seems to constantly grow with no end in sight.
Many cake artists, particularly those who began before the birth of the “cake shows”, hold them in a certain disdain, feeling that they trivialize the art, have caused a saturation in the market, and distort the amount of work involved in creating a cake.
And they’re right: Reality shows like The Cake Boss, Ace of Cakes, and even the Food Network Challenges edit many hours of work into 60 teeny tiny minutes (48 if you don’t count the commercials). In reality (or perhaps I should say real life), the cakes you see on television take many, many hours of work. Even for the Food Network Challenges, in which competitors are limited to eight hours of work time, the designers spend countless hours beforehand preparing for the competition. And anyone who’s ever even attempted to decorate a cake knows that 60 minutes flies by at light speed.
Since the birth of the cake shows, custom cakes have become commonplace if not mandatory. I have seen a definite increase in the number of custom cakes, not to mention sculpted cakes, ordered for events that used to require a sheetcake. What fans of the shows don’t often realize, however, is how much work a cake entails, so when they request a Prada shoe on top of a basketball held by an iguana, they are usually shocked by the cost.
As for the saturation of the market, many new cake design businesses have popped up since the preponderance of the shows, but this need not be seen as a negative. While some cake designers argue that competition is bad for business, I maintain that it actually forces us to raise the bar. Like any business, without competitors, we risk becoming complacent. Rather than being stagnant, competition forces us to better our skills and become better artists. Competition offers an incentive to innovate, too, so that new products are constantly introduced and are made more widely available, making us more efficient.
Although some cake artists resent that reality television has elevated a handful of cake designers to celebrity status, I’m glad our work is finally being recognized for the fine art that it is. The difference is that unlike a painting or a sculpture intended to endure for time immemorial, our work is designed to be temporary. For a lucky few, reality television has captured their art on film and will preserve their work, if only in the public’s consciousness, indefinitely.
Oh, and by the way, I’m way too busy to watch the cake shows.
We’re excited to announce our first classes at our new location! As of Wednesday, we’ll be the official lessees of 1242 Whitney Avenue in Hamden, CT 06517. We expect it to take at least two months for our official opening, so we’ve listed our classes beginning in late January, 2012.
We’re also excited to offer a Fondant Intensive for the first time. In this class, I’ll share all the tips and tools that give fondant-covered cakes a flawless finish. Students will learn various fondant techniques (ruffling, simple flowers, bows, etc.), practice covering real and faux cakes, and engage in a troubleshooting session. students are encouraged to come with lots of questions. This six-hour intensive is perfect for students who live in New York (1.5 hours away) and Boston (2 hours away).
Our classes make fabulous gifts (plus, chances are you’ll get lots of cake out of the deal), so please contact us if you’d like to give a class as a gift.