Friday, December 30, 2011

Happy holidays, happy new year!

It never ceases to amaze me how fast time can fly; has it really been nearly 2 months since I last posted!  The end of the year has always been the busiest time of the year at my day job, and not surprisingly it has become the busiest time of the year in my cake world.  In addition to birthdays and Christmas, 'tis the season for TLS's "Dickens by Candlelight" production.  A lovely interpretation of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol".  For me it meant providing enough cupcakes and Christmas cake to keep 5 audiences happy during the intervals.  That translates to about 300 cupcakes and 150 portions of Christmas cake over a 4 day period.  More than once that meant baking after I finally got home at about 10pm.  Sleep became a coveted luxury!
In addition to all that I provided a cast party cake for the cast and crew.  I had all kinds of grand ideas as to what it would look like, but in the end time, or more precisely the lack thereof, dictated the outcome. I was so busy that I never even took pictures of the cake, let alone all the cupcakes and Christmas cake.
So instead I've posted pictures of this year's Christmas cakes.  The snowman is an Alan Dunn design and provided the theme for this year's Christmas orders.  Seven of these cakes were made this year, with slight variations to the theme.  The poinsettia cake was a labour of love and ambition for my parents.  I shipped this cake to Finland and hope to goodness it arrived in one piece!

Finally, the bauble cake was our family cake for this year.  It was a rush job done on Christmas eve morning but I love how it came out.  I took inspiration for the side design from my daughter's cardigan and the rest sort of evolved by itself.

Thanks for stopping by!

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Cymbidium Orchid Cake

This cake was ordered days after I delivered the Hibiscus cake by another colleague for  her Mum's 75th birthday.  The brief was simply,"white Cymbidium orchids, make it look beautiful".  I didn't really have clear idea in my head how I wanted the cake to look, but I started out by making the orchids. I took my time, making lots more than I needed so that I could pick and choose the best ones for the cake.  Once the orchids were complete, everything sort of evolved by itself from there.  I decided that a very, very pale ruby colour should be used to cover the cake.  Then I realised I needed something in a soft, delicate green and the next thing I knew I was making eucalyptus leaves.  My next idea was to add some tiny filler flowers, such as jasmine or stephanotis, but as usual, I ran out of time.
It always amazes me just how much time making something as simple as leaves can take.  Each leaf needs to be individually wire, veined and dusted before they can be wired together to form a stem.  It also took ages for me to figure out how to wire the flowers and leaves together to make an attractive spray for the cake.  Alan Dunn makes it look so simple, but trust me, it isn't!!!
All in all I was extremely pleased with the way this cake came out.  Hard and time consuming as they are to make, I must say that flowers give me the most pleasure to make. There is something so unbelievably beautiful in even the simplest flowers.  For me it is such a thrill to be able to even vaguely reproduce that beauty.

In closing I can't resist adding that the recipient was so delighted with this cake that she refused to let anyone cut it!  She has put it on display for all to see and no amount of pleading can make her eat this one!  Luckily it is a sacher torte which keeps very well for longer periods.  Even so, perhaps I should have made it out of styrofoam........

Thanks for stopping by!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Tropical flowers and elephants

With summer at an end and autumn upon us, the pace has picked  up once again.  I have noticed some evolution in the type of cakes requested of me, which for the most part pleases me greatly.  Having invested a great deal of time and money in learning the art of sugar flowers, I had been a little disappointed that these were the one thing that were not in demand.  This hibiscus cake has changed the pattern.  This is a cake I made as a thank you gift to our fitness trainer on her last day with our group.  It was my first attempt at hibiscus and cape leadwort, so I made twice as many flowers as I needed and picked the best of the bunch.
The cake itself is an organic chocolate zucchini cake filled with organichazelnut chocolate ganache and covered with organic white ganache.  I recently made another organic chocolate cake and tried to make organic fondant.  It was such a headache, so expensive and so utterly impossible to work with that I swore I would never do anything with organic fondant again!  Please note that there is nothing organic about these flowers:))
Approximately the same time I had an order for an elephant cake.  Although no flowers were involved, I thoroughly enjoyed making this one.  The original detail had been for a fully 3-D elephant standing up, but after sleeping on it I realised that I didn't have the experience, let alone the knowledge to do this.  I knew I didn't have enough time to do a trial run, so this is the compromise.  The head is solid fondant with gumpaste ears and tusks.  I think I was a bit timid with the wrinkles and folds, but in the end better safe than sorry!
My original design was to be of an Indian elephant with full parade paraphenalia, but at the last minute I changed my mind and made him an African elephant.  I loved the idea of the massive ears much more....and luckily so did the birthday girl!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Year has Passed.....

Hard to believe it has been over a year since my first blog entry, yet so much has happened and I have learned more than I ever thought I would in a year.  One Lorraine McKay figure course and two Alan Dunn sugar flower courses later I like to think my skills have significantly increased.  Although I started out a year ago thinking I would branch out into the world of cupcakes,  I now realise  that my ultimate love is for sugar flowers.  Alan Dunn never ceases to amaze me with  his talent, and I have a dream of one day being able to make flowers that look absolutely real.

After my great success with the Christmas cakes I made in bulk for many of my colleagues, the New Year saw a marked increase in cake orders for me.  Most of them were children's cakes, a great place to begin, I believe!  Although somewhat limited in how much one can earn with children's cakes, I have to admit that they are always great fun and immensely rewarding to make.  I treasure the wide-eyed looks of wonder and delight of each birthday child when he/she sees his/her cake for the first time.  it means more to me than the money I earn from the cake to see those little faces shining with delight!

When I make cakes for adults, the focus is entirely different; despite the admiration for the cake itself, usually the key factor is the flavour of the cake.  How delicious the cake is seems to be the ultimate criteria.  Just recently a friend and colleague ordered two undecorated cakes for a party he was planning.  He actually wrote on the invite that there will be "Sonja's cakes"!!!  What a compliment that was:)  Lest I lead you astray, I should also note that despite the shift in emphasis with adult cakes (and I don't mean naughty cakes!) these have invariably also been the most challenging to make.
After a year of  making cakes to the tune of nearly four a week, excluding the summer holidays, it's time to start writing the business plan and to make concrete plans for the future.  My clients and friends, colleagues who have bought my cakes have given me the confidence to really make this a reality.  So time was spent this past summer talking to people and my banker about my prospects and finances.  With a lot of very encouraging feedback I am hatching a plan.

But before I can fulfill this plan I need to take more courses and practice, practice, practice my decorating and my flower making skills.  I also need to  compete, successfully I might add, in order to give myself more credibility.  Sooooo, come next spring I will be entering my first competition(s).  Wish me luck and keep your fingers crossed for me!!!!!!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Making Godetias

Back home at last and definitely time to catch up on my blogging!  I have been traveling a lot and so have taken a break from cake making.  Nevertheless, I had time to practice my flower making skills while relaxing in the country.  My father challenged me to make him some sugar Godetias, which he is particularly fond of.  With no tutorials, cutters or veiners for this particular flower, only the real thing as a model, I accepted the challenge.
I wish I had a better picture of the original, but by the time I thought to do so, a downpour had rendered most of the Godetias in the garden unsalvageable.  So this rather pathetic little bloom served as my model.  I took one of the blossoms and dissected it into all it's separate parts and then set about finding a petal cutter that would most closely resemble that of the Godetia.  I did think of cutting the petals free hand, but wanted to guarantee a uniform size.  In the end I used a GEM cutter for the cymbidium orchid throat, from which I trimmed the sides straight and cut off the tip.  Then I made a little notch in the top of the petal.  I wired each petal with a 28 gauge wire, softened the edges with a ball tool and used the silk veining tool on both sides of the petal.  I then left them to dry on paper towel petal formers.

Once I had made enough petals for 6 blossoms, I made several buds by rolling a small ball of sugarpaste into a narrow cone and threading it on to 26 gauge wire.  With the narrow end of the Dresden tool I made three longitudinal scores around the bud.  The leaves were made freehand by rolling a small ball of sugarpaste on to a 28 gauge wire , then shaping it into a small cone before rolling it flat.  I then softened the edges with a balling tool and gently shaped each leaf by pinching it in at the base, making a gentle fold and then gently bending the wire to a slightly curved shape.  Once dry I dusted the buds and the leaves with a mixture of lime. white and ivy green dusting powder.  The leaves were slightly darker than the buds and I made sure to leave the central vein undusted.  The real Godetia has leaves and flowers all down it's stem, but I decided to make only one group of flowers at the top, with only a few leaves and buds on each stem.

To make the pistil I used a 22 gauge wire and bent a small loop at the top with pliers.  Then I made 4 tiny, tiny teardrop shaped balls which I flattened with my fingers before using CMC glue to stick on the wire around the loop.  Once all 4 were firmly attached I pinched the tip of each ball and curved each one outwards.  For the stamens I used 30 gauge wire cut into short lengths.  I used a miniscule amount of sugar paste and twiddled it on to the wire.  the aim was to make a very narrow, pointed stamen.  Once I was satisfied with the shape of the stamen, I very gently curved the tip of the stamen.  Four stamens were needed for each blossom.

Once the pistils and stamens were dry, I wired 4 stamens around each pistil and arranged the stamens so that they were all curving outwards. I then dusted the stamens with a mixture of lemon and primrose dusting powder and set them aside.

Since Godetias come in a large variety of pinks, reds and even white, Dad wanted me to make the two stems I was making in different shades.  So I decided on salmon pink and bright fuchsia.  Unfortunately I didn't have the exact shades in dusting powders, but I got fairly close with the salmon by using pink, rose pink and a pinch of primrose.  Each petal was dusted before I wired them together.  I left the edges almost white, and made the middle of the petal deeper in colour for a more realistic effect.

For the fuchsia petals I mixed plum with vermillion and rose pink.  For the base of each petal I added white and brushed on a very pale layer on both sided.  Then I started from the top of each petal with the stronger colour and worked my way down towards the base, leaving a clear demarkation of colour.

Once all the petals were dusted I wired 4 petals around each stamen-pistil group, overlapping each petal slightly with the previous one.  To make the sepal I took some pale green sugarpaste, rolled it out fairly thin and cut a very fat teardrop shape freehand.  I then softened the tip of the teardrop with a balling tool and used the silk veiner to vein the outside of the sepal.  After moistening the base of the teardrop I wrapped it around the base of the flower, pinching it in firmly right beneath the petals and then twiddling the rest down the stem.  I didn't quite get the shape I wanted, but according to Dad it looked real enough.   Then I used the thin end of the Dresden tool to score the base longitudinally.  I shaped the tip by pinching the tip and gently curving the very tip outwards.  Once it had had some time to dry, I dusted it the same colour as the buds.   

At last it was time to wire everything together.  First I wired a bud just below each flower.  Next I wired three flowers together, bending the stems to make an "umbrella" of flowers.  Starting at the point where all three flower stems met, I attached the leaves in pairs with each subsequent pair at right angles to the previous pair.  Next I dusted the leaf and bud stems to blend in with the leaves and stems.  Finally, to seal the colours I steamed both stems of flowers and sprayed the petals with glaze to give them a bit of a shine.

Dad was immensely pleased with his Godetias and planned to use them on his birthday cake.  I only wish I could have been there to make the whole cake for him!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Cupcake deluge

 It's strange, but not so very long ago I was writing to a fellow baker, telling her that the vast majority of all my orders are for cakes, not cupcakes.  To be sure, I have made hundreds of cupcakes in the past year, but most were donations or gifts, with the one glaring exception being the cupcakes I made for TLS in December.  Now all of a sudden I have more cupcake orders than ever before?!
I don't mind, as they are in general less work and far less stressful to create than cakes, but I am a bit bemused.  My cupcake bouquet, which I originally made as a gift for a sick friend, has become rather popular, with my fifth one being delivered all the way to Heidelburg (about an hour's drive away).
 These cute puppies were made for a client who wanted to give them as a surprise gift to a friend.  However, this friend also ordered a birthday cake from me to be delivered the same day as the puppy cupcakes.  Needless to say, the cupcake order had to be cancelled:(  I had no choice than to pack the orphan puppies carefully in a box and hope they would find a home soon.
 On a happier note, the same client contacted me a couple of weeks later to order flower and butterfly cupcakes for her mother.  I was given pretty much free rein with the design as long as they were chocolate and had butterflies.  These are what I came up with.
 June 21st, or the closest weekend after that is cause for midsummer celebrations in Finland.  Our small, but very proactive Finnish section of our school put on a whole morning of performances, culminated with snacks and drinks to celebrate.  I donated these strawberry cupcakes to the event.  The flowers are copied from the Marimekko® "poppy" fabric, which is their signature design.
 Most exciting of all is that I was finally  asked to make 2 cupcake towers! One was for a seven-year old's birthday and she wanted something very pink and very girly with butterflies.  I made a cupcake tower that was silver and pink and sparkly just for her.  The cupcakes were strawberry and vanilla  and I made a gazillion sparkly pink and white butterflies in different sizes.  During my last Alan Dunn course in Holland I had purchased some fuschia edible disco glitter dust which I use liberally!  Unfortunately I don't have a picture of the final set up as the client picked them up herself.

The other cupcake tower was for a colleague's 40th birthday party.  She wanted a shabby chic theme with rich chocolate cupcakes and Kahlua white chocolate ganache.  I was getting all excited about the design, but then her budget limited the possibilites and I ended up doing light turquoise and pink ribbon roses.  Still, she was delighted, which in the end is all that matters!  Unfortunately the picture is not very good as I took it on location and in a hurry.
 Last week my daughters and I drove to England for a week long whistle stop tour of all the universities my youngest was thinking of  attending.  One of our first overnight stops was at a pub/B&B that my cousin runs near Brighton.  I hadn't seen her in 30 years, but that wasn't a hindrance at all.  We had a fabulous stay at her George Inn, which is definitely worth visiting!  Anyway I wanted to bring her something special, so tried my hand at these fondant covered cupcakes.  I had a devil of a time covering the cupcakes, but I managed in the end.  Since we were spending the previous night in Canterbury and spending that day looking at Kent University, I arranged to leave my precious cupcakes at the Inn in Canterbury for the day, so that they wouldn't spoil!  The staff were very gracious about my unusual request, although they did threaten to eat them if I forgot to pick them up!
After an exhilarating and exhausting trip all around England, I had to find a way to thank my lovely neighbours for feeding our cat while we were gone.  They are dog lovers and in a sudden flash of inspiration I found a home for my puppies! And voila; out of left-over flowers, butterflies and orphan puppies these yummy cupcakes were born.

They were delighted, and I have guaranteed good care for our kitty whenever we're away:)

Now it is time for a break and head north for the summer.  Since I know I won't be able to resist the urge to work with sugarpaste, I plan to practice my flowers and piping skills over the summer.


Sunday, June 12, 2011

Another Alan Dunn class

I cannot believe it has been over a month since I last posted!  Time certainly does fly when you are having fun.  Needless to say I have been incredibly busy these past few weeks, what with cakes, work, horses and my family.  So busy that even when I have had a moment to spare, I have been simply too shattered to write anything.  Now I am in the middle of a long holiday weekend and had (gasp) only one order for a dozen cupcakes to deal with.

So, my dear readers, here's what I have been up to since last I wrote: Last weekend, just barely over a month after I traipsed over to England to learn the art of sugarcrafting with Alan Dunn, I find myself yet again attending a course of his.  This time  the venue was in Donderen, Holland, in the company of about 20 other women.  Never in my wildest dreams did I forsesee learning from him again so soon, yet there I was; bright eyed and bushy tailed, eager to learn.  Donderen is a tiny, adorable little village about 4 hours drive north from when I live, so when I realized Alan was going to be teaching there, I signed up right away (with Alan's help!).
 The two day course aimed at teaching us how to make a Clematis, nigella corsage out of either sugar paste or cold porcelain.  I chose the latter as it is less fragile and therefore easier to transport.  When he announced that we would be making one clematis flower with one nigella flower to accompany it, I naively thought this would be a nice, relaxing wrong I was!  First of all, all the other women were professionals, and possibly half of them were sugarcraft teachers themselves.  Talk about feeling like the newbie!  Secondly, the pace was relentless and by Sunday noon I was seriously fighting panic.  It seemed to me that everyone else was so much faster and more proficient than I was.

First I got impatient making the centre of the clematis; so many stamens to make and glue on.  I realized afterwards that I hadn't made nearly enough.  it's fiddly, exacting work and my eyes were having serious trouble focusing on such small detail.  I really do need to go get my eyes checked.........Then there were so many leaves to make. Each leaf is made of three leaflets.  The leaves are arranged in pairs up the stem and we had to make AT LEAST 8 pairs of leaves.  That's 48 leaflets that need to be individually shaped, veined, wired and dusted.  I was barely half way through making the leaves when Alan was already demonstrating how the needle-like leaves of the nigella plant are made.  Each stem had to have 5 sets of 3 leaflets and we were supposed to make lots of stems.  I never got further than 2 stems.

Making the clematis flower itself was rewarding work, although I had a few moments of insecurity when I compared mine to my classmates' flowers.  Mine seemed so plain and anemic next to the vivid purples and blues that were being made.  I don't know why I chose pink; probably because no one else chose pink!  Again, although we were supposed to make only one flower, several women managed to find the time to make two, or even three!!!!!  We were also supposed to make butterflies, but I opted out when I realised I wouldn't have enough time as it was.  Besides, only a month earlier Alan had shown me how to make his gorgeous butterflies.

Class was supposed to end at 16:30 on Saturday afternoon, but at 18:30 we were still working hard.  At 19:30 we left in a cavalcade to a neighbouring village for dinner, after emptying our wallets in Ellen's charming little store (see picture below).  I have to say that the pizza we ate was the toughest, most leathery pizza I have ever eaten.  2 hours of dogged sawing and jaw-numbing chewing later, not one of us had finished our pizza!  We were definitely hungry, but after so much effort we were too exhausted to continue eating!  With seemingly endless reserves of energy Ellen invited us all to her charmingly cluttered home for drinks after dinner.  By now it was close to midnight and I at least was flagging.

My hotel was about 3km from Ellen's place, but when I got there it seemed to me that all the doors were locked!  I had been given a key for the front door, but none of the doors I tried had locks that matched the key!  00:30 and I'm getting seriously worried.  Worst of all, I had left my notebook with all the necessary phone numbers at the course venue.  Finally, after creeping all round the hotel I located the kitchen door, which amazingly was open!  Frowning at the poor level of security, but happy for the carelessness, I entered the hotel through the kitchen, much to the consternation of the bartender who was still on duty.  I explained to him my difficulty getting in, whereupon he showed me a side door I had not noticed earlier, which was open, saying that that door was the front door to the hotel...and it was  open!  Ooooooohhhhh.....Feeling mightily foolish I slunk upstairs to my room and to bed.

Sunday morning saw all of us present at the course venue no later than 9:15 ready to start the day.  This being despite Alan saying he was not going to be there before 10:00.  I spent my time catching up with my leaves.  When it came time to show us how to do the nigella flower, he showed us two versions.  One was a very impressive, showy flower with feathery petals in the most delicate of pink and white shades.  The second was a much simpler version which could be done in pale blue or white and green.  Just about everyone else chose to do the fancier version, whereas I, being pragmatic, realized I would never have time to complete this version, chose the simpler one.  Hopefully I will have time soon to try making the fancy nigella, just for my own satisfaction.

If all we had to do on Sunday was the nigella, I would have been fine.  But no, we had to make endless stems of grass and lollipop shaped seed heads, the name of which escapes me now.  They were not difficult, but for me at least, they were inordinately time consuming.  Again, I made the fewest of all, for no other reason than lack of time.  By 16:00 Alan offered to dust, ie colour my grass stems for me.  Boy was I grateful for that help!  He was bent hell on dusting the seed heads in aubergine and I was just as adamant that they would NOT be aubergine.  In the end I got my way, even though they looked more like lavender than grass in the end.

Knowing I had a long drive home ahead of me in stormy conditions, I reluctantly left by 17:00.  Unfortunately, my sat nav decided not to function, and after 35 km of driving north instead of south I realized to my horror that I didn't have a road map in the car after all!  I never strayed on to the wrong road, having listed them on a piece of paper, but more than once I merrily drove in the direction, for a grand total of nearly and hour and a half.  I was tired and grumpy by the time I got home, but my daughter, who had been left to her own devices all weekend was lonely and had soooo much to tell me that I couldn't go straight to bed.  Never has it been harder to get up for work on a Monday morning as it was the following day!

It was a week before I had the time to photograph my corsage and upload all my pictures from the weekend.  Once I had uploaded pictures of the clematis I saw it in different eyes.  Yes, it had been one of the least showy versions made, but now I am much happier with the results than I was last week.  I have to keep reminding myself that I have only really been making sugarpaste flowers for a few months now, when all the others had years of experience.  I have had the supreme fortune of being taught by the very best and in time I will be much, much better than I am now.  In addition to more lessons, I need to find the time to simply keep practicing.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Mother's Day

Yesterday was Mother's Day at least in Germany, Finland and USA.  This naturally meant that I had a busy weekend, despite being a mother myself!  It also meant that I got to make lots of lovely flowers, which always makes me happy. 

One of my projects was to make a cupcake bouquet for the wife of a colleague of mine.  Having done two of them in the past, I got a bit more ambitious with this one.  I thought that instead of just putting piped rose swirls on the cupcakes, I would actually make fondant roses the proper way (minus the wires).  For variety and balance I made lots of hydrangea blossoms.  On paper it was a great idea, but the logistical problems emerged when it was time to attach the cupcakes to the styrofoam ball.  Namely the roses were so heavy that they were in severe danger of falling off.  So instead of using cocktail sticks to spear the cupcakes on to the ball, I decided to use wooden grill sticks cut long enough to spear...and thus hopefully secure...the rose on each cupcake.

In practice I had to avoid putting roses on the lowest level and the cellophane I used to gift wrap the bouquet also became a support system for the lowest cupcakes.  Not sure what I am doing wrong (other than using too heavy toppers!), but I  am definitely going to have to rethink how I put these bouquets together.

Nevertheless, the problems and headaches that came with making this order were all well worth it when the recipient teared up with joy and flung her arms around me in happiness.  I kept telling her that the gift wasn't actually from me, even though I created it.  The bouquet was delivered relatively early on Sunday morning, so for me it was a perfect start to a lovely day.

Having already completed two cake projects for the weekend, I wasn't ready to call it quits yet.  I had baked a small, 15cm single layer chocolate cake from left over batter from a birthday cake I had made for Saturday, with the idea that my daughter could use it to make a Mother's Day cake for me.  At the last minute I announced that I  wanted to decorate my own cake.  Sounds weird, I know, but I had an idea in my head for a cake that nobody had ordered and I wanted to do it for my portfolio.  My daughter rolled her eyeballs at me, called me nuts, but ultimately was happy to go along with it as she had a massive project for school to complete.

It was a beautiful, sunny Sunday, so I sat in our garden and spent a few merry hours making sweet peas and lilies of the valley for my cake.  Both were flowers I had learned to do the other week with Alan Dunn, but as with everything else, practice makes perfect.  I  used a different brand of flower paste than Alan uses, and it gave me ENORMOUS problems!  It cracked, it dried too fast, it was brittle beyond belief etc etc etc.  This meant that I only got half the number of flowers done than I had intended, because so many petals broke, failed or merely refused to cooperate.

I also finally understood the importance of having high quality tools to work with.  At the moment I have a fairly haphazard collection of paint brushes I use exclusively with cake work and I have never really spared a second thought to them.  If my shading was off, or my painting was less than perfect, I blamed myself, and not the equipment.  Having spent three days using state-of-the-art equipment with Alan, I realised that the quality of one's brushes can have a significant impact on the quality of one's work.  I also realised how woefully inadequate my collection of dusting powders is, with the inevitable result that the leaves are far from the colour I was aiming for.  Also, not having a small enough and sharp enough cutting wheel is far more restrictive than not having the correct cutter!  Needless to say, my next shopping list includes GOOD paintbrushes, a tiny cutting wheel, and a whole host of dusting powders!

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Learning to make sugar flowers with Alan Dunn

 As promised, here they finally are; the results of three intense days of tutelage under Alan Dunn, probably one of the best sugar flower artists in the world.  During those three days I experienced the whole gamut of emotions ranging from complete and utter self-doubt; "God, I'll never be able to these like he does" to hope and exhilaration; "Hey, not bad for someone as inexperienced as myself!"

On meeting him for the first time I was pleasantly surprised.  I think I had set myself up to expect him to be somewhat arrogant and worldly, but the man who answered my knock on his door was gentle, unassuming and infinitely patient.  He made me feel completely at home and relaxed, making the three days I spent with him very pleasant.
On day one we plunged right into the deep end and he taught me how to make this breathtaking open peony.  Watching him roll out these ultra-thin petals I was struck how easy he made it look.  My first efforts were pathetic compared to him and I was downright embarrassed! However, he remained patient and eventually he declared that we have enough petals to create a peony.  Putting all those wired petals together and wrapping them in florists tape was  harder than making the petals!  I really felt I had 10 thumbs and had great difficulty getting them wrapped tight enough.  But I got it, eventually!
 On my list of things I wanted to learn, I had put down lilies of the valley.  They are my absolute favourite flowers and though I had imagined them to be tricky to make, I still wanted to know how.  To my infinite surprise and delight, they turned out to be the easiest of all!  In fact, they were so easy that I almost felt disappointed.  When I was setting these lilies of the valley up to be photographed, I added a real one in the middle just for comparison.
 Sweet peas were also on my wishlist,  mainly because I simply couldn't fathom how they were constructed. Again, though not exactly simple, Alan's way of making them was far simpler than I could have imagined.  Putting them together was trickier, and although this picture makes them look nice, the petals on my blossoms were in fact a bit wobbly.  I should point out that the sweet pea buds and the uppermost flower are done by Alan himself.  Only the lower two are mine.  Even so, without me asking he wired them all together to make this single stem.
 No flower course would be complete without a lesson on how to make a rose.  The rose is far and away the most popular flower to put on cakes, but also one of the hardest in my mind.  It's not just a matter of putting all the petals together to make a rose, but learning to give the bloom life is an art form in itself.    What surprised me the most was how many petals are needed just for the centre.  Alan kept coaxing me to wrap them tighter and tighter, and to add more and more petals.  Just making that one rose took up most of day two.  In a moment of self-doubt I made some comment about being so very slow, but he was quick to reassure me that no, they take a lot of time and that he's had students much slower than me.
 When browsing through his website prior to the course, I came upon a picture of a butterfly he had made.  it was so breathtakingly delicate and beautiful, that I put that down on my wishlist as well.  By the time he showed me how to construct the body, I was no longer surprised at his attention to detail. Not only did he include the head, thorax and body, but antennae and a proboscus too!

I could go on and on with blow by blow accounts of how exactly we achieved these amazing flowers and the sheer effort (for me) to make them.  There was so much to absorb in each day that I was literally too exhausted to do anything in the evenings.  To be sure, good technique (and a steady hand) are essential for making good sugar flowers, but at the end of it all I don't think that was the biggest lesson I learned with Alan.  He never actually came out and said it, but listening to him, observing him in the garden during our lunch breaks, watching him demonstrate how to create a certain kind of petal, it dawned on me that how one actually sees a flower is what really counts.

Though I have always had an affinity to nature, I haven't ever truly studied flowers and how exactly they are constructed until now.  I have a computer full of photographs of all kinds of flowers and blossoms I have taken over the years, but still I never thought to look so close as to see the relationship between petals, sepals stamens and calixes before.  At first glance a columbine looks so very complex, but this morning I stopped and studied one on my way to the bakery and realized that in fact it was much simpler than I had ever suspected.  I studied flowering hawthorn, rambling roses, forget-me-nots and a host of other flowers this morning and marveled at nature's engineering.  Along with this child-like marveling, I am itching to put my lessons and observations into practice and start making flowers for no other reason than to recreate what nature has designed so well.
In closing I cannot resist including a picture of beautiful Lizy, Alan's oriental black cat.  This little imp provided endless hours of entertainment and comic relief with her attention-getting antics.  By far the most amusing cat I have ever met and I have fallen head over heels in love with her.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Easter rush....

 This Easter was definitely the most rushed and "unholiday-like" that I have experienced!  All work and no play as the saying goes.  Unfortunately it was so busy that almost the only quality time I had with my daughters was just prior to Easter when I thought to include them in the Easter cupcake process.  With no tutorials and armed only with our imaginations the three of us sat down to create some Easter chicks and bunnies for cupcake toppers.
 We worked hard, laughed a lot and made an unholy mess of my "studio" and came up with some cute little figures.  I then baked and iced some cupcakes and again gave my daughters free rein to decorate the cuppies as they wished.  This is what they came up with.  I thought they were adorable and this box was proudly presented to my brother and niece when they stopped by for the night on their way back to England.
 Easter weekend continued at a frenetic pace with three birthday cakes to complete.  Below is my first ever attempt at a Barbie cake.  I wasn't happy with the draping of the over skirt, realizing after the cake was done and delivered that I could have first made the over skirt and then added the draping separately. Aah well, we live and learn!
 I also got to make another Minnie Mouse cake, which was interesting to compare to my first attempt a year ago.  Looking at it critically I feel that although this one has a far better finish and looks more professional, the proportions aren't as perfect as on the first one.  The ears are too close together, the bow is too narrow, etc etc etc.  I also experimented with my extruding gun to make the "piping" that trimmed the face and formed the letters.  I bought the extruding gun when I was at the Lorraine McKay course in Maastricht earlier this year, but except to make hair I haven't had the time to play with it to see what else it can do.  I really liked how easy it was to make "piping" and saw the beginning of a long and meaningful friendship with this handy little gadget.
 Easter Sunday was spent creating yet another birthday cake, this time for a colleague of mine.  This cake was challenging on so very many levels that I found it hard to know where to begin.  The cake had to be gluten free.  The flavour was to be a complete surprise, as was the theme.  The cake had to include marzipan and be as "fondant free" as possible.  I decided to recruit the help of my colleague's husband and instantly regretted it.  He wanted the cake to have a "Strandkorb" which is a German beach chair for two that can be folded away into a huge basket.  The beach had to be reminiscent of the beaches on the island of Sylt in the North Sea.

Originally I thought to cover the cake in marzipan to represent the sand, but the only marzipan I could find was very dark, and since the sands of Sylt are almost white I rejected that idea.  However, the problem remained on how to incorporate marzipan into the cake.  Hmmmm.....Finally it came to me:  A chocolate cake made with rice and corn flour, filled with marzipan and raspberry coulis.  So after much experimentation  on how to soften the marzipan and much consultation with experts on the internet, I concocted a marzipan spread out of brandy, heavy cream and marzipan.

Now came the next problem; what else other than marzipan can one use to cover a cake that is not too sweet?  White chocolate ganache!  Whipped up to lighten the texture and to enable me to make it look like sand.  The sand dunes were made of white chocolate modelling paste which I placed on the cake prior to icing it with the ganache.  I used MM fondant dyed blue to make the waves and to cover the board.  I made shells out of modelling chocolate and used them to decorate the base of the cake.

The Strandkorb was hugely challenging as I had to work out the construction in a way that it would be properly supported.  In the end I had to create a sand dune out of modelling chocolate to support the back rest.  Even so, it was leaning far more horizontally than I had originally intended it to be!
So that was my Easter.  Busy, busy, busy, but oh so much fun!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Weddings and romance

No sooner had I written my last entry when things got busy again. By last Sunday I was so tired that I actually was not looking forward to decorating any more cakes.  An alarming state of affairs!  Nevertheless I took a deep breath, grabbed a large mug of very strong tea and got to work on my last cake for the week.  Fortunately it was a relatively easy cake and one that I have done before.  You can take a look at my latest football themed cake in my  photo gallery.

In my last entry I also talked about making a wedding cake for practice, but not two days went by when lo and behold I got my first order for a bona fide, real wedding cake.  Sooo, it was scrap the practice and jump in the deep end.  Fortunately it was for only 35 people which made the task just a little less daunting.  I was given very little instruction as to how the cake was supposed to look, except what involved the topper.  There is a very inside joke involving "soup chicks", thus I was asked to make a bridal hen and rooster in a bowl of soup, with the bride's cat somehow involved.  This is what I came up with.
Below is a picture of the whole cake complete with topper.  The side design mimics the pattern on the bride's dress and is painted freehand directly on the cake.  My original idea was to pipe the design on with black royal icing, but my piping skills are so rusty, that after a couple of practice runs on a dummy cake I gave up.  Painting black on white was also quite frankly terrifying!  I admit to being so nervous about doing this that I sat in front of the pristine white cake with my paintbrush in hand for ages before I mustered the courage to begin.  In the end it came out better than I expected, but boy, was it stressful!

A little while before this wedding cake a friend of mine had a birthday, so I decided to surprise her with a mini heart shaped cake as a gift.  Vintage style cakes are also very much an in thing these days and now I had a perfect opportunity to try one.  I love the combination of light blue/duck egg with pink and so this colour combination came instantly to mind.  I also had some new jacobean style cutters that were just begging to be tried out.  The combination of tiny roses, pearls and gold was heavily influenced by cupcakes I had seen on Flickr by Cotton and Crumbs.

Easter will be busy with seasonal cupcakes/cakes for family and friends.  The week after Easter promises to be exciting as it has become official that I will be spending 3 days with the renowned Alan Dunn famed for his sugar flowers extraordinaire receiving personal instruction on the fine art of making lifelike flowers!!!  I am thrilled about this opportunity and can hardly wait!  I promise you I will blog ALL about it by the end of April.