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.