Salted Caramel anyone? Here’s an easy step by step

Perfect for sweet tooths and savoury lovers alike, it seems that salted caramel is STILL all the rage these days.

After making caramel the traditional French way for a while, I decided it was time to try the shortcut method.

So here’s a super duper easy salted dulce de leche step by step! It’s great for caramel slice, caramel tarts, caramel cake filling, a yummy spread on toast or just licking it straight off the beater!

You will need:

  • 2 cans condensed milk
  • A slow cooker or saucepan
  • Hot water just boiled in a kettle
  • Large pyrex jug or mixing bowl
  • Hand mixer with one beater inserted
  • Fleur de sel or rock salt (table salt will also do)

Method

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1. Place two cans of condensed milk in a slow cooker
2. Cover the cans with at least 1-2 inches of hot water. on high setting. Simmer for 2-2.5hrs. The beauty of a slow cooker means you can set it and still go out, run errands and come home to a job done without a risk of a fire in the house! Note: the can labels will come away after a minute or two – just use some tongs to fish them out. I used Carnation brand skim condensed milk for a healthier option but full fat tastes even better.
3. Watch out for explosions when opening the cans! Ring pull cans are much easier to open. Use a tea towel or oven mitt to protect your hands as the can will be hot!
4. Put the caramel in a mixing bowl or Pyrex jug. (Skim condensed milk will look more lumpy as it has more gelatine content – don’t worry, it comes back together)
5. Add 1-2tbsp of good quality salt or to taste (I used rock salt)
6-8. Use a single beater hand mixer and beat til the caramel looks glossy. Best to mix the salt in when caramel is warm to dissolve the salt.
9. Serve! (I tried this with green tea cake and it was delicious!)

Credit: Recipe Adapted from Sharon Wee Creations fab new book Adorable Cakes for All Occasions!

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Behind the Scenes of an epic suspended birdcage smash cake

Last week I unveiled one of my most challenging creations to date at my very own 30th birthday party which was the culmination of month-long collaboration between Anna Maria Roche of Anna Maria Cake Design, myself and my dad (yep that’s right, my DAD!)

The Concept

A lot of people have asked me how I got the idea and the first inspiration actually came from the venue itself which had some really old vintage birdcages hanging from the tree. I’d always wanted to do a suspended birdcage cake but then I let my imagination run a bit wild as I thought a birdcage on its own was simply too boring and that it should incorporate techniques that I had not used much before – if nothing else but to hone some new skills.

The first thing was to do away with the traditional bell shaped birdcage I have seen so many times before and instead I though a square-ish atrium would be cool. I then added another concept which was of a “piñata” tier – I had seen a few piñata cakes online but none were executed very well and I wanted to be able to shatter the top of the bird cage with a hammer then have berries or candy flowing out for a bit of an unexpected twist to indulge the big kid in me! There were also going to be lots of kids at the party and I thought how cool it would be for them to see a ton of candy flow out of a giant cake.

A myriad of ideas cycled through my mind as to how to achieve this… and so many ideas wouldn’t work!

Idea #1: Chocolate?  Problem: Wouldn’t shatter enough and would look too different to the rest of the cake which would be covered in fondant.

Idea #2: Fondant? Problem: Wouldn’t dry hard enough to achieve a ‘shatter effect’

Idea #3: Sugar? Problem: Too transparent and again would not look consistent with the rest of the atrium plus humidity would kill it instantly!

Anna Maria and I debated for a while what to do and I finally had a brainwave and came up with pastillage!! If you have no idea what that is, it’s a fancy french name for a magical, super fast drying, extremely brittle, porcelain-like sugar when rolled thinly and looked identical to fondant.

For it to work we needed to make a former so I carved a styro tier with Anna Maria’s help to create a shape to mould dome and we tested multiple recipes to see what would shatter best. I even tried gumpaste and it was not cooperating with the humidity we had. We finally managed to figure out that Anna Maria’s pastillage recipe (adapted from famed pastry artist Ewald Notter) would work and we left the dome shape to dry overnight. For a copy of Anna Maria’s super fast drying awesome pastillage recipe, scroll to the bottom of this post!

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I hate styro carving!

Details, Details..

The last couple of ideas I incorporated in were some Cake Lace and royal icing bead piped trims. For more information on Cake Lace and how to use it, click here. I had originally wanted some birds in there but the complexity of getting every single line perfectly straight and the smash tier working took a huge amount of time.

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No room for any organic finishes here!

The Process

I had no idea how this was going to turn out but I figured if anyone could help me execute it, it would be my dad and the super fast, super talented cake decorating expert Anna Maria Roche.  Anna Maria and I worked like maniacs for 2 days stopping only for some awesome home made soup and prawn dumplings. I cannot thank Anna Maria enough for her generous guidance and support and working alongside a true industry pro really lifted my own working habits, speed and technique. I think I will always feel like a snail next to her but it was still an awesome experience to be mentored by someone who oozes speed from every pore.

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Anna Maria and I testing Dad’s structure with the full weight equivalent of the real cake (21kg of icing!) for the first time

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The painstaking process of 1.5hrs of applying extruded lines onto the cake after marking every line with a pin and careful mathematical measurement.. 

The Structure

Building the supporting structure for the cake was probably the most challenging part as there was quite a bit of physics and research involved. Suspending a cake that could potentially more than 20kg in mid-air, withstand a pretty hard hammer smash and stay up for 4-5 hours would require some serious hardware.

For the solution, I turned to my extremely handy father who not only had access to a proper metal workshop but also (conveniently) knew how to weld and had the tools to bend, drill and cut very long and large steel rods.

The stand itself was inspired by a tree shaped stand I’d found online and this was probably the most difficult part of the process. After dad constructed the stand, the finishing of the joints needed some refinement and luckily I found some very handy “Knead-It” which was like a polymer clay that is pliable but sets hard like concrete within 2 minutes and you can even sand/drill it. After priming and painting it, my beautiful new white faux-tree cake stand structure was ready for final testing!

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SuperDad bending steel rods to form the 1.8m tall stand and the final product of putty, primer and white epoxy paint by yours truly!

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Hard at work

The Final Test

Doing the final weight test on the stand was left to the last minute..up until this point the stand had only been tested for around 30-45min to withstand more than 20kg of weight and I wanted to make sure it would last for the duration of the whole party (4-5 hours). I was fresh out of icing buckets that were full so my trusty brother loaded it up with my golf set, a backpack stuffed with heavy books and yep in true Chinese family style, a huge sack of rice!

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30kg of golf equipment, backpack and a sack of rice loaded on the stand held up by one tiny chain!

The Result

So here is the final result after I managed to get it home in one piece…we’re both looking a little worse for wear but the result was totally worth it!

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For more photos of the cake, click here

The Smash!

Here’s a paparazzi style video of the big smash and I still had my doubts right up until the last moment whether it would work.. Thanks to Elliott for this video (and apologies for my mum-in-law and the giant helium balloon joining the frame but you get the idea!)

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With thanks..

I learned a lot pushing myself beyond what I thought I could achieve and setting a new personal best for my cake projects. I also learned the importance of counting on some true experts and developed a even higher level of respect for my Dad who worked his tail off to make my stand in just a couple of days.. you’re the best Dad!!! I can’t forget my ultimate support team – especially mum who does what she does best: keeping dad on track, my bro for helping me to transport it and my husband Paul for being a great sounding board! Anna Maria’s husband Joseph was also an invaluable source of help with his pastry chef background and feeding us whenever we got hungry – you’re a legend Joseph!

Last but not least to my awesome mentor and partner in crime on this project, Anna Maria – industry pro, legend and super generous all round cake deity. I hope I become half as fast and almost as good as you one day many moons from now! We had so much fun working together, listening to bad radio and eating random green tea treats. Thank you for putting up with my mess and the mayhem we created!

Thanks for reading and if you liked this project, please help me out by voting for it here in The Raspberry Butterfly’s 2014 best cake photo competition!

Amy x

Anna Maria Cake Design’s Pastillage Recipe to make smashable tiers! (Adapted from Ewald Notter)

8g powdered gelatine

50g water

430g icing sugar

75g cornflour

1. Sprinkle gelatine into cold water in a microwave safe bowl. Leave aside for 5min.

2. In another bowl sift icing sugar and cornflour

3. Melt the soaked gelatine in the microwave

4. Add the melted gelatine to the icing sugar and cornflour, mix the dough until well incorporated

5. Scrape contents onto a clean work surface and compress/knead with clean handsuntil a smooth consistency is achieved (Note from Amy: warm hands and muscle power work well here!) If the mixture is too dry, add a few drops of water. If too wet, use extra icing sugar (a little at a time)

6. Once a smooth ball consistency is achieved, the pastillage can be used immediately – alternatively smooth a thin coat of crisco or shortening all over it and double wrap with plastic wrap and store in a ziplock bag to avoid drying out. The dough can be stored for a few months but it’s best to use fresh.

My Tips for Using Pastillage

  • Pastillage does dry quickly but there is no need to panic – have templates of what you are making cut out beforehand so you don’t have to invent on the fly.
  • Allow 48hrs for the pastillage to dry completely – depending on the humidity of the drying area, 24hrs may be sufficient. It should become whiter as it dries and look like porcelain.
  • Use silica gel packets to help absorb moisture and speed up the drying process – in extreme cases, a dehumidifier or the airconditioner also works
  • Wooden boards are ideal for drying flat panels (not metal sheet pans) if you are making a box or other shapes that require a smooth finish.
  • Try to use pizza cutters or very sharp palette or craft knives for cutting – blunt knives will cause the dough to move out of shape when cutting which can make it hard to seal. A thin coat of crisco on the cutting instrument will also help with cutting smoother edges.

Why not quit your day job?

If I had a dollar for the number of times I’ve been asked this question in the last few months I’d be a very wealthy lady. It’s a question that often comes from friends, friends of friends, people who have just met me, colleagues and family members. I realise that that list is includes virtually every person in my life. Notice however that I have left ‘other decorators’ off that list!

In fact, those who do not live cakes every day (or have a side venture that is purely about their passion) are often surprised I have a day job AND a passion that funds itself…Conversely, I actually get asked a slightly different question from decorators who seek my advice on whether they should leave their day jobs.

Perhaps why I get asked this is because I take my passion very seriously and I also have a pretty serious “day job”. Over the space of just a few years, I have also invested a huge amount of time and effort getting myself qualified, trained and practising my skills in sugar art every day. Yes it is an obsession and I’m frequently unapologetic about that because passion is not something you can contain and I firmly believe you shouldn’t have to!

So let me explain now why I still keep my day job and by the same token, these same reasons also hold a lot of decorators back from going full tilt at their own business.

1. The first reason is I actually LIKE my day job. Most decorators who have successfully gone solo are ones that didn’t need a reason to quit their day jobs but cakes helped propel them down a path they were already travelling. I don’t see my day job as a day job…. and I actually don’t like using that term – “day job”. It makes it sound like I dislike it when in fact I actually quite enjoy what I do and love the intellectual challenge of solving complex business problems every day and helping clients to make big projects happen. I think my brain would turn to mush if I just looked at cakes every day – much as that is tempting proposition in itself!

I returned to my job after my sabbatical in New York last year because I realised I had unfinished business – goals I still wanted to achieve in my professional career that I wasn’t satisfied in just walking away from. I really wanted to get to a stage where I could be happy to walk away because I’d pushed my development to a level where I had learned as much as I could in the areas I was most passionate about. Only then would I be happy to walk away. There is still a lot left to learn in what I do but mind you, I will caveat all of this by saying that I do wonder what more I could be creating if I wasn’t at my desk everyday!

2. The second reason is I’m deathly afraid of killing my passion to maintain my lifestyle. Cakes are all about creative freedom for me. A lot of people think it would be really cool to live your passion every day and be doing what you love every minute of every day  – the truth and reality of it is that I have done enough production, slaved enough hours in my kitchen and interned enough to know that passion compensates for a lot of gruelling hours, but it isn’t always enough. Cake decorators live very simple lives and only the very elite get to travel the world and make huge livings from teaching. High end custom cakes are lucrative if you’re smart about how you price and have razor sharp focus on who you market to however the “real” money is in high production volume.. i.e. Doing a lot of cakes.

Taking on work to bring the dollars in can often mean doing cakes that don’t push your development further.  The more you produce to make an income, the more likely you are to take on orders that you know won’t add anything to your portfolio but that you also can’t say no because you need the  cash. In creative fields, it’s the  really really cool clients that commission you with few boundaries and true creative freedom that make life in your chosen art worthwhile and rewarding.  I know many many decorators who take on projects that don’t extend their skills or push them beyond their current ability purely to bring the dollars in. Keeping my job means I don’t worry about this because I can be highly selective in what I choose to do and only take on very few orders so I can give each one enough attention to keep the quality of my work very high. It also means I don’t have to sacrifice what I enjoy doing in life because of limited income. On another note of slightly twisted logic, I like to think of my steady income as supporting my unsteady income – having more money at my disposal means I can funnel more back into my passion!!

3. Lastly… I’m still forming a sustainable niche for myself. I don’t think I’ve figured out my niche quite yet in this market – the hallmark of distinction that I’ll create a legacy for and makes me stand out from the crowd. There are so many avenues I haven’t yet explored and so many areas I see opportunity  in that I’m happy just to explore at the moment. My natural initial reaction is to pursue them all at once, but I tried this for a few months last year and truth be told, it was really bloody hard! Living the “carpe diem” life is really really tiring. Now I’ve realised I just need to bite off opportunities in small chunks.

At the moment, it’s all about exploring teaching for me – and how good at it I might be. But I also think to myself: “I love teaching right now, but is it something that will keep me going for the rest of my life?” I don’t know yet. “How can I teach others if I don’t keep developing my skills?” Staying on trend and relevant is crucial in this industry so production work is pretty important too.  Production work is exhausting but SO satisfying because you create something new every time and doing big bold cakes with a team is an irreplaceable experience. It’s actually pretty similar to what I do in the corporate world – big hairy projects that seem unsurmountable at first but as you get through each stage, you see things come to life and eventually it starts to take a life of its own and you finally let it go free into the world!

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that quitting my day job isn’t the right answer for me right now… But if you’re a decorator or sole trader out there who is still living your life in two worlds every day, you’re not alone! And thinking about which of the three factors above resonate most with you and your life situation now is a very individual decision – and it’s not one to be taken lightly, especially if you have kids and a family to support.

Some final thoughts…

I follow Flying Solo avidly – it’s an Australian community site for micro business which gives small business owners handy tools and an opportunity to collaborate and swap learnings.  I just love the encouraging words from their facebook page that pop up on my feed every day. One particular post that was really thought provoking was: “What would you do in your business if you had no fear of failure?”. The most interesting response was “quit my day job” and the second most interesting one was “Start it”.

To all the decorators out there still finding their feet: you need to decide for yourself what is driving your fear of failure. Then break it down in small chunks to eventually overcome that fear. Often those failures are direct link to your personal values.  And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that! If the first chunk is to free up your time without sacrificing your lifestyle or creative freedom then sure, go for it! But what will YOUR sustainable niche be in the market? Challenge yourself to specialise one day…. what will make you unique in 10 years time? This is the part which I don’t believe enough people spend time on defining and refining.. It’s too easy to caught up in just jumping straight in and not take a step back to ask yourself what you want your legacy to stand for.

Anyway, enough waxing lyrical from me… Hopefully I’ve put to bed the question I am most frequently asked by now and also helped some of you out there in some way.

In the spirit of exploring my own current “chunk” of teaching – my next post will be an illustrated tutorial.

On a totally separate note: I’ve also managed to somehow convince nearly 1000 others to join me on this crazy journey of mine on Facebook so I’m celebrating with a $150 voucher giveaway!! To enter simply leave a comment on this post or “share” this FREE CAKE picture on Facebook.

Picture from Regular Show characters. Source: DeviantArt

Picture from Regular Show characters. Source: DeviantArt

Adios for now and thanks for reading,

Amy x

Terms and Conditions:

The voucher is redeemable towards any custom cake of your choosing or private cake tuition!! The winner will picked at random and will be announced at 6pm AEST on 6 April. All entries must be on the share list or on the comments list on this post by 5pm 6 April to be eligible. Terms and conditions apply, subject to availability. Voucher is transferable and cake must be picked up from the Sydney CBD area!
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Innovation in the cake industry for the uninitiated – and why it’s important

It’s been a while since my last post and that’s been for a good reason – I’ve been busy learning and developing my skills. Practice, practice and more practice makes, well… better – not perfect. Perfection is probably a little unhealthy to strive for but “becoming better” is always a tangible, achievable goal.

I decided in this month’s post that I would put on my entrepreneurial management consulting-y hat and focus a blog post on innovation and its importance – even in an industry as age-old and perceived to be “old fashioned” as sugarcraft.

I received one of the coolest gifts ever for my last birthday from my best friends – an antique first edition of the Lambeth Method of Cake Decoration and Practical Pastries by Joseph Lambeth. A remarkable book first published in 1936, it holds a court as the grand dame of my bookshelf, perched proudly above more modern publications on the myriad of techniques that make up this world known as sugarcraft. The techniques it covers are nearly 3 times my age and reminds me of just how long the art of cake decoration has been around and even more importantly, the innovations that have happened in the decades that have followed.

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Once the realm of grandmothers and elderly ladies who have concentrated on classical techniques, pillared cakes, elaborate piping and antique looking sugar flowers, there have been a myriad of changes since The Lambeth Method  was published.

Cakes have evolved from old fashioned elaborate and intricately piped creations…..

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…. to thoroughly modern styles that still pay homage to age old techniques…

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These days, cake decorators are now wearing multiple hats as handy(wo)men, engineers, architects and sculptors. The use of construction tools are a huge area of innovation in the craft.

In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever had this much in common with my super handy dad in my entire life. Nowadays, you’re more likely to find me in the garage drilling cake boards with him and raiding his tool boxes for any handy artefacts that I might find useful in my own cake studio from scrapers to metal rulers to sandpaper and saws. I have a newfound admiration for the incredible handyman skills dad has – everything from learning which drillbit to use that damages paper covered MDF board the least to which glues to use to best adhere styrofoam together, there is definitely a gap in the market for a cake decorator’s handyman short course! In fact, never felt more comfortable in Bunnings (a hardware store in Oz) in all my life!

On my free weekends, I’m usually stalking the aisles of Kmart for butane gas canisters to refill my blowtorch, discount stores for non-slip mats to secure cakes for transport and haberdashery stores for bedding inlay to dry sugar flowers or outdoor camping stores for fishing tackle boxes to store my cake tools… One day, I will publish a glossary for why I buy such things for the unitiated – but for those of you who make cakes for a living or do it as a serious hobby, I’m sure these tales are not foreign to your own experiences.

Kaysie Lackey, an exceptionally talented cake artist from Seattle Washington came to Sydney recently and reminded me again of just how zany handyman skills can become in the world of cake construction. Everything from foam core board, pine wood and plates to plumbing pvc, washers, nuts, bolts and screws were used in construction one of the most insane cakes I’ve seen. It woke me up to just how far cakes have come and how extreme techniques are becoming to create the most amazing gravity-defying constructions.

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I also recently did some incredible freelance work with the legendary Anthea Leonard of Sydney’s original sculpted cake studio, Sweet Art, and on my first day I was asked to use a jigsaw to hack off the legs of a dozen Barbie dolls…. We were making a 175th anniversary cake for a huge gala celebration for the Australian Gas Company and this cake was a monster. The Barbies were to represent the AGL ballerinas used in the ads during the 70s and sawing barbie legs off was closely followed by intense mathematical calculations with another Aussie cake industry legend Jean Michel Raynaud to work out how many miniature model street lamps we could wire into a cake board to light up electronically so the bottom tier of the cake could resemble a proper street sidewalk. This cake was so OTT it had everything – and I mean everything. At nearly 2m tall, each tier represented a different stage of the famous Australian Gas company’s rich history. More importantly, it represented an amazing opportunity to work with some of the industry’s most gifted artists.

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I’m proud to say that the Australian sugarcraft industry for cake artists has been a hot bed of innovation and talent for some time. Taking the originally French method of using ganache to fill and cover cakes to create clean a highly stable base for contemporary “sharp edge” cake designs, a number of talented people in the industry here have taken innovation to a whole new level.

Then you have the Americans who are just magnificent in cake construction using carpentryand plumbing equipment to create super stable cake stands for all sorts of interesting and gravity-defying shapes. Take Mike’s Amazing Cakes for example – Mike McCarey is famous in the cake world for making seemingly gravity defying cakes which take novelty work to a whole new level – case in point – this beautiful stag that was created by my friend and amazing decorator Sharon Wee under the tutelage of Mike McCarey himself:

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Picture used with permission from Sharon Wee Creations (www.weelovebaking.com).

Why innovate?

Like in every other industry I see as a management consultant, innovation is the only way we can move forward and break new ground to make processes and outcomes more efficient, more consistent and more repeatable. As the saying goes, it’s usually borne of necessity however those that take the step forward and put something different and new out there are the ones who move the remainder of the pack forward as a whole. To compete, you can either be a cost leader (ie, discount to make a sale) or differentiate to create competitive advantage – in my mind, innovation is the best way to differentiate.

It also builds respect in an intensely competitive industry where you can not only help yourself but help others to progress their skills and build the reputation of the whole industry. Gone are the days of cake decorators being old nanas in the kitchen (although these ladies were innovators in their own time mind you and deserve a LOT of respect!) – it’s time say welcome to a whole new generation of cake innovators and cake decorators – the ones who will move the craft forward and propel it into a deeply respected and revered art form that very few can master and many will attempt to master!

It’s been a slightly more philosophical post this time – next time I’ll cover more of my usual stuff on cakes. Wedding cake season is coming up again and I hope I can also bring you an exciting international blog post too as I revisit my alma mater in New York and catch up with some old cake buddies there!

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Giveaway .. Masterchef Live tickets for this Friday

Since I’ve returned from New York, I’ve been approached by many people near and far about classes .. which I would love to do next year except I’m not sure what you want to learn! So here’s a little sweetener..

I have 2 all day Masterchef Live in Sydney general entry tickets to give away for this Friday 5 October at the Hordern Pavilion.

For a chance to win, like this post or leave a comment on what cake or pastry related techniques you’d most like to learn! They can be anything from macaron towers to fondant basics so toss some ideas at me and I’ll see who I can team up with to make them happen!

Comment on this post or at http://facebook.com/amyscakes1 to enter!

More posts to come (I just need to be less busy first…)

xx

Note: Winner will be picked completely at random and tickets posted to you.

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When Bloggers meet..

It’s only recently struck me just how powerful building an online following is in the cake world. It’s astonishing how some of the most talented people I have seen are practically celebrities in their own right purely through their enormous facebook followings when in any other era, they would simply be craftspeople with enormous talent and a local following in their immediate geographic vicinity. Blogs are a great example of this and I’ve met two of my favourite bloggers recently who I want to shine a spotlight on this post.

The first is Mandy Mele-Daniels: best known for her blog on her own French Culinary Institute adventure which was re-posted by Ron Ben-Israel when the cake course he developed was first launched. At one stage I think Mandy had thousands of readers just through Chef Ron’s plug alone. After several failed attempts to catch up thwarted by weather and bad NY public transport, we finally met up in my last week in New York at the iconic Plaza Hotel. In true sweet tooth form we sampled nearly every cake on offer at the beautiful food hall under the famous hotel and chewed the fat (translation for non-Aussies: had a good chat) over our experiences at the French Culinary Institute and about the cake industry in general. Mandy was responsible for enlightening me about my FCI adventure and giving me some fantastic advice that ultimately culminated in my trip to New York so to finally meet her was just brilliant.

I also had the pleasure of meeting Mandy’s husband Brian who was just a great, great guy. Listening to Mandy and Brian reminisce about their caking stories when Mandy first started making cakes, I realised just how similar our paths had been. In many ways Brian also reminded me of the great unsung heroes in the cake world – a.k.a. the thousands of tolerant husbands/partners out there supporting their wives/other halves each pursuing their own caking adventures!! So this post is partly also a tribute to all of these nameless, faceless other halves who don’t get any credit for the beautiful cakes we make every day.

So here’s my THANK YOU to all the supportive husbands/partners out there (including mine!) for all the times they:

– put up with getting shooed out of the kitchen at 1am in the morning when they worriedly check on their cake-obsessed wives frantically finishing an order for the next day;

– suffer minor heart attacks whenever they have to drive a cake to its destination;

– attempt to roll fondant out only to be told they are hopeless when they were just trying to help;

– are forced to ganache cupcakes or be guinea pigs for new classes their wives are about to teach (usually against their will because all they care about is eating the cake, not decorating it)

My awesome Mr Cakespeare

The other famous blogger I met was Sharon Wee. After returning home from New York, I decided I needed some inspiration and decided to meet with as many cake industry greats as I could and Sharon was one of the first.

Sharon’s an incredible Australian talent who has over 7,000 followers on facebook and  I have been reading her blog “Wee Love Baking” for some time. Sharon was fantastically humble, open and generous in her knowledge and time.

When we met for what was supposed to be an hour long coffee, we both realised nearly FOUR hours later that we’d been neglecting our partners for a very big chunk of a Sunday afternoon just to indulge in “cakie chat”… After trading a multitude of cake stories we guiltily hurried home and back to the real world….  I felt almost lighter after this conversation – enlightened with new knowledge but also very inspired and motivated to keep pursuing my passion. It was just a great shot in the arm after trying to transition back into the “real world” from a surreal 3 months away.

It’s through these types of conversations that I grow as a cake artist and also expand my knowledge of the industry. What I’m fast learning is that the cake world is vast, complex and very much a dynamic industry. It is not perfect by any stretch but with the right level of dedication, motivation and creativity, it can be an intensely rewarding one. It’s not without its drawbacks or politics (just like any other industry) and I am quickly learning that the only way to really navigate tricky waters is to stay out of them completely.

The funniest thing is, practically no cake artist starts out seeking fame – all we want to do is create cakes and make a positive impact on people’s lives through edible art. I’m very fortunate to be in a position where I can be selective in what I choose to do and focus on improving my skills purely for artistry’s sake and not have to make cakes just to pay the mortgage. It’s for this reason I continue to work as a management consultant and most of all, I enjoy being able to balance exercising my right and left side of my brain every day. I don’t think many people could say that and I feel very fortunate that I have a world of opportunity beckoning before me right now. That’s not to say that one day I won’t pursue things much more seriously but for now, I’ve realised that getting exposure and experience is the most important thing to me and I plan on giving my all to anything and every opportunity that comes my way. Then hopefully one day I’ll reach a completely different summit in my life.

In the mean time, I’ll continue to blog about my adventures. Coming up in the next couple of months.. an inverted wine bottle cake, a couple of very cool wedding cakes and some giant sugar flowers! Can’t wait to share it with you all🙂

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Cakespeare in the City: Episode 5 – Finals Fever and Graduation

I went back and read my very first blog entry that my friend Daniella encouraged me to write and still can’t quite believe how far I’ve come in such a short time. I don’t check the stats too often so I got a slight shock when I looked at them yesterday. This blog and my facebook page has had over 8,000 views in nearly 20 countries and I figure since I don’t have that many family members, a large percentage of these are people I have probably never met before! What staggers me more is that I never thought anyone would actually be interested in my little musings which I wrote more for myself than anyone else to capture my experiences for posterity.

So 1 year on, what have I managed to learn?

  1. I’ve learned that even you think you cannot be “artistic” it’s still possible to make beautiful things with a little courage.
  2. I’ve learned that you can start with a simple monkey figurine on a 6 inch cake and work your way up to a 4 tier monster of a final wedding cake at the best culinary school in New York –  all it takes is a high level of dedication and patience (and a supportive husband!)!
  3. I’ve learned that if you sleep less you can complete more than 35 cake projects and still hold down a full time job (albeit quite a few of these were done in culinary school where I have had the privilege of uninterrupted practice and focus)
  4. I’ve learned that inspiring others through a humble craft can be mind-bogglingly powerful.
  5. Finally, I’ve learned that I have so much more to learn!

It hasn’t all been peachy… There have been some downsides too. I’ve picked up a very sore right thumb and probably the beginnings of carpal tunnel in my right wrist which will only probably get worse! Endless hours kneading fondant or gumpaste will do that to you.

Silver lining? My once weak arms are actually kinda muscly now! And sore hands means more massages!

The final weeks..

The lead up to Finals Week at culinary school were very much focused on advanced decorating techniques and tons of projects. We covered nearly every technique under the sun but although I was learning so much I still felt like I could do with another 3 months here.

So project-wise, here are a few of my favourites…

A Circus Topsy Turvy Cake which took 2 days to create. The poles were airbrushed red after taping and the elephant was made out of rice krispie treats! each stripe and semi-circle was painstakingly measured and cut to size and individually pasted on.

A very cute Russian Doll carved cake which I modified into a China Doll by adding on a head made of rice krispie treats (so it didn’t collapse) with cute knots for hair and a hand painted face. This cake was made from lemon ginger pound cake and buttercream and took around 6 hours  to create.

My absolute favourite has to be this carved Kate Spade handbag which was by far the most challenging.

The hardware was made from gumpaste and wired for support. Whilst the shape was relatively simple, I couldn’t believe I managed to pull the painting of the pretty intense design off.  

One of the biggest projects of the course was a wedding dress cake which brought a whole new set of challenges where I had to make a flower I had never attempted before and is notoriously delicate (both in sugar form and in real life!). After a 20min crash course and intense practice overnight, I managed to pull this off..

Inspired by the purple colour theme and flowers from my own wedding I chose ombre ruffles and graduated bands to give the cake more dimension. The silver brooches were also made from silicon moulds I created in class to match the bracelet I wore for my wedding out of gumpaste and painted silver lustre.

The diagonal spray was also loosely based on the strap on my wedding dress bodice and you can also see the centre part of my bracelet which inspired the brooches above. I chose to make purple centres for the orchid for better consistency of colour. Pleased to say that 3 days of slaving over this cake has been preserved as it is now on display in the reception of the French Culinary Institute as it was a 100% dummy cake.

We were also taught how to create a whimsical cake where the theme was “grooms cake” (translation: no girly cakes!). So my teammate and I went for Beer Mug and a bowl of nuts and pretzels instead! We didn’t quite finish this one as it was supposed to have a beer can sticking out of the top to look like beer was being poured from above the glass but it still looks really fun.

The Final Project

My final cake took me some time to design – mainly because the theme was so wide (“My Dream Wedding”) and I had already designed a cake based on my dream wedding dress. I decided to use my chinese wedding dress which was made by Malaysian designer Zang Toi as inspiration for a few reasons. I loved the colour and the simplicity of the original dress and the beautiful lace details. I also wanted to pay homage to my Chinese heritage and make a cake that wasn’t just a white wedding cake.

The bodice was represented on the second tier with lace brush embroidery painted in gold after the icing had dried.

Colour isn’t something a lot of brides would generally order so this was a chance for me to indulge in something bold and totally luxurious. I made the design a little bolder than the original lace for higher impact with bigger flowers and a more organic look

 I chose a deeper burgundy than the original dress to avoid a christmas-like look, golden lotus flowers which took so much time to dry due to the humidity of summer in New York and I also added a Chinese-sylte willow tree on the bottom tier. The trunk of the tree is brush embroidered as well.

Some people have asked me why the top tier looks a little wobbly – this was because of a very soft praline mousseline filling that buckled the top tier after being cut. The judges who graded our cakes had to also grade them on taste so a slice was cut out of the back of each cake for tasting. Here is a peek behind the scenes at the back of the cake:

We then served portions to our family and friends who attended our graduation so more chunks came out!

Closing Time…
I thought instead of blogging about the lead up to finals I would just share this video which was a slideshow I made for graduation about the journey I’ve been on with my classmates. Enjoy!

What next?

As part of our finals week, we were asked to complete a business portfolio assignment which really forced us to think about my longer term aspirations in the cake world and what we want to achieve in the next few years. My business consulting background has really started to kick in here with numerous wild ideas tempered by business-minded realism that may some day turn into reality.

What I’ve learned about myself is that my one true passion is having an impact on others. Whether it is seeing someone’s demeanour change at the sight of a sugary work of art I created or a friend push themselves out of their comfort zone after encouraging them to go that one step further, I love changing someone’s mood or thought pattern even if only for a few fleeting moments. Even in my day job, I love coaching others and helping them to improve their skills or even just think about something a little differently.

So my ultimate ambition?

I’d love to teach and one day mentor people the same way I have been mentored and taught. That is a much tougher goal than you’d think because in the world of cakes, you need to be an absolute master before you can instruct. There is no halfway point. There is no concept of “those who can’t do teach” – and teaching cakes is a whole new level of hard. Here is where I give my biggest vote of thanks to my wonderful Chef Instructor Judy Lai (www.silkcakes.com) who not only runs her own cake business but was hands down the most phenomenal teacher I’ve ever had. Her affable personal style, goofy sense of humour and innate sense of professionalism really made her outshine every other teacher I’ve had and I absolutely loved the time I got to spend with this pocket rocket of a teacher absorbing her knowledge and being encouraged to push myself that one step further.

Here’s a pic from graduation that I love of two of my best role models – mum to the left and Chef J to the right! (they were sharing tips about chinese cooking I believe..)

With that inspiration in mind I return to Sydney next week with a longer term goal I will slowly chip away at with more practice, more cakes, more challenges and hopefully some new opportunities with some of Sydney’s best cake designers.

Armed with more knowledge, more confidence and more connections, I hope to bring you more cool creations and thank you for again making it to the end of another lengthy post!