Monday, August 20, 2007

Gilding the Rose

I love roses, be they in the form of a beautiful perfume or to lend a heady quality to an exotic sweet. And when called upon to produce something pretty, my favourite decorative motif fallback is the rose. So when a friend asked if I could make something with a floral theme, the choice was clear. I also wanted the something to be ultra feminine and luxurious in feel, something that would be as statuesque and charming as my friend is (who, quite aside from being a genuinely lovely person, is lovely to behold as well).

Rather than make one large cake, I went with cupcakes and a miniature tiered cake. I think the reason why many people prefer individual desserts to slices off a larger article is not just the more elegant appearance, but that having an individual dessert all to yourself makes one feel a little more special; how better to define luxury on a plate?

And cupcakes are possibly the original individual dessert. It is this, along with their enchantingly nostalgic quality, which is the secret to their enduring appeal. Cupcakes are reminiscent of childhood, and often come replete with a child-friendly presentation - think swirls of frosting topped with sprinkles, jimmies, quins, hundreds-and-thousands and their ilk. This effortlessly stylish packaging makes the cupcake not just delightful to eat, but is what endears itself to everyone who enjoys baking - a fix that's as fun to make as it is to eat, what's not to love? I'm stating the obvious here, but what is less obvious is that cupcakes can also be very adult, a transformation effected simply by virtue of a change in presentation, giving them a treatment more typically associated with cakes of a grander scale. I think of this protean versatility as yet another explanation of the cupcake's evergreen allure.

I'm a big fan of both Peggy Porschen and Margaret Braun, and find in their work a source of great inspiration. Their books (Pretty Party Cakes, Romantic Cakes and Cakewalk) are probably the most well-thumbed and dye-stained in my collection of cake decorating manuals. Each has a very distinct style; Peggy Porschen's aesthetic is more contemporary and restrained, while Margaret Braun, a sugar artist who has redefined the art of cake decorating with her sense of historicism, has a proclivity for the gloriously flamboyant. Their styles may first seem disparate - in Ms Porschen's hands, even Bollywood kitsch (the inspiration behind some of her signature cakes) looks chic and and understated, while Ms Braun's use of beautifully busy Baroque flourishes (such as in her Baroque in Patent Leather design) wouldn't be out of place embellishing the vaulted mouldings of some 17th century architectural marvel - but both women create cakes that are always ideals of beauty (albeit by different definitions), always feminine and always glamorous.
The cupcakes and little tiered cake were decorated with swags and pearls piped in royal icing, and crowned with sugarpaste roses in assorted states of bloom from buds to half-open to full bloom - as everyone who's tried their hand at crafting these will tell you, it's not just about the character of each rose's appearance, but a numbers game; it's the utter quantity of them that makes the cake. To give them an antiqued patina, the rose petals (shaped from sugarpaste tinted in a variegated palette of pinks ranging from palest blush to dusky damask to Schiaparelli shocking) are accentuated by painting on a fuchsia lustre dust, with the petal edges gilded in gold, as are the vein-stamped leaves. I think it's the diminutive and delicate detail on these edible dollhouse miniatures that gives them a Marie Antoinette-sque quality.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Sugar and spice, and all that's nice, that's what little girls are made of

I'm sheepish to admit, but I get way too pysched about baking for little girls - you can't exactly festoon a locomotive or football field shaped confection with sugarpaste roses or tint it pink. What a treat, then, it was when some of my favourite people in the world celebrated the birthdays of their little princesses the week just past, relishing the excuse to indulge in fashioning flora and fauna figurines in an ultra-girly pastel palette for topping the fondant fancies. As is evident, I have a weakness (and a huge one at that) for the very twee and over-the-top.

A mix of rolled fondant daisies and sweet little bows. The "pollen" is actually coloured sanding sugar.

Designed to match the plates my friend bought for her party, the fondant cut-outs are finished with details piped in coloured royal icing. The quilted effect on the letters is created with a stitching tool.
A butterfly farm's worth of pretty flitting little things. The wings, which are royal icing runouts, are pieced together with stiff royal icing, which is also used for pressure piping the bodies and feelers.
My mother worried for the longest time I would never outgrow my tomboy phase; ironically, as a little girl, I was always - to quote from that nursery rhyme - more about slugs and snails then sugar and spice. So while these are no less pretty than the Butterflyaways, I like to imagine it's Roald Dahl-esque that these came to life and escaped from an Art Nouveau stained glass window only to get trapped in wet, sticky sugar.

More cake-shaped cookie favours below. For anybody who loves decorating cakes, these decorated cookies are instant gratification - all the pleasure of dreaming up new ideas and rendering a design in royal icing work, but condensed into a tiny four-by-three space and sans the long waiting times, sometimes weeks, it can take to finish a tiered cake. Faced with a blank cookie canvas, however, I sometimes draw a blank - I find it helps tremendously to sketch my ideas out on paper first before actually wielding the piping bag, especially when creating collections unified by a theme.
Lace & Swags

Vintage Chintz
Tiaras & Pearls
Daisy Chain