Sunday, May 06, 2007

Cake Decorating Is Not My (Pastry) Bag

As I am nearing the end of my cake decorating class, taught by pastry chef James Foran of Market here in San Diego, I am realizing that I have learned a lot. What I learned is not exactly what I expected, but important nonetheless.
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I took the class because I wanted to learn the type of decorating you see on wedding cakes - flourishes like flowers, ribbons, bows, etc. And I did. I can write with icing (though I need more practice), I can make shell borders, I can do swiss dots, fratelli lace, smooth buttercream and gum paste roses. Will I do them again? Probably not. When I need gas, I go to a gas station, I don't drill a hole in my backyard and refine the crude oil myself. Similarly, I think this type of work is best left to the professionals. I will, from now on, have no problem paying good money for a professionally decorated cake (mind you one that tastes good) given the amount of tedious labor involved.
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I had really thought that I would like it. I love clay, I love artsy stuff, and I like to play with food, but there's something about handling all of that pasty stuff and molding it into unnatural shapes that gives me the heebie jeebies. Why go to the trouble to use artisanal ingredients, like Scharffenberger chocolate, organic butter and flour, and then slather the whole thing with something that comes in a plastic tub and tastes like Lucky Charms marshmallows??
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It's funny because in the beginning - Chef Foran said that stuff really wasn't his thing, that he preferred simpler desserts - and he taught us those too. We did some very classic recipes - Opera Cake, a passionfruit mousse cake ringed with joconde sponge, and another ringed with ladyfingers. We did mousses, glazes and some other stuff I missed (I actually missed several of the classes due to work, unfortunately.) We did a lovely glazed chocolate torte, topped with some sugar decorations and a plaque reading "happy birthday" - this I will do again. I sat through these, waiting patiently for the wedding cake decor - so imagine my disappointment when I realized that the other cakes are the ones I really want to make.
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If I do ever make a fondant covered cake for a special request - I will make my own fondant or seek out a better quality product than what we used in class. I know they're out there. Though we used very good quality products for most of the class, it just wouldn't do for us to be butchering huge quantities of fondant and gum paste at Chef Foran's expense.
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The deeper truth is that I am probably not a pastry chef, though I have always fancied myself as such. I like to tweak and fiddle with recipes - something you simply can't do with a cake until you make it the next time, and I have absolutely no patience for something that doesn't come out right. I had hoped to learn things in these classes that I am still light years away from doing - like formulating my own recipes. I am starting to realize that that kind of experience comes from experimenting - which is something I rarely have time to do. I also find it difficult to risk the kinds of ingredients I want to use - chocolate, butter, eggs, etc. in recipes that may or may not turn out the way I want them to.

For example, I am still on a quest for a brownie that satisfies all of my requirements. It needs to be moist, dark and chewy - that is the elusive quality that I can't quite find. I tried Tartine's recipe the other day, which called for a POUND of bittersweet chocolate, and it still wasn't what I am looking for. I posted a recipe a few months back that I optimistically declared the Ultimate Brownie - but I was in denial if I thought I was done. Maybe the answer is dark brown sugar, more cocoa and a little less butter. I guess I'll have to keep trying. Luckily, I have co-workers who will take the leftovers off my hands no matter how they turn out!


  1. When I moved here, I had to "un-teach" myself how to do the wedding cakes I was used to making (cream puffs croquembouches)and like you I learned fondant and gum pste and all the pretty ribbons and bows, and I like you I don't understand the need to cover something great a blanket of candy. But, ye, I am getting somewhere, I also think it is always good to see how things are done. Now, you have a better knowledge of techniques, tools, etc...which is actually pretty cool.
    At least your photos were gorgeous!

  2. I really enjoyed your take on this, as I'm like you - into crafty, artsy sorts of things, and have always thought that I'd love to do this sort of thing. However, I do understand your point about the 'lucky charm'-ness of it all - and a greater urge to dream up recipes, and carry them out from scratch. That said, I think you did a lovely job on the cakes in your pictures. There is something to be said for learning what you DON'T love doing, just as much as what you DO love doing.

  3. Your cakes look amazing - but I am so with you on the taste aspect. I have been taking basic cake decorating classes, no fondant yet, just "class buttercream" made with shortening that has turned me off of icing all together! Is something lost in the rewards process when you can create something so beautiful for your family but can't stand to eat it?

  4. Like Gilly, I enjoyed your introspective discussion of your experience. Seems that in addition to fondant ribbons, you learned a lot about *you* in the process -- which makes the course a success regardless of whether you ever use the techniques again, or so it seems to me. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Fondant is such a strange tasting item. I believe most places remove the fondant layer before serving the actual cake to the guest.

    But your roses are simply gorgeous and I'm sure you could apply those skills to maybe some buttercream or royal icing roses. You did fantastic and you seemed to learn alot about yourself too.

  6. The thing about never find the perfect recipe is all the great ones in between that you can try! All the cakes look beautiful!

  7. helen - you are right, it is good to see how things are done. It's really interesting that we don't know what we like until we try it!

    gilly - thanks! I guess I am just more into a homestyle approach, mostly because the effort vs. result ratio is so much better! You are right though - you never know unless you try it!

    quellia - I know - that shortening stuff is gross isn't it?? I can't believe we willingly eat that when served bakery cakes all the time... It's totally different when you make it yourself!

    culinarily curious - Hi fellow daring baker! it was an interesting process and I did learn about myself - mostly how lazy I really am! All kidding aside - I really did. Thanks for reading.

    cheryl - I think you're right - certainly they don't expect you to eat it! The cake is covered with buttercream and then with fondant, so there's frosting underneath anyway in most cases.

    freya and paul - good point! I will keep that in mind!

    Thanks for stopping by everyone, I am looking forward to being a member of the DB community! It definitely seems to be a "good thing" to borrow a phrase from everyone's favorite jailbird! :-)

  8. Alice, I think that you did a wonderful job, even though it's not your cup of tea. Your cake looks fabulous and the roses are so pretty and perfect!
    I've made some cakes with fondant and people won't eat it - at the parties, 85% of the guests leave the fondant at their plate (at least here in Brazil). But they like the visual effect.

    One thing I've done to avoid that and still add a funny/cute touch is to ice the cake with ganache or a chocolate icing that sets and stays firm and to add the decorations made by sugarpaste on top. I have some photos if you're interested.

  9. I really respect you for giving it a real go and then deciding its not for you. I think a lot of people go through their lives dreaming about things they'd love to do but dont have the courage to try them in case they fail. This seems a recent theme in my dealings with people.

    I know its only cake decorating but well done for trying and moving on.

    Not to mention that ugly food often tastes so much better. My wedding cake wasnt the prettiest but it was so full of chocolatey goodness that I was delighted!

  10. Take it from me: I went to culinary school TWICE before I realized that I didn't want to do it as my profession.

    Fondant is crap, plain and simple. It's easy to work with, lasts a long time, and tastes like sweet play dough. It's just a sugar dough made with gelatin. I personally hate the stuff and will spend more money to cover cake with something that tastes good, like marzipan.

    Remember, decorating skills transfer to all sorts of other food related things. (even non-pastry!)

  11. This line SUMS IT UP!

    "Why go to the trouble to use artisanal ingredients, like Scharffenberger chocolate, organic butter and flour, and then slather the whole thing with something that comes in a plastic tub and tastes like Lucky Charms marshmallows??"

    Feel free to print this on a card or a t shirt or a bumper sticker. Or shout it from the rooftops.

    Although, strangely, I have an answer for you.

    Originally wedding cakes were made of poor ingredients, or cakes like "The Fruit Cake" whose integrity needed to be sealed in with something-- especially when refrigeration was not available.

    The truth is that few wedding cakes are baked to taste good.