The Point of No Return.

I've been making cakes in a professional capacity for five years, and prior to that, more than I care to remember for family, friends and just me. By now I must have made thousands. I always said I could make my famous chocolate cake blindfold, and as for a good old Madeira, well, I can do that in my sleep.

As it turns out, even professional cake makers have off days, and mine came a couple of weeks ago.

You've probably been there. That place when your mind wanders off down memory lane and you forget where you are. Well, I was in my studio with two different cake mixtures in two different Kenwood mixing bowls. Chocolate in one (the one with the handles for heavier quantities) and Vanilla Madeira in the other bowl (no handles, for lighter mixtures). Everything was weighed out - two gorgeous Mason Cash bowls with cocoa powder/flour mix in the beige bowl, and just SR flour and a hint of baking powder in the blue. My butter and sugars were both creamed to almost white. Nice and fluffy. The eggs had been added and there was zero curdling and I was ready for the dry ingredients in both.

So far so good...

The cocoa mixture was supposed to go in the handled bowl, and the SR Flour in the other. See how methodical I am?!

And then, as it was close to my 40th birthday, I was listening to the 25th Anniversary, "Live at the Albert Hall" recording of The Phantom of the Opera. The Phantom and I share a birthday, you see. It had its premiére on my birthday in 1986. So every year, I listen, remember how much I love it and pretend I can sing soprano. I've seen it four or five times and have artwork of it on my walls at home.

Sing for meeeee!

Sing for meeeee!

 

And as I listened and warbled, my mind drifted to when I was younger and how I drew the original album's artwork on my Art Portfolio. I loved the single rose and the mask. I wanted to be Christine. I always identified with the Phantom and sympathised with him and thought Raoul was a bit of a wet mop. Give me dark and mysterious (and mentally unstable!) any day.

As my mind wandered, I went from school to Sixth Form, sitting around the Common Area, drinking vending-machine hot chocolate from the machine in the dining room - the on the left though, as that was the more chocolatey-tasting one - and my thoughts then went my first proper boyfriend who was neither dark nor mysterious, but at the time I thought he was the Best. Boyfriend. Ever. As you do. 

And then I looked down and I had added my dry ingredients to my Kenwood bowls, and the batters were promptly spooned into their respective tins, but after a quick taste test of both batters, the vanilla batter tasted lovely and sweet. And the chocolate one was a bit stiffer than usual and tasted very rich. Odd, I thought. I put them both in the oven, and it was only as I was getting ready to wash everything that light dawned and I saw the problem. The Kenwood bowl with the handles should be smeared with the remains of chocolatey cake batter, and the non-handled one should be providing me with delicious vanilla batter to lick. Except it was the other way round and it dawned on me; in my reverie, one of the cakes now had too much sugar/butter and too little flour, and the other had too much flour/cocoa and not enough sugar and butter. And there was nothing I could do except watch and wait.

 

Once out of the oven, the vanilla one was obviously a massive fail. It kind of did what a soufflé might do and rose very quickly but then imploded in on itself. The chocolate one at first glance didn't look all that bad, but when I tapped on the top, it sounded a lot like a loaf of bread rather than my lovely moist chocolate cake. 

Then, once cooled, I cut them. 

It's holey, Jim, but not as we know it...

It's holey, Jim, but not as we know it...

See the massive hole and the raw cake mixture around it? That's not ideal. And also the crumb is very loose and did I mention it was raw in the middle? Some might be tempted to cut out the raw bit and pass it off as a Bundt cake, but a quick nibble of the crust revealed the cake was overly sweet. Nice if you have a sweet tooth, but not good enough.

Drier than a...

Drier than a...

See, now I love chocolate and I love chocolate cake, and after slicing this, I thought, "well actually, it might not be good enough for my customer, but I wonder if it salvageable as a 'take home and stuff in my face with a cup of tea' sort of cake?"

Turns out, it was very dry and also very bitter. I use a high quality cocoa powder, and trust me, it needs the correct amount of sugar to balance the bitterness. This cake was sadly lacking in the sweetness department. 

So, I did what any self-respecting perfectionist would do and I started again from scratch. And I'm happy to report that the second time around, I paid full attention to every step of the process, and it resulted in lovely, moist, perfect cakes. I have kept the chocolate cake though as if I crumb it up and mix it with some chocolate buttercream ganache, it will make lovely truffles or cake pops. The vanilla one went in the bin, sadly.

The moral of this story is simply this. If you are an amateur baker, take heart. Even professionals make mistakes so do not beat yourself up about it. If you are a pro, I'd suggest that a mistake here and there reminds you that sometimes being able to do things blindfold might not be a good idea. Neither is thinking about olden days when you should be concentrating on the job at hand! And no matter how loudly you sing, you will never be Christine Daae...

Cake- the 2.0 redux. 

Cake- the 2.0 redux. 

Love Never Dies...

My customers frequently challenge me in terms of the designs they ask for. In the last twelve months alone I have been asked for everything from Optimus Prime, edible Lush Bath Bombs and  caravans to Lady Gaga, chandelier wedding cakes and Art Deco Flapper dresses. 

One such challenge was the first of this week's cakes. The recipient is a huge fan of Bram Stoker's Dracula - the film featuring Gary Oldman and Keanu Reeves - so the brief was to recreate the original movie poster artwork.

I had a rough idea how I would do this one. Essentially I had a couple of options: I could print an edible image of the entire graphic onto an icing sheet and just stick that onto a round cake. Alternatively I could "animate" the gargoyle with fondant or modelling chocolate, basically modelling it and cutting out the Dracula lettering by hand. I decided to go for the latter as I knew if I got it right the effect would be much better. More time consuming, but much more effective.

The gargoyle took a few attempts as I my modelling chocolate was very sticky and frankly, there was more on my hands than on my work surface. (This is because I'd complained earlier that day that my studio was freezing cold, so I'd put the heating on. Rookie mistake.)

Fondant gargoyle, still sticky with some tentative shading.

Fondant gargoyle, still sticky with some tentative shading.

So, instead, I decided to work it in fondant. Often sculpting with fondant doesn't work as it's much harder to blend in joins and cracks than with chocolate, but for this, I actually liked the cracks visible as the gargoyle is supposed to look like stone.

I was fairly happy with the first attempt at this, but I decided to leave it overnight to set before I decided whether I was going to paint and dust it properly. 

The next stage was the baking of the cake which needs no explanation (hint here, don't forget to add the eggs, like I forgot to do with a cake the other week, then wondered why it looked weird and wasn't rising - I blame tiredness!) but as the cake was cooling, I applied the first layer of colour to the gargoyle's head. It was quite patchy and blocky at the point - the shading will be done when this coat is dry.

First colouring. Looks kinda blocky at this point.

First colouring. Looks kinda blocky at this point.

So, the next day I made some zingy lemon buttercream, some lemon syrup and I torted, drizzled and filled the cake. Then as the layers were settling, I rolled the gum paste for the Dracula letters. I find when cutting sugar and gum paste it is best to roll it to the required thickness, then let it air dry slightly before cutting, otherwise it can drag as you slice. And the knife blade has to be sharp. (And given that it is sharp, don't then do what I did last week, and run your thumb over it to wipe off bits of sticky sugar. Because there will be blood which meant I had to down tools for 24 hours. I am that daft sometimes.)

Tracing the lettering outline.

Tracing the lettering outline.

There is a lot of waiting for things to dry in cake-making. You get used to managing your time effectively. (Or sometimes when it's hot and I'm impatient, I leave my studio, go downstairs and hang out with the Gallery owners for a bit!) 

As I waited for the red gum paste to be dry enough to cut, I ganache my cake with a creamy white chocolate ganache. Then, as this was setting in the fridge, I went back to the letters and cut them out. By the time they were cut, the ganache was hard enough to cover in fondant. As the picture above shows a sort of stone-effect, craggy background, I decided to marble my fondant using a mixture of white, chocolate brown and pale yellow. 

After applying the fondant and smoothing any noticeable bumps, I then distressed it with a dusting of colour then brushed it with alcohol to "drag" the colour. Then I added the gargoyle, stuck the lettering in place and left it alone to dry and set.

 

And here is the finished cake. (Before it was delivered I did a couple more tweaks on the colouring of the gargoyle, just adding a bit more light and shade!)