Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Buttercream vs. Fondant: A Frosting Review

There are a lot of kinds of edible cake coverings.  Faced with nekkid cake, the cake decorator can choose to cover it with any or a combination of: buttercream, royal icing, flat icing, fudge, glaze, fondant, gumpaste, sugar paste, ganache, molding chocolate, whipped cream, meringue, mousse...

Generally, frosting types can be sorted into six types.
  • Buttercream is made by mixing (you guessed it) butter (or margarine) and powdered sugar with a liquid (frequantly milk), and sometimes a flavoring such as vanilla extract.  Think of the frosting on grocery store cakes, and you'll have an idea of the texture: smooth, creamy, and easily spread.
  • Royal icing is a harder, stiffer consistancy; in cake decorating, it is extremely useful for any kind of delicate lace work, hanging loops, or flowers.  Unlike buttercream, it will hold its shape, and won't smear.  Unfortunately, it is also relatively fragile.  The basic recipe is meringue powder with a liquid (I tend to use water).
  • Ganache is essentially chocolate melted into butter and cream.  It is extreme versatile, and very rich.  Heated to a liquid, it can be poured over cakes to form a shiny glaze.  Left to sit at room temperature and then beaten, it becomes a fluffy, rich filling; chillen and beaten, it becomes thick, stiff, and excellent for rolling into truffles.  If poured flat and chilled until only slightly soft, it can be used for cut-out chocolate shapes (but I wouldn't recommend it for anything that doesn't lie flat).
  • Glazes are the simpliest icings, made by mixing powdered sugar and water, or a juice (lemon glazes, for example, are powdered sugar and lemon juice).  It is generally poured or drizzled, and hardens into a shiny, hard crust.  Because the flavor can be made as subtle or a strong as you want, these can be a great accent to a pastry, or used to add a tang of flavor between layers of filling on a cake 
  • Fondant is popular on sculpted cakes and wedding cakes, and undoubtedly familiar to anyone who watches cake shows.  The basic recipe is a mixture of sugar, water and either glucose or cream of tartar.  Before it dries, it rather resembles PlayDoh in texture, and can be kneaded, rolled, stretched and shaped.  Rolled flat, it can be draped over and shaped against the contours of a cake.  Within this category I'll also include things like molding chocolate, which can be softened and worked into shapes, and gumpaste, which is similar to fondant, but includes gum tragacanth (gum tex), and is more rigid when dried.  This makes it especially good for delicate shapes and flowers, since it can be rolled much thinner and tends to hold it's shape. (Fondant, in a warm room, can soften again).  
  • Whipped/Meringues involve egg whites, and are beaten or cooked until the frosting is light and fluffy.  While these can make for great additions to desserts, they tend to break down over time.
Generally, cake interiors don't vary too much.  Sure, different bakeries might favor mousse fillings, or be known for flavored glazes, but generally there's enough variety in flavors within any given cake shop to see a fair representation. 

The exterior, however, tends to divide cake decorators into one of two camps: those who work with buttercream, and those who work with fondant.  Frequently, each side can come up with a long list of reasons why their chosen medium is superior, but when it comes down to it, I feel that it's a bit like the difference between painting and sculpting: both are artistic mediums, but require slightly different skill sets.

Pros and Cons
So, why use one over the other?

Fondant makes things, to a certain extent, easy: it can be shaped and rolled into three-dimensional decorations.  Gum-Tex powder can be worked in to give it support, and it is far more likely to survive a trip from bakery to plate, since it won't smear.  When it's used to cover cakes, fondant--when applied well--creates an absolutely smooth, matte surface that doesn't require a steady hand with the spatula.  In most cases, it holds color well.  It also stores longer than other types of frosting.

All fondant, from Colette Cakes
Unfortunately, it's messy and time consuming to make at home.  While it can certainly be purchased, cheap fondant does not tend to taste particularly good; the most common complaint I've run into is that people don't like the flavor.  I had, however, had recent success with Duff's fondant in terms of flavor, price and availability (it can be purchased at Michaels).  Be wary of the setting, too--in warm weather, fondant might very well lose its shape, and if it's a covering, slide off the cake.

Buttercream, on the other hand, can be easily made at home, and is more likely to be a crowd-pleaser in terms of flavor and familiarity.  Personally, I like it because it's an easy matter to pipe designs onto the cake surface, and does not need an extra amount of counter space for rolling.  It can create highly delicate patterns, and apart from coloring, doesn't need much prep work.  When it comes to writing, I personally don't have time to punch out and place individual letters.

All buttercream, from Some Crust Bakery
Those who prefer buttercream only for filling and crumbcoating would point out, however, that buttercream is pretty much confined to two-dimensional designs.  Like fondant, it can sweat if the cake is put in a warm room (especially if it's humid, or the cake was recently stored in a freezer), but with buttercream the dyes are more likely to bleed and drip.  An accidental brush of a finger might dent fondant, but you can be certain, with buttercream, that there'll be a noticable gouge.  Additionally, it can take a lot of work--or a lot of buttercream--to get smooth sides, and unlike with fondant, which tends to hide crumbs, dark chocolate cake can be beastly when combined with white buttercream.

So then, which one's better?

Again, it depends on your strengths in decorating (have a steady hand? Try buttercream piping.  Rather work with your hands? Go the fondant route) and personal taste. 
Of course, buttercream can make for some
pretty awesome 3D cakes, too.

For most of my life, I've been a buttercream kind of girl, but that's mainly due to the preferences of the people I most often bake for (family and friends).  
I've recently been working more with fondant--for the sceptics out there, think of it as any other medium, and give it a try!  Remember, with store-bought frosting, not all brands are equal. 

Stay tuned for a follow up and review of fondant brands!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Colette Peters

What's a week without some cake love?  This week it's Colette Peters, of Colette's Cakes

I first heard about her work after receiving her book, Cakes to Dream On, for Christmas.  She has such a great range: intricately floral wedding cakes, whimsical, topsy-turvy confections, thematic cakes, and some great can't-believe-it's-cake designs.

Like lace and flowers?  How about this fabulous Sweet-Sixteen, which what I do believe is a Cinderella carriage on top.  Look at the wheels!  And all the delicate piping!  Or the all-white flowers on the second tier, against the blue...just so wonderful.

 Something a little more traditional, but in an absolutely beautiful color scheme; again, I'm in love with the piping on this, and the little flower chains around the bottom and third tier.

While a little more modern, I really love the visual simplicity of this design, especially the open bands around the bottom and fourth layers.  Such a clean, pretty detail, and all the more impressive since I can't imagine making those, or keeping them from breaking.  Lovely touches with the single center flower, and the little ones around the base. 

 No flowers, just leaves?  Not a design I would immediately think of, but I really love the whimsy, new-spring feel to this next cake.

 And then....piping.  Excuse me while I go swoon--all the little beading! Makes my heart go pitter-pat.

If piping and florals aren't your cup of tea, or you need a bit more color to your cakes, Colette also has these lovelies:

And last but not least - Colette's beautiful, beautiful buildings; check out the sugar-spun work!

All images from Colette's Cakes

Still need more?  Browse through all Colette's cakes here

Friday, May 11, 2012

Pretty Things for Spring

Pretty Things for Spring

Tee dress
$80 - anthropologie.com

Forever 21 jewelry
$7.80 - forever21.com

Essie nail
$8 - macys.com

Cadiz Mug
$10 - anthropologie.com

Homegrown Monogram Mug
$8 - anthropologie.com

Twistband Hair Tie 12-pack
$18 - birchbox.com

A Girl's Survival Guide to Finals

It's that time of the semester: the library stays open 24/7 (and people literally move in, sleeping bags, coffee makers and all), pajamas become indistinguishable from day clothes, and its impossible to find flashcards in any store in a five mile radius.  Given the amount of stress that's running rampant, I thought I'd share some of my favorite survival tactics:

1) Dress it up.
         As tempting (and comfortable) it is to live in yoga pants and sweatshirts for a week, I've found that dressing up a bit for the actual exam can help reduce stress, raise confidence and increase focus.  Why?  Part of it is the association factor: pantyhose and pencil skirts are generally reserved for interviews and presentations--moments when I want the world to assume I'm the kind of person who's reliable and in control.  Not a fan of tights?  Plan ahead for some comfortable but polished outfits that make you feel good.  Sweats might be comfortable, but might make you more inclined to curl back up in bed.

2) Cleaning
Bright colors encouraged

        Whenever I have trouble focusing on a particular project (especially if it needs to be done Now), I find cleaning the immediate space I'm in can be a huge help.  Maybe there isn't time to give my entire room a thorough going-over, but even something as simple as clearing accumulated papers off my workspace and putting them away can do the trick.  There's a sense of having wiped the slate clean (not to mention having done something productive) and prepared to give the project my full attention. 

3) Get up, walk away, and move
       I know--when the essays have piled up and the study guides are knee-deep, it's tempting to hole up in the library and plow through.  Time spent on Other Things is time wasted, especially as it gets closer to exam time.  But getting up and getting outside--especially if it's nice out! --can keep Library Fever at bay.  Go for a run, take a stroll around campus, sit on a bench outside and stare at the trees--whatever it is, give your brain a break for a moment.

4) Sleep.  No really-- Sleep
A common library phenomenon

      As perhaps one of the worst night-owls on campus, I realize this sounds a bit hypocritical, but it's definitely a "do as I say, not as I do" moment.  While a considerable body of research has shown that pulling all-nighters impairs performance and memory, it's important to remember that even cutting back on your regular number of hours (be it eight or four--whatever leaves you feeling refreshed) isn't doing you any favors.  Ask a friend to watch your stuff, and take a 20-minute power nap (the ideal length of a nap); if you have more time to spare, try sleeping for multiples of 90 minutes, the length of a given sleep cycle.  Your body and mind will have a moment to reboot, and when your alarm goes off, you'll be more likely to be naturally coming out of deep sleep, and less prone to grogginess.  An added benefit?  Your brain is active when you sleep, especially your hypothalamus, responsible for memory.  So run those flash cards one last time before you go to bed; your brain will keep practicing while you sleep.

5) Something silly
     Your inner five-year-old probably knows how to burn off some of that stress; so go get some bubble mix and try to catch them before they pop; paint your toenails ridiculous colors; make a playlist of your favorite peppy music, and have a silent dance party in the stairwell (or between the stacks; people will probably laugh, therapy for everyone); make your favorite snack from when you were little (ants-on-a-log, anyone?); code your notes with stickers (remember the fuzzy rainbow unicorn ones?  I certainly do); make silent but ridiculous faces at your friend across the table.  It's impossible to frown and laugh at the same time.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Cake Opera Co.

I'm always falling in love with cake artists.  I first ran into Cake Opera Co at a New York cake convention, and oh, it was one of those dizzy-love-at-first-sight moments.  Run by the fabulous Alexandra Pellegrino (cake artist)

and Jessica Smith (pastry chef),

the Toronto-located shop offers a chic, elegant array of cakes and pastries.  What caught my eye about the cake design was the painting technique Alexandra uses, often drawing on textiles for inspiration.  At the convention, she sat with a swatch of fabric, hand-painting the pattern onto the side of the cake.  It's a beautiful effect. 

I'm particularly enamored of the figurine opera cakes:

The Piratess Cake
(And some of that hand-painted detailing with the ship on the side of the cake--absolutely gorgeous.)

Then there are the "Operettas," lovely sweet tables:

Bohemian Chic

Black and White
The colors!  The display!   It just all looks so good.  Other delights:

It makes me want to move to Canada. 

Want more?  Check out their website.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Ron Ben-Israel

This man:

This man is my god. 
This man is Ron Ben-Israel, and world, just so you know, I would like to be him. 

I've been decorating cakes for as long as I can remember--although realistically, it's probably only been for ten or eleven years.  I've primarily done birthday cakes, since that's usually the only occasion that my family, ever focused on healthy eating, really needs a multi-evening dessert.  Occasionally there'll be a just-for-fun cake for a friend or teacher; only very recently have I actually had any commissions.

That said, mine are usually somewhat constrained by time, cost, and people--it's simply not realistic to do a three-tier cake for a family of four.  Especially when you consider the sorry lack of space in the average kitchen's refrigerator.

Recently, however, my dad sent me an email linking to Ron Ben-Israel's site, and while he certainly isn't my first Cake Decorator Crush, he's certainly now one of my favorites.  (Also--how have I not heard of him before?  Goodness.)

Ron Ben-Israel, you see, does these cakes.  Beautiful, beautiful cakes, and I just can't get enough.

All photos from Ron Ben-Israel Cakes

I just...where to start?  The detailing.  The ribbon work.  The flowers.  I've never had much occasion to make sugar-paste flowers, but I've been desperate to learn, and Ron Ben-Israel is rather famous for his.  And the cakes--the clean lines, the meticulous detail, the focus to make each and every one unique to the client...it just makes me dizzy. 

Even better though: he teaches.  AND takes interns.  Yes, Ron Ben-Israel teaches at the French Culinary Institute in New York.  He also has room for twelve interns a year in his atelier in Soho.  Anyways, you should go to his site and explore--particularly the cake collections and the videos of his work. 

Sweet and sugared thoughts to you all!