Tuesday, July 1, 2008

It’s fun to make a splendid cake

Award-winning decorator Suzanne Daly teaches you how

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
Around the Table
in Brava Magazine
July 2008

Related recipe: Homemade Fondant

“I’m here to take take the fear out of fondant,” announces Suzanne Daly.

She’s addressing her students at one of the Wilton Method cake decorating classes she teaches at the Vanilla Bean, the baking supply shop on Odana Road on Madison’s West side. It’s the first night of the four-session course in fondant, and there’s a thrill of excitement in the room – perhaps a bit of intimidation, too. During a round of introductions, students explain why they’re here:

“I’ve dabbled in fondant, but I’ve never covered the cake.”

“I make wedding cakes for friends, and they all want fondant.”

“My husband is coming back from Iraq, and I want to make him a special cake. It’s got to be fondant.”

So what is fondant? Essentially, it's a a doughy sugar paste that you roll out like pie crust, then drape and shape right over your cake. The main ingredients are forms of sugar: confectioners’, glucose and glycerin. “It’s like Silly Putty, or play dough,” Suzanne explains. You can also roll out decorations, forming ribbons or using cookie cutters and other gadgets to punch out shapes, and apply them to the fondant-covered cake.

The smooth, sophisticated look of a fondant-coated cake is unmistakable, and it looks difficult to achieve. But Suzanne is reassuring, and – as she leads a hands-on demo, kneading coloring into a lump of fondant, rolling it out, embossing it with vine designs, draping it over a cake and affixing flowers and leaves – she’s convincing, too.

“It’s just a really neat medium to work with,” she says as she shapes and cuts the soft, doughy material. “It’s very forgiving. If you make a mistake, you don’t have to throw it away. You can work with it over and over. Just ball it up and re-roll it.” Suzanne says students have told her they’re worried that fondant is delicate and will rip easily, but the substance is robust and cooperative to the touch. “If it gets dry, you just add a little shortening. If it’s too sticky, you add a little cornstarch and powdered sugar mixture. You can store it in the refrigerator for a month, double wrapped. ”

Suzanne, who has won best in show at numerous county fairs in Wisconsin and Illinois, has been decorating cakes for 30 years and teaching for twelve. She belongs to professional organizations including ICES (International Cake Exploration Societe) and Dairyland Decorators. She keeps up with the latest trends and techniques through studying trade magazines. These days, she says, fondant is what just about everyone wants on a cake these days, even if they don’t know it.

VVK: At your bakery, Suzanne’s Sweet Artistry, what’s the big trend in wedding cake these days?

SD: Approximately 75% of the wedding cakes that I make are covered in fondant. My brides pull out every bridal magazine, and all the cakes they show me are fondant. They’re surprised when they try it – they aren’t sure if they like it. It’s the texture that’s unusual, like eating a soft Tootsie Roll. People aren’t used to chewing their cake. But they typically go with it.

VVK: It is unusual. More like eating candy than cake.

SD: I tell people if you don’t like to eat the fondant, that’s OK. You can just peel it off! I put a layer of buttercream frosting underneath. You can actually keep a cake that has fondant on it much longer than one that just has the buttercream. Once you’ve got the fondant on the cake, that cake will last three to four days. The buttercream keeps the fondant soft, and the fondant protects the cake from from drying out.

VVK: Which is easier to work with, fondant, or regular buttercream frosting?

SD: With buttercream, it’s more technique: practicing your consistency, practicing your pressure. Squeezing the frosting out of the bag. Holding your bag in the correct position to make sure it turns out exactly the way you want it to.

With fondant, you cut it out and put it on. It’s a different skill. You can do a lot more, make a lot of different things. Truly, fondant is something that anyone can do. Young kids can do it. Older people can do it. And the possibilities are endless.

Those of us who are cake artists, we will walk into a store, and we’ll see something that’s meant to be used for something else, and we’ll figure out how to use it in fondant. You know all those little paper punches? I use those for fondant. You punch out the little designs and put them on your cake.

VVK: You showed a photo of a delicate carnation in the class, with the paper-thin petals – it’s just out of this world.

SD: Very simple.

VVK: But it looks hard!

SD: That’s the illusion of it. You can make something that’s just exquisite.

VVK: How did you get into cake decorating?

SD: At an early age I realized just how happy I could make people with my cake creations. Growing up in a family of seven gave many opportunities to make cakes and desserts. After 18 years in banking, I realized it was time to retire from that career and take my “serious hobby” to the next level. I am very blessed to have found my passion and have the ability to make a living doing it.

VVK: What do you enjoy most about it?

SD: I enjoy the creative outlet that it provides to me. Taking someone’s idea and interpreting that idea into cake form is very satisfying. Also, for me it’s a stress reliever. There’s nothing better at the end of the day than to bake cakes and decorate.

I’m always looking for new ideas and techniques to learn. Then the fun is incorporating what I have learned into an edible work of art!

VVK: What’s your most popular course?

SD: The basic Course I class. It covers everything from frosting the cake to making borders and different flowers, including roses – most of the basics needed to simply decorate a cake. I teach Wilson Method classes. The advantage is that Wilton Industries provides lesson plans, equipment and tools to purchase to make all of the techniques needed to decorate a cake.

VVK: What are some of the reasons students sign up for cake decorating classes?

SD: Many want to make cakes for children’s birthdays. Some want to make a business of it, but once they realize that you have to have a separate state-inspected kitchen, it deters some of them from that idea. But they can still learn how to make great cakes for their friends and family.

VVK: What would you tell someone who’s worried their homemade cake won't look as nice as a professionally made cake?

SD: One thing that your children will always remember is that you made their birthday cakes for them. To a child, the cake is great, no matter if the frosting was smooth or the decorations weren’t perfect.

VVK: What was one of your favorite cakes?

SD: My three-year-old nephew, Zach, wanted a combine cake. He’s obsessed with tractors and farm implements. Instead of making a cake in the shape of a combine, I decided to make an interactive cake. It was decorated as a corn field with the look of some of the corn already having been picked and some still standing. The corn was made by first piping the green stalks with a round tip and then topping each stalk with yellow frosting piped with what’s known as the “grass tip.“ I then placed a purchased kid’s combine with movable wheels on the cake, lined up with the unpicked rows of corn. When he saw the cake, he knew exactly what to do. He took the combine and pushed it through the corn rows! No one minded that their piece of cake may have been missing some frosting. That is the beauty of cake decorating. It’s just frosting!

VVK: How about one of your most challenging cakes?

SD: The president of Swiss Colony had a niece that was getting married, and I was commissioned to make a wedding cake. She wanted a white fondant cake that had white fondant bows coming all the way down the front of it. Sounds fairly simple, except for the size. The bottom tier was three feet in diameter, but then you have to take into account the sides, so we’re talking rolling out almost a four-foot piece of fondant. Well, I didn’t have anything big enough to roll it out on. I told the gentlemen who were helping me that we needed to go find something. We went out into the bakery, and what we ended up finding was a conveyor belt – pliable, yet thick enough that it would support the weight of all that fondant. So we took this big piece of conveyor belt and rolled the fondant out onto it. It took five of us to lift that piece of fondant up and over onto that cake. There was probably almost 150 pounds of fondant on that cake!

VVK: When I see some elaborate cakes, like on the show “Ace of Cakes,” they’re not even appetizing anymore – I start to wonder if they’re even food, and if not, what are they?

SD: I guess that's why I consider myself more of a decorating purist. I do want to have as much on the cakes to be eaten as I can. That show certainly shows how you can take decorating to an extreme. I see that type of decorating as [for] an artist who uses cake as a medium. I consider myself a baker who uses different techniques to enhance the look of my creation.

To me, the basic, fundamental objective is to have a cake that tastes great – and looks as good as it tastes.

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