Over the years I've made a few pretties from sugar paste and fondant. It's a true passion of mine to bring something from your imagination into sugar form. From flowers to figurines and everything in between, you never stop learning and before youtube, craftsy and online cake decorating tutorials, for a self-taught sugar artist- there was only trial and error. What I love about self-taught technique is that there are literally NO RULES. You're not learning someone else's technique or what has become industry standard. You're an adventurer, explorer and pioneer in your own art and you develop your own style. You literally can not go wrong - BUT I do have a few hints and tips for anyone who'd like to dabble with sugar creations, what has and hasn't worked for me.
1. Equipment and Sugar Paste
It's important to start small with your equipment. You really don't need a hundred of the latest cutters, moulds, texture mats and crafting tools. You can get away with a small pairing knife, rolling pin, some circle cutters, toothpicks and colouring. I also recommend making your own sugar paste from scratch which you can do with a few ingredients from the supermarket and a small packet of Tylos or CMC Powder for hardening. This will save you a small fortune in commercial sugar paste mixes you can purchase from cake shops and is very simple to make.
My simple scratch made sugar paste recipe is as follows:-
500 grams pure icing sugar
1 tablespoon CMC or Tylos powder
1 Egg White
2 Tablespoons of glucose
To make, dump your sugar in a bowl and stir in your Tylos/CMC Powder. Make a well in the centre. Mix together the egg white and glucose until uniform and add to dry ingredients in the well you've made. With a spoon start to gather the dry ingredients into the liquid in a circular potion - it's best to work the sugar into the centre rather than trying to stir the liquid into the dry ingredients. When the mix is coming together into a rough dough, dust your bench with cornflour and knead briefly until smooth.
That's it! You're ready to roll, mould and create. I like to use cornflour and spray oil to keep my paste and fondant from sticking, which changes depending on what I'm making. As I have warm hands I find icing sugar too sticky to work with.
Keep your sugar paste bagged to prevent drying out.
2. Know your Environment!
There is nothing more disheartening than spending your hard won time on creating something from sugar only to watch it die a slow wet and miserable death. Weather plays an important part in all sugar work - hot and humid days, or wet and humid days are the killer to your creations whether you are in a hot climate or cold. Being in North Queensland with extreme heat and/or humidity I've learnt a thing or two about what role the environment can play on your sugar work. I've seen beautiful iced roses literally MELT off a cake in high humidty, had dramas with arms falling off figurines or toppling off a cake because they just cant adhere. I've even had the flowers on a wedding cake put out on display too soon wilt like real flowers, until they melted onto the surface of the cake. I cried the ugly cry that day.
Your creations like cool, DRY ambient room temperature to set. I store all of my cakes in an airconditioned controlled environment. Another life saver is a dehydrator - you can pick one up cheaply and literally slow bake your sugar work until it's crisp and sexy. Just keep in mind that sugar will absorb moisture even after it has dried out so it's important to be mindfull of storage after - I like to use Hippo beads for anything I'm storing longer than a day in high humidity and if there is any hint of sticky, droopy or shiny - back in the dehydrator they go. The dreaded humid can descend upon us at any time so it's good to be prepared.
3. Learn the basics of technique FIRST
The best thing you can do for your confidence in sugar work is start with the basics first. Most sugar figurines - particularly animals - use very simple shapes using slight characteristic changes to define the type of animal you're creating. This bunny topper could easily be a teddy bear or monkey just with a few simple shapes changed or added - particularly the ears. You need to familiarise yourself with your sugar paste so now is the time to have a play.
Proportions really help make or break your figurines as well. The simplest of shaped figurines can look 'off' if proportion is lacking. I like to make all the parts into ball sizes first to ensure arms and legs and the smaller parts are well proportioned before I start shaping. For simple toppers like the bunny, I almost always start with a torso and a head in two balls- the torso generally twice the size of the head and the arms and legs half the size of the head. Sketching your idea first can also really help with proportions. Later on these simple steps will come into play to create unique styles in your animals and figurines just by changing proportions and characteristics. Once you're confident with basic moulding you can begin playing with definition and detailing to create different looks.
The same concept applies to flowers. Start off with a simple five petal blossom. Learn your paste and what pressure and manipulation with simple tools can do to it. Experiment with different thicknesses, different balling tools and edge manipulation. You will be surprised just how many flowers can be produced from one round cutter from roses, to peonies, to ranunculus and even frangipani with a little time and experimentation. When I first started I liked to model from real flowers and as a result - my roses are made quite differently to the more well used techniques in the industry for sugar roses.
The sugar blooms on the below cake were created with just two cutters - a round cutter for the peonies and roses and fantasy flowers, with the paste rolled at different thicknesses then manipulated with rolling pin and balling tool, and a blossom cutter for the blossoms. For me, applying different techniques will always surpass the latest cake decorating gadgets, cutters and moulds and it gives you the distinct advantage of being DIFFERENT to what everyone else is doing. Don't get me wrong, I have as many collected and unused cake decorating paraphernalia as everybody else - what else is pinteresting storage solutions good for ;)
But basic techniques applied in different ways will yield as good, if not better results with your sugar craft.
4. Learn to be constructively critical of your work to improve.
This is a tough one. You've spent hours, days, decades making this unicorn head and you're ignoring that voice that 'something's not right' because the thought of starting again makes you want to hurl things into the sky and reach for the nearest vodka. I get it. But with the introduction of cake by numbers and infinite moulds and tools now created to make the job of cake decorating 'easier and faster' disintegrating the integrity of the art itself ( I know, heavy stuff ) it's so important to be realistic and honest with your skill set. A beautiful gorgeous, generous and extremely talented Cake Decorator friend of mine (Sweet Ideas, check Mel out ya'll) https://www.instagram.com/sweetideaswhitsunday/
once quoted 'You've got to run your own race' - best caking quote ever. The only work you should be comparing your own to is your own work before this. Be honest, be realistic and continue to strive for better in everything you do. A swift and barely contained long winded primal scream in the back yard will solve almost all cake maladys before you go back in there and fix the damn unicorn.
5. Show Me The Money Honey
So you've decided to become a professional Cake Decorator.....
Let me tell you the road to profitably selling your work is a long and tough one, made only tougher these days by the complete saturation of the industry, it's tools and the general public's lack of knowledge of just how long a well executed and professionally finished custom cake takes. Not too long ago in Australia a 'custom cake' was a slab sponge cake from the local Bakery in white, yellow pink or blue that your Mum didn't make. The internet has provided it's own perks and lurks for start-up businesses selling professional custom cakes and bakes and there is A LOT of competition out there so take a few hints and tips from a pro:-
a:) For the Love of the cake Gods - PLEASE licence your kitchen. The bare minimum of selling food to the public is that you are providing them with a product from a safe and hygeinic kitchen. The regulations and fees on this will vary between councils from the simply obtained license after inspection of your home kitchen, to the necessity of a completely separate commerical kitchen on your property. Do your research. Is your skill set ready to go to the expense of licensing your kitchen and begin your journey of selling your creations to the public? Do you have enough knowledge and background experience of running a safe and hygenic kitchen with correct food handling procedures? Is your knowledge of different food risks, storage and suitability of different applications for different ingredients sound? The last thing you need when starting your business is a nasty shock from your local council that your kitchen doesn't have the permits in place for selling food as well as trade waste resulting in substantial fines.
b:) Know your Market. I can't stress this enough. Like I'm sure many many cake decorators before me, for a long time I refused to adapt to current trends in demand and budgets for custom cakes. The saturated market has made it very difficult to continue selling high end custom cakes at a price that deserves to be met as the craft is becoming more and more accessible and affordable. (I'm not saying cheap cake, we're not going there ;)). I took the stance - and justifiably so - that my craft was deserving of the good price I was putting on it and 'charging my worth' was the be all and end all. All sounding very impressive to the Art-ees-tical side of Cake Decorating but at the end of the day if you've chosen this as a means to earn a living your Mortgage won't aplaude you when your orders for expensive custom cakes are thinning out as a consequence.
So, Adaption. Do you need to charge LESS for those high end pieces. Hell no darlinkk. You've spent a week on a cake and a week's wages on top of outlay is what you should be charging. My answer to keeping my business profitable was to accept Market demands had changed and I had to offer customers a middle ground. I was able to do this by creating a line of cakes that were low labour intensive, were lightening fast to finish, with maximum impact while still keeping them unique - no biggy ;). This has balanced out my order flow with demand for both high end, and affordable range, and saved me from finally realising my life-long dream of being a hanggliding instructor.
c:) Business and Marketing
The absolute most borrrrrring and most procrastinated part of being a professional cake decorator. Putting in the time to properly and accurately cost out EVERY SINGLE THING that goes into a custom cake when all you want to do is make some pretties. If you're pricing your cakes to what you think people will pay, want to pay, say they'll pay or think they'll be worth then you, in all honesty, might as well pack up your tools now. If you want your business to be profitable, rather than just a paid hobby - you gotsta painstakingly - with wine - write out every single thing you'll need to purchase for every single cake you make. Add in your desired and realistic hourly rate and how long it will take to create the cake, then add your profit margin and WALLAHHHH you've correctly priced your cake. Good quality images of a portfolio, website and social media pages are an absolute must-have. You can purchase dummy cakes to create designs to photograph while you're building up your portfolio of orders.
d:) Just have fun. Honestly, at the end of the day - with all the challenges - just how many times you've dropped the f bomb on your work, how many tears are shed when it's 'just not working', you've dealt with the ?????? facebook messages for the fifth time that day even though your automated response could direct a blind hedgehog to your pricelist and website jam packed with info, or you've confronted the 964 recommendations of cake wreck-worthy work on buy swap sell sites over your business because it's cheap, you've CLEANED LIKE A PSYCHOTIC person all day and there's STILLLLL sprinkles to be found. When your feet just drop off your body and walk themselves to bed in protest - you're on your own sister - while you're knee-deep in scrunch ruffles with no end in sight.....no matter how much you're charging and how much profit you're making, if you're not having fun and feeding your creative soul - you're going to burn out. It really is. just. cake. Enjoy your craft and try not to take yourself too seriously with business debunking your creativity.
Cake is Life. It is the epitome of all things joyous and sugary in any occasion. Be it a wedding, a birthday, an engagement or baby shower - a party without cake is just a meeting, Right?. It is the single defining thing that keeps mothers helplessly ensnared in a birthday party because we as a society have cleverly engineered the cutting of the cake be the LAST thing we do to signal the end drawing near. The cutting of the cake is the symbol of togetherness to a bride and groom, or a fun and messy encounter for a first birthday smash to achieve pinterest worthy smash cake photos. The bringing of life of Princess Elsa, or Batman (before we eat them!), and so much more . In short - Cake is Life.
And so it takes a certain level of commitment and dedication from a cake decorator to ensure their parcels of joyous contentment and ooh's and ahh's arrive happily to their destination. And so we do, and so we do. Against congested traffic, against 90 degree angle entrances and driveways, against the peeping toms who insist on 'just one look at the cake'. Against the elements of summer, rain hail and snow. And cyclones.... which brings me to my story.
Three wedding cakes were due to an Island Destination on a Saturday. After a week of rain and battling the humidity (a caker's nemesis) upon an ensuing cyclone, it was finally time to package up and deliver my precious stacks of goodness to embark on the 45 minute (or 1.5 hours in cake delivery time) journey to the ferry to travel over to the island, a logistics concept of which can lend it's own set of anxiety laden thoughts of catastrophe at that time of year.... Hakuna Matata, we do it all the time.
The difference on this particular Saturday was the knowledge that there were three waterways enroute, which had a high chance of flooding. I knew this, the venue knew this, my ringneck parrot knew this - because I talk to my parrot, I'm a cake decorator, we're awake in those hours the rest of the population isn't - but those who were not in the know were the couples who had entrusted in me the cake celebrating the biggest day of their life. No Biggy.
20 minutes (or 40 minutes in cake delivery time) I confidently came upon the second waterway, after crossing the first with gusto unencumbered. I saw that there was about four inches of water and five little fish swimming across the road but felt my landcruiser was more than capable to tackle it and pushed on. Cake is Life.
Big mistake. Half way across, the front of the car jerked downwards and a hearty and impressive, but less-than-desirable BANG to underneath the car tugged me out of my daydream of cake delivery bliss as the car stalled in the middle of the flooded bridge. A large pit in the centre had washed out at some point and was covered from sight by the flooding. Lovely.
My first thought was not 'Oh my God, I'm stuck in the middle of a flooded bridge' or even 'Geez, I hope there aren't any Crocodiles in this Crocodile infested waterway'. No, it was (to the cakes) 'Don't panic, my centre dowell system has handled worse angles, we got this'. Uh Huh.
As I ineffectually tried to start the car again whilst checking for floating bodies of the crocodilian variety, I began to assess my judgement of deciding to become a cake decorator in the first place. I mean, by this time I knew that the long hours, the tedious and back-grinding hours of making sugar blooms and kneading fondant and endless hand stirring of batter weighed heavily on the 'why do I do this' end of the scales. When I was 18 I wanted to be a hang gliding instructor. Why didnt I become a hang gliding instructor? Then I wouldnt be stranded in the middle of a flooded creek trying to deliver wedding cakes. Oh, wedding cakes! Right!!! Onwards!!!!.. It was after this little five minute (or 10 minute in cake delivery time) musing that the car had rested enough (I guess) to sound a little more convinced at starting.
With renewed vigour I somehow managed to get the car started again and she climbed out of that pit like the 4x4 goddess that she was and in a showing-off-kind-of-way, coughing and spluttering we hurtled onward bound once again. Had the third waterway been even a slight challenge we may not be reading the wedding cake delivery success story that this is.
Upon arrival 25 minutes (or 50 minutes in cake delivery time) later, I figured we - being the car, the cakes and myself - had earnt a bit of a granduous (granduous is a cake decorator word, meaning 'grand' but with more 'ness.) entry to the Marina, and upon hearing the cheery blast of the 2.40 ferry's horn signalling five minutes to go I felt it perfectly acceptable to just drive on down the jetty in true 'Chariots of fire' spirit, and park up beside the boat - Uh Huh. Near death experiences by way of crocodile meal have a way of putting things in perspective for you.
Needless to say, the cakes arrived perfectly, the pit in the bridge was fixed and the unpredictable North Queensland wet season subsided to a nice calm winter and happy caker life could go on. I'm happy to report that it has been my only slightly precarious cake delivery to date. You may ask why I'd be so stupid to attempt a bridge crossing during a flood, well - because I'm a cake decorator and it's just what we do.