Sunday, 29 June 2014

African Adventure

Most of my cakes have a 'back-story' and this one is quite special. 

In September 2000, after months of training and fund raising for the NSPCC,  our little group of 10 set off for perhaps the biggest challenge of our lives - to climb Kilimanjaro. Although not technically difficult it is the effects of altitude and the freezing temperatures which makes reaching the summit extremely tough. We had prepared as best we could by climbing in the Lake District, in the Brecon Beacons and in Snowdonia as well as hitting the gym, running and cycling - whatever it took to improve our fitness levels. Our weekends away usually included some 'team-building' in a local hostelry - a hearty meal and plenty to drink. 
Our gang - with Kili a long way off in the distance. Will is 3rd from right

The secrets of success in summiting Kili include a good level of fitness, a slow steady ascent, eating well and drinking lots and lots.......of water! A mix of alcohol and altitude is not really recommended, so the provisions carried up the mountain by the amazing porters did not include beer or wine. Some of the gang stashed a few hip flasks and cans in their rucksacks and luggage - purely for medicinal and celebratory purposes of course! The scenery was amazing, the climb was hard-going at times but manageable, summit night was torturous but ultimately exhilarating. Standing on the 'rooftop' of Africa at 5895m as the sun rose over the horizon is an image and memory that has stayed with us to this day. Eight gruelling days up along the Shira route and two days down following deep tracks through the rainforest - how we laughed when we passed this bar in the middle of nowhere - like a mirage in the desert!

Three years later my sister Sue asked me to make a cake for her partner Will's 50th birthday and, as many of the 'Kili gang' were going to be at his party, I decided to model it on the 'Way of Life Bar'. 

   Maisha marefu!  (Cheers in Swahili)

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Luck of the Irish

This was my first and, to date, probably my only real profit making commission. 

Although I would love to have a business making cakes in reality you need to be living in the right location, have plenty of time to devote to it and enough space for all the paraphernalia that goes along with the craft. Demanding full-time jobs, having children, limited space and stretched finances have always taken priority over the years and, for me, cake decorating has remained a hobby not a money earner.

I wasn't advertising for work when I did this cake - I was approached by a close friend who worked for an event company. Sarah called me at quite short notice asking if I could help out as their usual cake maker was unexpectedly unavailable. The pressure was on, family and friends are understanding and forgiving and just happy to have a quirky personalised cake for their special occasion. Event companies and paying customers have higher expectations, reputations are at stake.

Friends often comment that professionally made cakes are expensive and I understand their thinking when you can walk into Asda and pick up a pretty 'hand decorated' Disney Princess Cake  for £20. The big supermarkets and companies work on economies of scale but the cakes themselves can taste very 'average' - dare I say 'synthetic' and the decorations rarely survive the rigours of life on a supermarket shelf completely intact! 

For a self-employed professional cake maker though there are many overheads and indirect costs to factor in - including energy bills, petrol, public liability insurance, food hygiene courses, carrying boxes, boards, ribbons, cases and parchment paper to name a few. Good quality cakes need good quality ingredients and these don't come cheap either - dried fruit, butter, marzipan, fondant icing all add to the price. On top of that there is the investment in equipment - tins, cutters, modelling tools, mats, the list is endless and needs a post of its own really! Finally and most importantly, especially if this is your sole source of income, you need to make a profit - of which the taxman will take his cut. Even if you factor in paying yourself minimum wage (currently £6.31 per hour!) the final cost of the cake really adds up. This is all quite boring but perhaps explains why that specially commissioned cake is quite pricey - the old adage 'you get what you pay for' comes to mind!

FOR SALE - tin I purchased specifically for this commission (only used once!)

Back to the cake - my brief was to produce a cake in keeping with the birthday 'boys' nationality and the theme of the huge party that was being organised. In folklore the leprechaun is a mischievous character often depicted as a cobbler who stored his wealth in a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. He was relatively easy to model. Quite a tricky job was to get a smooth, crease free, finish to the green fondant of the intricate shamrock leaf shaped cake base. Rolling out and manhandling a sheet of fondant about 40 cm in diameter was no mean feat.

As well as the main cake I made 100 cupcakes with little shamrocks on them - they took forever. I can't remember what I charged or what my net profit was - probably nowhere near enough!!


Thursday, 12 June 2014

Getting carried away.....

I have to admit to being quite proud of this cake.  Made for my twin sister Sue's 50th birthday party it shared centre stage with Sue (of course) and her very talented friend Ali, whose amazing operatic voice filled the room, at Excellar Wine Bar in Surbiton on the night of October 11th 2013.

After leaving the Crown Prosecution Service (her life of crime as she describes it) Sue became a travel writer hence the theme of the cake. She's a prolific 'list' maker with a love of Africa and wild animals and she's not adverse to the odd tipple - which gave me plenty of scope for decoration ideas. Contrary to most peoples assumptions  I'm not very artistic, but I do take inspiration from images and props around me and use them when designing a cake. I noticed these suitcases in a window display of a shop on Wyle Cop in Shrewsbury and took a quick photo for reference purposes! The hip flask, made from fondant icing, was modelled on a small one my mother had on display in her glass cabinet.

The cake had to be transported (this will become a recurrent theme) from Shrewsbury to London about 2 weeks before the party so it needed to be fruit. To make the oblong shape I used a Silverwood Multisize cake tin  which is a handy item for anyone making cakes on a frequent basis. Rather than having a cupboard full of different size tins it stores flat and you can adjust the dividers according to the size required. Once I had mixed the fondant to the colour I wanted - not too dark and not too orangey - it was relatively simple task to cover the suitcase 'base' with icing and add the trim and fine details. Placing it on a clear glass chopping board rather than a cake drum meant the map beneath would form part of the display.

The passport, notebook, tickets, currency, photos, luggage labels and 'to do' list are all printed onto rice paper using edible ink. I scanned and copied images into Word documents and emailed them to a company called . I'm not overly keen on the company name but the concept is great and I have used them on a couple of occasions as they are reasonably priced with a quick turnaround. The A4 pages of rice paper can be cut to size using sharp scissors and stored until required. For the passports and journal I created 'books' using a few blank white rice paper pages cut to the same size as the image/cover page and 'glued' them together with a small dab of royal icing. Avoid getting the rice paper sheets wet at all cost and be aware that solid blacks do not always print true to colour.

The comments from Sue's guests on seeing the cake ranged from "It's not really a cake - is it?" to "It's a shame to cut it". Everyone thought it was a very special cake for a very special person and I have to say I agree!!

Me and my lovely twin sister Sue

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Continuing with the campervan theme

I 'parked' our campervan travel blog at the end of 2013 and, having sold the van in February 2014, it may be some time before we hit the road again and I can start blogging about our adventures once more. 

To kick off my new blog here is an almost seamless link to my previous blog -  with a photo of a cake I made for good friends of my twin sister Sue and her partner Will. To celebrate Paula's 60th birthday I made a cake in the shape of Paula and Glen's VW camper - they now have the travel bug and I have to admit to being very jealous.

Sue's brief was for a cake with a campervan theme that could be transported easily as it was to be taken hand luggage on a BA flight to Rome! She provided me with a number of photographs of Paula and Glen and their VW van and then she set off again on her travels to Africa leaving me to work on a design that would meet the brief. Many of the cakes I've made have been carefully transported around the UK - none has ever had to withstand x-rays, a pressurised cabin at 35,000ft and such a long journey!

Paula and Glen recreated the cake pose after the party!

A square fruit cake covered in marzipan and green fondant icing provided the base for the smaller cake carved into the VW van shape. After adding some of the finer details like the VW badge, wing mirrors, grills and wheels I sprayed the red fondant icing with confectioners glaze to give it a glossy finish. Paula and Glen's heads popping out from the windows were a little bit of a challenge as the sugar sticks I had fixed them onto snapped the day before the flight. I wouldn't normally insert inedible items into a cake but needs must at this late stage and a couple of cocktail sticks saved the day! Thankfully the cake passed through the stringent security checks at Gatwick, survived the flight and subsequent train and car journeys to its final destination over 1000 miles from Surbiton.

I've always enjoyed making cakes for family and friends and in my dream world I would make and decorate cakes all day long. Sadly though, as with many craft hobbies, the amount of time taken to create these little 'works of art' and the amount that can realistically be charged for them makes it difficult to make a living from it. One day maybe........ 

In the meantime I have photo's of quite a few of my cakes stored digitally and in dusty photo albums so I'll set about writing a few posts about them and some of the stories behind them.