Whilst the final cakes on this website (and the thousands of cake images you can find on the Internet) can look quite daunting, I have a few tips that I have learnt over the years that may be helpful.
The first, and most important, piece of advice is… things will go wrong! The fact that you have gone to the trouble of making something, rather than just buying something, is the most important point – it really doesn’t matter how perfect the final creation is, but the amount of love and effort you have put into it. And it will taste delicious, however much it has gone wrong!
MY ADVICE TO FELLOW CAKE MAKERS
With every project, things haven’t gone the way I imagined, and I have had to improvise (often considerably). The great thing about working with sugarpaste is that it is easy to cover over your mistakes – adding flowers, clouds or other objects to cover up imperfections/cracks is invaluable.
Few of my cakes were ever really ‘finished’ – there is always more you could do, but remember that no-one else knows what you had in mind!
Often, it is when things have gone wrong that you come up with creative ways to compensate, so don’t panic. I have frequently run out of a particular ingredient or colour, had things break and had to work around it. As with the rain-splattered poo emoji rainbow cake board, sometimes problems can be turned into something good…
Getting things to stand up is challenging, so pin a character to something behind it with a wooden cocktail stick. Modelling chocolate can be very useful for figures, rather than sugarpaste, as it sets very hard.
Use pre-coloured sugarpaste, particularly for dark colours (especially black). This is not practical when you are using many different shades of colour, but for large blocks of colour it is very useful, if a bit more expensive.
Start as far in advance of the final date as possible. Sugarpaste lasts for years, so you can do much of the work many weeks beforehand (we still have the characters from all the cakes in a cupboard, many years later, without any problems). If you are making characters or any structure that needs to harden, it is important to give them time to set.
Clearly, you want the actual cake to be fresh and moist (a problem when you need to sculpt it), so do this closer to the end of the process and use sugar syrup on each layer of cake to help it stay moist.
I increasingly separate the sugarpaste sculpting from the cake, to allow me to have the most delicious cake I can without having to worry about its structural integrity as part of the cake. Often, this involves having two identical cake drums (drums are thicker than boards), with the cake on the lower drum and the sculpture on the upper one, separated by plastic dowels/pillars. Do transport it carefully, however, if you do this…
Seek inspiration from the Internet. I always do a search of images relating to whatever cake topic I am looking to create. It is incredible how many brilliant cakes are out there, and you can always take ideas from different ones. Also, there are some great cake makers on YouTube. In particular, I like the following channels:
CMC is an edible glue that comes as a powder and can be used to mix into sugarpaste to allow it to set hard (the more you add, the harder it will set, but it makes it more challenging to work with). By adding some water and mixing (it takes a while to incorporate), you can create a simple glue for attaching bits of sugarpaste, but it does take quite a while to dry and weaker joints will need some structural support during drying (and perhaps even some support from within, such as a strand of spaghetti (for light sabres or guns) or wooden/plastic cocktail sticks and dowel rods).
Try to add height to your cake – going beyond a flat piece of sugarpaste on top of a cake creates much more drama and involvement. Rice Krispies treats are an easy way to create structures that can be carved, but are also very light.
Remember that we all started off with simple cakes and then moved to more complex ones a step at a time – don’t start off with something too challenging. Maybe try to recreate a cake that someone else has created, so you can copy what they have done.
Make sure everything you use is food safe – edible colours, paints, lustre dusts and pens are all easily available. Refrigerating cakes is useful to harden them up for covering, but also important if they have lots of perishable ingredients like butter, cream and eggs.
If you are using chocolate, you will need to ‘temper’ it to ensure that it stays crisp, shiny and doesn’t melt too easily. This may look intimidating and there are various methods, but the easiest is the microwave method. This is the only one that I use. Here is a simple video that explains how it works:
Watch out for crumbs. Cake crumbs can get everywhere, particularly into sugarpaste that you are working on. Covering a cake with a ‘crumb coat’ of ganache or buttercream is very useful for sealing in the crumbs, as well as preparing the cake for a final sugarpaste covering.
You may have to make a few repairs or alterations just before you serve the cake, so if you aren’t at home, take some CMC glue and bits of extra coloured sugarpaste/buttercream with you so you can tweak things that have broken, come loose etc.
Ambient air temperature and humidity play a major role in how sugarpaste and other materials function. Also, how sweaty and hot your hands tend to be. Things will take longer to dry in wet, humid conditions, so plan for this. As someone with rather hot and sweaty hands, I tend to dust my hands with powdered sugar to keep them from being too moist.