Cake decorating has come a long way since Granny painstakingly made sugar roses and lace for her three-tiered wedding cakes. Royal icing, marzipan and flowers have been updated with fondant and simpler designs.
Debbie Brown is from the new generation of decorators, for whom decorating is playful, simpler and more colourful. Author of more than 20 books on cake decorating, she travels the world teaching and was in Cape Town as a guest of Events in Sugarcraft to present three workshops to local decorators.
Brown, from West London in the UK, started decorating cakes for her children’s birthday parties.
Then family and friends wanted cakes.
“People are so pleased to accept cakes as a gift, and that grew into a business. It came time to go back to work after my children, and it was either that or develop this into a business. So I took the plunge…”
Hers is a sculptural form of decorating, and she says rolling and moulding shapes came easily to her.
Although she’ll decorate cakes for all ages, her speciality is children’s cakes: it’s also where the demand is.
“My main customers are moms. So I keep tools simple – all you really need is a paintbrush and vegetable knife, although there is so much available today. And a decent rolling pin. Texture can be done with fingers and a paintbrush.
“Moms wanting to do their own cakes will page through one of my books and the child will choose what she wants. My designs are simple and anyone can follow them.
“I dabble in all kinds of decorating, but prefer sculpture. My style is fun.”
Apart from children’s books, she has also written a beautiful book on wedding cakes, and three on “naughty cakes”.
“But I don’t do anything seriously rude,” she says.
She has pole dancers, “Hunky Firemen”, mud wrestlers and a “Roly-Poly Strip-a-Gram”.
Brown’s imagination and her ability to transform her ideas into edible shapes are her gifts. She’s excellent at character sculpting, and has written books on character cakes such as Garfield and the Rugrats and one dedicated to Wallace and Grommit.
“Although getting licences for characters is a minefield, it’s worth it in the end,” she says. “You have to replicate them exactly.”
After the arrival of granddaughter Hannah, she wrote Baby Cakes.
Where does she find the ideas?
“I make a list of all things associated with, say, babies. I look at the big picture, then break it down into components.”
Each book has a range of easy, to difficult, cakes. Her “Crying Babies” cake is a humorous take on the serene mother and baby cake.
Brown is self-taught, and apart from “playing with clay” had no experience of decorating when she started out.
“If you are creative it’s hard to make a living from it.” But she has done it.
“I write one book a year but my travelling and teaching schedule has become so busy, there won’t be one this year. I’d also like to do DVDs and an online tutorial.”
Brown is a member of the British Sugarcraft Guild and judges cake decorating competitions.
She’s made cakes for celebrities like Elton John and Linda McCartney, and wedding cakes for numerous lords and ladies, many held in the British Houses of Parliament function room.
Decorating trends, led by the Australians, are for deeper cakes and simple decoration. And cupcakes, of course, are very popular. “They’re more time consuming – I once did 200 teddy bear cupcakes.”
Mini cakes are also in, as is baking in silicon because of the many shapes you can get.
There’s been an explosion in the number of decorating tools available, but her advice is to keep things simple.
“Good design is simple – don’t get carried away, which is easy to do,” she advises. It is much easier to buy fondant (made from glucose, fat, sugar and a stabilising gum) than make it and, of course, you must use food-safe colours.
While she does still use royal icing (made from egg whites and powdered sugar) for accents, it’s too fussy for most people, requiring a piping bag.
Very popular has been her Ganesh cake for Indian weddings. And most challenging was a 1m-tall polar bear. The requirement was that it had to be ready to strike, with its mouth open. It couldn’t be too wide as it had to fit into the door of a jumbo jet.
“The most difficult part was the anticipation of it being a problem.”
Decorating requires time and patience. Teaching requires even more patience.
“I love teaching. I have never-ending patience and every class is different.” - Cape Argus
Piece of cake with these sweet ways
* Use a good sugar paste – your cake is only as good as its ingredients.
* Don’t stint on price.
* Spend time on details.
* Keep work area clean, keep tools clean and your cuts clean.
* Don’t deviate from your template lines.
* Polish off with a cake smoother for a professional finish.
* Shapes are important, keep them smooth and uniform.
* Don’t rush, set aside enough time.
* Keep it simple.
* Work with your “mistakes” – texture disguises a lot.