Saturday, January 27, 2007

Favourite Cake Toys... pt 1

This is a topic that's far too large for just one post, so I'll try to break it down into some logical groups. There are so many tools out there now, it's hard to pick a few favourites! Also, what kind of cakes you are interested in will determine what tools/toys you are interested in!

There are baking and mixing tools, which most of us are familiar with, as well as the basic decorating tools like a spatula and piping bags. Beyond that, there are some not-so-basic tools, that tend to be more expensive, but allow the serious cake artist to really expand the boundaries of cake! There are also specialized tools for working with fondant, gumpaste, pastillage and cold porcelain. And then there are tools that were designed for some other use completely (but work great anyhow!)

1. Baking and Mixing

At the very least, you need a bowl, a spoon and a pan and oven to bake it. Of course, nobody would bake without measuring cups & spoons anymore (my grandmother use to make the best bread and cakes in the world, measuing only with her hands and eyes... juggling the quantities by how full the bowl looked, or how the dough felt!)

Of course, Granny never had a Kitchenaid! Perhaps my favourite tool, I really love my KA mixers! The size you choose will depend what type of baking you do (the 6qt pro is a great idea if you're making wedding cakes ar a lot of smaller cakes at the same time, but it may be too large if all your cakes are small birthday cakes!) and the power will depend on your budget, and shopping savvy! Each size is available in a couple of different power levels, so make sure you're comparing the same model when price shopping (the higher the wattage on the motor, the stronger your mixer will be, and usually more expensive!) Of course, if you are going into business, you're going to need a Hobart, but be prepared.. these bad boys are a serious investment (cash and floor space!)

My favourite bowls are still a set of stainless steel... I can heat them over a bain-marie to melt chocolate or start a Swiss meringue buttercream, they chill quickly when required, and most importantly, they STACK! In a small kitchen space, nested bowls are the only thing that makes sense. You can buy many different sizes, and easily get multiples of any size you need a lot. They're great for lining up your ingredients before cooking, don't stain when mixing icing colours and can be tossed in the dishwasher! Also very important, they can be very thouroughly cleaned (important both for general food safety, and for making royal icing, where even the tiniest trace of grease can ruin a whole batch!) I have a few good, heavy duty ones as well as a bunch from the dollar store... I like both equally. If I dent or damage the dollar store ones, it's no big deal!

As for the spoon... I have becone a big fan of the silicone spatulas which have become quite redily available. Tons of different sizes and shapes, they're great for hot and cold (no melting the end in a hot pot!) The only real drawback is the fact that, like plastics, the silicone hold onto grease and is difficult to get 100% grease-free for royal icing (so you have a choice... keep 1 spatula for RI only so it stay grease-free, or use a metal spatula or spoon when working with royal.)

Now when it comes to measuring devices, accuracy pays! Anyone can make a cake using "close" measurements and not worry about accuracy, but if you want to achieve consistent results, you need to be accurate!

The most accurate way to bake is to use weight measurements rather than volume, and that requires a good digital scale.

However, many recipes show only volume mesurements, and until you take the time to convert it, you will need to use the volume measures. You want nice heavy metal cups for dry measuring... thin ones dent too easily, then don't measure accurately anymore. My favourite set is made up of 6 cups rather than the traditional 4... 1/4, 1/3, 1/2, 2/3, 3/4, and 1 cup. Using the 2/3 cup measure once is going to be more accurate than using the 1/3 twice!

It's the same deal for measuring spoons... a thick heavy metal bowl will stay consistent for the life of the spoons. I was recently given a set of little spoons to compliment my primary set... it measures a dash, a pinch, a smidgen, and a nip! If you measure spices and things out of bottles, you may wish to get the narrow style which are designed for even the tablespoon to fit into a spice jar! (BTW... avoid plastic measuring devices if possible... they are often inaccurate and they stain and hold aromas and grease!)

Now for liquid measures (and please... don't use your dry and liquid measures interchangeable... you sacrifice accuracy every time!) I generally prefer glass measures, in the smallest size appropriate (i.e if I'm measuring 1-1/2 cups, I use the 2 cup measure, rather than the 4 cup.) I have recently found a little measuring cup from Oxo that measures in tablespoons up to 1/4 cup which is also very handy! It also has an angled scale which means you can read it from the side or the top!

Monday, January 22, 2007

Where do you find your cake ideas?

This is probably the most common question I hear when it comes to my cakes (followed closely by "how did you do that?!?) The short answer is EVERYWHERE! Of course, that doesn't really help anyone who is coming up short on inspiration, so I suppose a longer answer is in order.

For me, the trick is to see cake potential in everything. Because most of my cakes are sculptural representations of actual objects, it is fairly obvious what I was looking at! Why one object and not another? Well that is usually decided by the person the cake is going to be for. I try to get to know the person, and their likes and dis-likes... their hobbies and obsessions. Usually something from that conversation will jump out at me and scream "THAT'S IT!!!"

I've done many birthday cakes for my kids over the years... when my son turned 2, he got a yellow dumptruck cake... filled with fresh fruit. At that point in his life, his toy truck was the ONLY toy that mattered in his life, and Bob the Builder was his hero. Also, the only food I could get him to eat consistently was fruit (and cake, of course!)

My daughter had her birthday party at a local nature center one year, and the focus of that party was making maple syrup (tapping the trees was quite the interesting party game!!) Anyhow, her cake that year was a HUGE stack of pancakes cake, complete with a generous drizzle of "maple syrup."

Perhaps one of my most disturbing cakes is the dead crow cake. Two of my co-workers were having a heated discussion about hockey. Well in the end, as usually happens; one team won, and one lost. The winner decided that the loser needed to "eat crow." The rest is history.

One birthday cake I made was for a woman whose gift from her family was a cruise trip...

Looking to make a cake that actually looks like a cake? The inspiration there is no less plentiful, but it is less obvious.

If I'm in a hurry and my brain is fried, I may just replicate a cake I have in my rather massive library of cake books and magazines (yes,I'm a bit obsessed with books!) or one of the many on-line resources for cake artists.

That's fine for the occasional slump in inspiration, but doesn't cut it (for me at least) very often. More likely, I will pull elements from a couple of different cakes if my brain is at least half functional!

However, if I'm feeling really excited about a cake, and I really want that WOW factor, I just go out and look at the world around me (or for a broader view of the world, I Google photos on-line!) In fact, I found inspiration one of the default photos that came pre-loaded with Windows... if you can find the photo called "follow.jpg" on your system... doesn't it look like a bride with her bridesmaids trailing behind? For those of you who don't happen to have that version... it's a photo of FISH. See things, and let your mind wander...soon you too will see cake EVERYWHERE!
(*The Business of Cake blog will not be held responsible for any actions you take based on this new world view...! No nibbling!)

Look to nature for colour combinations... you can't beat flowers for incredible colours and shapes!

Elements from architecture are often wonderful inspiration as they are often faced with many of the same limitations of construction that we are with cake.

Clothing and fabrics are another great source of ideas (details from the bride's wedding gown are often used in wedding cakes for an extra special touch.)

Invitations and other crafty details are another... try wandering down the aisles of your local craft store... look at what's being done in polymer play, in beadwork, in one-stroke painting, scrapbooking, ANYTHING! Old wallpapers (or new ones)... paint finishes... furniture... tiles... anything you love can be inspiration for cake!

(this one was inspired by the little ceramic baby feet favours the Mom was giving out..)

Once last caution...

I have had ideas too numerous to count for cakes that have never (at least not yet!) been built, and too many of these ideas have disappeared forever because they were scribbled on a napkin or scrap of paper, never to be found again!)
I am trying to discipline myself to carry a small notebook with me everywhere so when inspiration strikes, I can scribble the ideas there. In short order, I will soon have a lovely pile of ideas which are all my own, to draw upon when my head is in a fog! I will recommend to you to do the same! EVERY idea, no matter how small should go in the book; whether it's a full cake sketch, an address of an interesting building, just a note or word about a general theme, or the tiniest of details which appealed to you. Don't worry if your sketching skills are not the greatest... that's not the point! Just keep a record of your inspirations!!!