For someone who loves making layer cakes, my decorating skills are fairly deplorable. Sloppy, crumb-flecked swaths of frosting make up the base of every creation, a veritable ocean of sugary waves caught in a tsunami, leaping higher and rougher with every turn of the lazy Susan. Carefully fitted piping bags save me from utter embarrassment, covering up the worst of my frosting offenses, but even then my ability to create edible art is severely limited. Seashell borders? Simple rosettes? Done and done. Anything fancier and you’re out of luck. I can’t begin to recall how many grand plans for grand, sky-high layer cakes have turned into plain little cupcakes because of these shortcomings. The basic swirl is one technique I’ve managed to master after eight years of practice.
Naked Mint-Chocolate Chip Cupcakes (The “Before” Shot)
Considering my difficulty in this edible art form, I don’t know why I didn’t investigate different options sooner. Fondant has seen a huge rise in popularity over the years thanks to reality TV; every bakery special enough to get a slot in prime time seems to specialize in the stuff, peddling what seems to be more fondant than actual cake. Now it’s a startling rarity to find a wholly buttercream-covered confection, especially on the large scale. That said, it needn’t be as intimidating, as difficult, or as tasteless as detractors [myself included] frequently grouse.
Thanks to the kindness of Yolli, I was granted the gift of a few goodies to play with. Instantly, I was drawn to the enigma that is ready-to-roll fondant. Some contain gelatin, but those featured in the shop clearly list ingredients and even go so far as to label themselves as “suitable for vegetarians.” Though homemade vegan fondant is certainly possible, I wouldn’t venture to say that it’s either quick or easy. These colored rectangles of sugar dough take a huge amount of hassle out of the equation.
Even with the aide of meticulously designed fondant cutters, my first few flowers were laughably bad. I can’t say that practice made perfect, but I quickly saw the results improve with every additional petal. Most surprising of all was the flavor: Not dreadful! Sure, it’s mostly sweet and bland, but not nearly as loathsome as so many pastry aficionados claim, and quite enjoyable once dry and crunchy. Consider me a convert.
I would hardly consider myself an expert after just one attempt at sculpting, but there were a few tips that stood out in my mind as helpful hints to share with prospective sugar crafters…
- Start small, stay small. Especially when you’re modeling individual pieces, rather than working on a big sheet to cover a cake, the key to fondant success is to only work with as much material as you can fit in your hand at one time. For all six flowers I created, including all of their multiple layers, a scant marble-sized piece was more than enough to do the job. Excess fondant dries out quickly, especially once rolled thin, making it crackle when re-worked and generally difficult to manage. After about 3 – 4 hours in a dry place, the pieces will completely harden like air-drying modeling clay.
- There is definitely such a thing as being too thin. Roll out the sheets of fondant to perhaps a millimeter or two thicker than you’d like the final piece to be, because you’ll be stretching it subtly as you shape it. It may not sound like a lot on paper, but when you’re dealing with such fragile pieces, it makes a world of difference. This is especially true of bigger sheets that are used to blanket an entire cake. Corners and edges put a lot of stress on the plasticized sugar, so allow those pieces much greater girth than you would want for finer, smaller ornamentation.
- Allow yourself plenty of time. Estimate that it will take at least an hour longer than you’d prefer, and then you might make a closer estimate of what sort of time is require to complete the job. Patience is critical; rushed sculpting is guaranteed to look sloppy, no matter how experienced the sugar artist is.
- Be liberal with your use of confectioner’s sugar. Rather than flouring your counters before rolling out, it’s vital that the fondant is rolled out in confectioner’s sugar to prevent it from sticking to the counter. Excess sugar is easily absorbed into the dough, leaving no trace of the white powder in the end. Going too lightly on the application will lead to a sticky, frustrating mess. Don’t forget to dust the top of your fondant rounds, the rolling pin, and any cutting tools, too.
- Toothpicks are your best tools. Keep plenty of them on hand to help punch out shapes that cling to the insides of cutters, carve out subtle impressions on leaves, and poke indentations or holes, depending on what you want to craft. They’re cheap, accessible, and helpful in any project. You don’t need to go out and buy a whole arsenal of specialty stamps and cutters; small cookie cutters work just as well, and provide a greater range of shapes in general.
- Just try it! I’m terrible at sculpting, no two ways about it, but practice, sticking with simple shapes, and not over-thinking the process can create some sweet results.