Thursday, 6 December 2012

Why Do I Do This To Myself? Alternative Title: Amber’s Wedding Cake. Second Alternative Title: I Am Apparently Incapable of Getting to the Point in an Expedient Fashion.

Hey! *waves* I’m back! I had an utterly fabulous time on my round-the-world adventure, which I will tell you about in dribs and drabs, but for now I’ll get back to what (I imagine most of) you come here for – pictures of cake, and food.
The food will have to wait, although I do have a super-quick and easy recipe for a guacamole-esque concoction derived from some ingredients found in the back of my fridge that I’ll post later in the week. Or next week. You know, when I get around to it.
So as it turns out, I just realised that I’m telling you a little bit about my holiday. I’m setting the scene for the sweat and tears that went into this cake (no blood, luckily. And whilst I can’t guarantee that no sweat literally made its way into the cake – it was really hot when I made it – I think it was fairly safe!), because I feel like it needs to be told. Call it catharsis, if you will. If you want to get straight to the point, though, just scroll down to the bottom. I'm totally okay with that J
Sunday morning – Stone Town, Zanzibar. My alarm beeps at me at 0540EAT, the last possible moment I could have set it for to allow for maximum sleep (was up until midnight packing). I wearily pull the mosquito net back, dive into the shower (not much point – it’s hot already) and run up the stairs for a quick breakfast before I hit the road winding alleyways. Swinging my stuffed-full pack and second bag I purchased yesterday just for souvenirs onto my back, I zig-zag my way through the quiet streets to the bustling ferry terminal. There, I fill out more paperwork to leave an island that insists it is its own nation but isn’t, not quite.
I nap a little on the two-hour ferry ride back to Dar Es Salaam, but barely, and I arrive groggy and bleary-eyed and headachey. At the other side a man in a fez and a hi-vis vest accosts me and ask if I need a taxi to the airport. I warily eye the security pass around his neck before deciding he looks genuine. “How much?” “45,000 shillings.” “I was told 30.” Pauses --“Yeah, okay.” He takes hold of my bag and leads me through the crowd… where he palms me off to another, much larger, fez-adorned fellow. “This man will take you,” and he hands him my bag unceremoniously. Hmm. Not sure about this, but he has my bag now. At least it only has my souvenirs in it.
I delicately loop my pinkie around the strap, ostensibly so as to not lose him in the crowd, and he leads the way. After fending off other drivers it seems that he’s the real deal, so I relax a little and let go of the strap. He leads me into the parking lot full of taxis… and opens the door to a not-taxi. I sigh inside, but realise my options are limited as I haven’t seen any drivers for the other taxis, one of which is parked across the front of the not-taxi, blocking it in. I wonder if we will have to wait for its driver to move it, but my driver seems confident that all is well. He swings my luggage carelessly into the back seat, pulls his keys out of his pocket, and uses them to start the taxi blocking our way. Perhaps it belongs to the original driver and it is some sort of security measure… who knows.
Driving through the backstreets of Dar early on a Sunday morning is an eerie experience when you’re still not fully convinced you’re in a taxi. I try to make small-talk but it’s limited by the fact I don’t really speak Swahili, and he doesn’t speak much English. I constantly check my watch. He said it would take about half an hour, which seems right for your average early-morning trip to the airport, any major city, any country, but you want to make sure you’re on track. After fifteen minutes winding through the dusty backstreets – things are slowly waking up now – we reach an intersection and he switches off the engine while we wait for the lights to turn green. I wonder if we’re going to run out of fuel. The lights go green, and we turn onto a well-made highway, replete with beautifully manicured grass, flower beds and flags – just like the road to the airport in any major city, any country. Yep, we’re definitely on our way to the airport. I’m not going to get murdered today!
Three and a half hours early for check-in, I sit on my bag against a wall and daydream. Next to me is the document check point for one of the airlines, and in a very short space of time I see some interesting things. An Indian guy tries to convince the airline that his passport is genuine - his photo and name are on separate pieces of paper, heat-sealed onto the first available page of his passport with what appears to be an aging piece of Glad-wrap. It is peeling at the edges, and claims that passport control did it to him on the way in, but I’m not sure who would buy that. The airline man eventually shrugs and says it’s up to passport control. I wish I knew what happened after that.
An American girl tries to leave the country without a Yellow Fever certificate. She starts whining loudly – that ear-splitting noise that I had long-ago assumed all Americans make, all that time… until I actually visited the States and realised that those obnoxious tourists I saw all over Europe are not at all representative of the general population, and that I have only formed that assumption because the only Americans I noticed were the loud, conspicuous ones. I guess you could say the same for the "drunk Australian" label, which (rarely) applies to me! No, most Americans are actually really friendly and warm, and don’t complain constantly or hurt your ears or jangle your nerves when they speak. Who knew!!! Apparently the girl has not only had her vaccinations, but she is also a doctor, and so she completely understands that she needs a certificate… except that she doesn’t have it on her and needs them to let her through anyway. She simply has to get on her flight. She HAS to! (Of course she does.) The airline staff are patient and refrain from rolling their eyes as they summon the airport doctor to sort it out. They go off together and the girl comes back smiling half an hour later. Ones presumes they either located her certificate or gave her another jab, but how someone who is a) a doctor and b) has actually had the yellow fever vaccine would not realise that you have to carry the certificate when you travel is totally beyond me.
Once I check in and pass security I find myself something to eat with the last shillings in my pocket. At the terminal café I eye up the pie warmer full of pastries, and choose the thing that sounds least likely to breed bacteria – a cheese pie. The cheese pie arrives and I discover that it has something resembling a hot-dog, or maybe Devon lunchmeat, running down one side. I consider how much bacteria something that’s probably not actually meat could possibly contain, take two bites of that side then think better of it and eat only the pastry around it.
I get on the plane, have an uneventful flight, pass transit security in Johannesburg, get my passport stamped and head for the SA Airways lounge where I have a shower and rehydrate. I briefly consider eating something, but I’m beginning to feel quite nauseated. I take a muffin and pop it in my bag for later. The food selection was pretty appalling, anyway, but the shower was amazing.
When I get to the gate, the airport staff have decided to do a manual bag search, as if they haven’t already X-rayed our bags twice. I reach the front of the line and the lady asks for my liquids and gels. I have a bottle of water (purchased inside the terminal), deodorant, moisturiser and eczema cream. She regards me with small, glinting, shady-looking eyes as I go through my bag and only shows interest in the deodorant, which confuses me, but I hand her my moisturiser anyway. She asks where my snaplock bag is. Well, I don’t have one. I just came from Tanzania where you don’t need one and as such they don’t hand them out. “Can’t I just carry them through?” (They let you do that at such major airports as LA, and New York, and at Heathrow, you see) “No.” “What?? What’s the difference between having a snap-lock bag and not having a bag??” “You can’t take them on board.” “But…” Defeated, I move to one side to drink my bottle of water.
 As I finish it off I find a snap-lock bag in my carry-on and ask the man at the gate if I can get my stuff back. He tells me it’s up to the lady who searched my bag. I ask her where my stuff is and she looks at me with her glinting eyes and says “I don’t remember you”. Bullsh!t. I’m a 6”2” woman who just argued with you. You remember me, lady!!! Another passenger takes me by the arm and leads me to the side and points to the bin where they place the confiscated items. “They do this all the time,” she says. “Just ask security if you can duck back there and you’ll get your stuff back.” They let me through and I rummage through the bin. I come up with my $40 moisturiser immediately, but the $2 deodorant – the really important item for an international flight – is nowhere to be seen. When the evil lady notices I’m back there she causes a fuss and makes me leave. B!tch has totally stolen my deodorant. I know she has. I start to rage-cry and the man handing out duty free shopping gives me a friendly grin, says it’s alright and that things will seem better when I get on the plane and have a sleep. I think just his smile made me feel better. I stop sobbing and write an angry Facebook status update. At least they have free WiFi, like, EVERYWHERE in the world (you really need to lift your game, Australia!).
I had failed to convince the airline to give me an exit row seat – it would seem that the somewhat diminutive members of the South African Lawn Bowls Team need them more than I do, including one guy who apparently needs an empty seat next to him as well – but once on the plane I am delighted to discover the seat next to me is empty, too. Which is just as well, because I am now beginning to sweat and feel seriously ill, and nobody wants to be seated next to the pale, nauseated person. I clutch my cramping stomach with one hand and the sick bag with the other, and the stewardess eyes me warily during her safety presentation. I fall asleep quite suddenly during our ascent, and wake up an hour or so later, feeling magically awake and cramp-free. During the flight to Perth I doze in all sorts of creative positions across my two seats and eat quite delicately so as to not upset my stomach again. I arrive, feeling surprisingly refreshed. My ankles aren't puffy, either, which I suppose I can attribute to the extra seat space. Yay!
Waiting for my luggage in Perth it seems like mine is the last bag to come out. I spend the time considering whether they did actually through-check my luggage from Dar like they said. The sticker on the back of my ticket says so, but I am skeptical. I rehearse what I will say to the baggage staff when my bag doesn’t show up. It involves mentally moving the wedding I am attending forward by two days and needing them to pay for a new cocktail dress (which is actually in a box with the cake decorating stuff down in Harvey – as if I’d have carried a dress for nine weeks - but shh!). Then my bag shows up, and I pass Customs quickly. This confuses me because I ticked “yes” to the “have you been on a farm” question – they normally scrub my shoes down when I come home. I have been on safari; walked on farmland in the UK; ridden horses in Guatemala; and trekked through jungles in Mexico and Guatemala. I really think they should have cleaned my shoes…
I pick up my hire car and make the two hour drive down to Harvey in the stinking heat. I check into the motel (and only then realise how much I’m spending on accommodation) and lie down for a much-needed rest (if you aren’t a long-term reader you might not know I sufferfrom a heart condition that seems to worsen when I don’t get enough rest, so this isn’t purely jet-lag I’m worried about). I’m too tired even for a shower.
Approximately 35 minutes into my planned 90-minute nap, my phone rings. It’s the bride. The baker’s apprentice who was supposed to have baked the cake hasn’t, and isn’t going to. She’s scared she’ll stuff it up, even though it’s industrial packet mix with clear instructions on the front. I grind my teeth, say “no worries” and pull myself out of bed. It takes far longer than it should to grab a shower and drive 500m down the road – nearly an hour, in fact – but I get there. Knowing I’d be baking for 3-4 hours in a hot bakery, I dress in sensible shoes, a light, knee-length skirt and a loose T-shirt. Not your traditional baking clothing, but damn it was hot.
I meet the bride at the bakery and shows me around. The apprentice is nice but chats to me incessantly, and I’m trying so hard to gather my concentration to make sure I don’t stuff up the mix. Somehow I manage to politely carry on a disjointed conversation while I grease the tins and make the cake, then I wait and wait and wait for them to cook, which is actually kind of a pain the bum when you’re making three differently-sized cakes and only have a rough idea of how long they will take to cook. While I wait I talk on the phone to my mum who is over the moon to hear my voice, and have a few frustrated conversations with other people. I’m so tired, and I just want to sleep, or cry, or both. I pull myself together and go back inside to chat to the apprentice and to eat a cupcake (you’ve gotta do something with that leftover mix!).
At 10:20pm my cakes are on the cooling racks with a tea-towel and a written warning protecting them, and my gear is packed up to keep it out the way of the morning baking. I head to the bride’s house for some reheated dinner and a glass or two of bubbles. At about 12:30, some 24 sleepless and sweaty hours after I got up to catch the ferry, I am finally headed for bed.
My body wakes me up at 7am and I don’t know why. I am exhausted. I lie there, trying to sleep for a while but not succeeding. I rise at 10:30am and for some reason it takes me two hours to eat some breakfast, have a shower and get to the bakery to decorate the cakes. I spend eight hours levelling, filling, dowelling, chilling, crumb-coating and covering cakes with fondant. My fondant skills are a little on the basic side, which is why I offered this cake as my wedding gift – to give myself a chance to practice. The first two cakes went okay, and then I put my thumb through the fondant on the larger one and had to start over. Next, I glued black fondant to white and white to black. The three layers looked a bit average as they sat there, unfinished and unstacked. I left the bakery, hoping like hell that assembling and finishing the cake would improve the situation and hide those defects that often only the decorator notices.
I decide to assemble the cake before the wedding, and not between the wedding and the reception as originally planned. Good thing I made that choice, otherwise they would not have had a completede cake! And here it is:
Nobody noticed the defects. Everybody loved the cake. It wasn’t too dry, as I had feared. One tier was probably a little moist, but non-bakers probably wouldn’t have realised. And I will never, ever, ever make a three-tiered, fondant-covered wedding cake for free again. Especially not interstate (accommodation and equipment freight really add up). And ESPECIALLY not on my way home from a round-the-world holiday!!!
So here are some tips for you (okay, we) novices:

1) Don’t underestimate your value. Even if you’re a beginner, you should never, ever work for free, with the possible exception of the cake being your gift. My latest decorating instructor looked horrified when I told her what I was doing (and this was before the cake had evolved – see Item 2), and asked whether I’d work as an apprentice anything for free, because it amounts to much the same thing (the answer should be no, people!).
2) Establish exactly what you’re agreeing to make before commiting to it. The original brief was a “two-tier, white buttercream cake for a relaxed wedding for about 30-40 people. The theme is black and white with accents of red and purple, and I’d like it to be decorated with Cornelli lace.” See my Pintrest board for some brainstorming on that theme (username vanessalillian). To me, covering a cake in buttercream is a cinch, and Cornelli work isn’t that difficult. And I can pipe borders just fine, too. No problems. But then, shortly before I went away, it evolved into a “four-tier, square, black and white fondant-covered, topsy-turvy cake for 70-80 people. I want stripes, spots, diamonds… and can you make it bleed when we cut it?” After that evolution, I panicked and consulted the lovely Heather Baird over at who has decorated a cake or two in her time, and she graciously (via Twitter) helped me through how I would explain to the bride that I wasn’t going to make what she wanted me to, and that I hadn’t budgeted for what she was now asking for (especially as the cake was free and what she now wanted was worth about $6-800 retail). In the end I just told the bride that I hadn’t covered many cakes and that I was certain that a topsy-turvy cake wouldn’t end well, especially a square one (pointy cakes being notoriously difficult to cover with fondant). The round, non-topsy-turvy cake was much easier but still cost a motza... but meh, practice is practice and I spent more on freight and accommodation than the actual cake!

3) Establish your price early on. It **could** be free (if it’s a gift), but people need to realise how much it costs and what goes into it. You may wish to just ask for them to cover the cost of the ingredients, or give it to them at a discounted rate, or, depending on how close they are(n't), just charge them for the cake! Think about hour hourly rate at work! Your time alone is worth something!

4) Leave yourself plenty of time. I knew I could bake and decorate the cake in the time I had allowed, but knowing that didn’t make it any less stressful. You don’t want to be rushing it. If possible, bake the cakes ahead of time and freeze them (thaw them a couple of days ahead to make sure they’re okay!), or, if you are seriously time-poor, organise for a bakery to make the cakes for you.

5) If you’re decorating the cake somewhere other than home, mentally go through the steps of making the cake and write down what you need. Then, “make” the cake again in your head and “pick up” (in your head) your tools/ingredients from your list as you go. You’ll soon realise if you’ve missed something. When you pack the gear, tick things off the list as you pack them and then enclose the list in the box. It will give you a sense of calm and security later on! If you’re doing it interstate, you can either freight the box or treat it as your luggage if you’re flying. If you already have luggage, buy a second piece of excess baggage ahead of time online – it’s usually a lot cheaper than doing it per kilo at the airport, and is generally a one-off cost for a set weight limit. Just make sure the box is within the specified dimensions and is taped up super-well, and densely packed so things don’t rattle around and bend or break.

6) Figure out where you will be baking. I was lucky enough to be given space in a commercial bakery which was good when you're short on time - e.g. having a commercial oven and coolroom at your disposal, plus a large work surface, really makes things run more smoothly. What I'm saying is, know what facilities you have. Will there be enough work surfaces? How big is the oven and will you be able to bake all your cakes at once or will you stagger them? Will there be enough fridge space free for you? Etc.

7) Take good photos of your cake. I only have iPhone photos of this one, and, whilst they’re decent shots, I’m still really annoyed at myself. Try to remember that every cake is part of your portfolio, and cruddy photos make the cake look cruddy.

8) Most importantly, have fun! This was originally a hobby; an artform; something you loved; remember??!

HUGE, ENORMOUS DISCLAIMER: The bride was not a bridezilla, nor is she a horrible person or was she especially demanding. This post is intended as an educational and entertainment piece for those aspiring cake decorators out there, who may find themselves in a similar situation. Most bakers and decorators will learn very quickly that the general pubic has absolutely notion of what work and cost actually goes into a cake, and they are not to blame for that; it is what it is, and it is something that we will regularly come up against. With time I will learn to deal better with it. In this situation, as mentioned above, I was willing to cop it on the chin and chalk the entire thing up as a learning experience, because I needed just that - more experience. But I am now in a place where I am infinitely more confident with my decorating abilities and will certainly approach the next cake much differently!


  1. Beautiful cake, Vanessa! Great job! Plus, your story made me laugh! Can't wait to hear about the rest of your adventures - I'm sure they'd make a great book!

    1. Thanks Carole! I'm hanging out to make a more traditional cake, truth be told, but there has been no call for it yet.

  2. Next time (if such a thing exists!), you should totally ask that the person you're making the cake for sign a contract with hat they want so that it's not suddenly a millionty times more work than you signed up for!!

    1. Hah maybe I just need to write an itemised quote, even if I'm doing it for free, and have some sort of clause that says any extension of the above will cost ONE HUNDRED BILLION DOLLARS!

  3. It's such a tricky area making wedding cakes isn't it? I've only made two and after the first one, I swore that I wouldn't do it again! :P Your cake looks amazing!

    1. Thanks Lorraine :)

      I have the tendency to not say no to anything brides because I've seen a couple grow a second head (temporarily), and I'm wondering whether it's a self-perpetuating thing that leads brides to expect more. Not that I think this bride expected more, I just think she didn't realise what she was asking. I will happily make another wedding cake, but only what I originally agreed to, and definitely not on the way home from a holiday!


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