Monday, 31 December 2012

101 Things Update

It's been a while since I did a 101 Things update, what with all my traipsing about the globe. But I finally have some updates to share with you, which I think is quite a fitting close to the end of the year.
 
#13 - make chutney. Done! Tomato, onion and apple. Quite sweet at first, and then BAM! The vinegar punches you in the face. One friend I gifted a jar to had her jar mysteriously evaporate in a very short space of time, so I had to give her another. Success :) I'll post the recipe when I'm having a quiet week.
 
#20 - learn to make a Pina Colada. Done! I wrote a post about it just before Christmas, so if you scroll back a couple of posts you'll see it.
 
#54 - visit Africa. Done! Spent about two weeks in Tanzania, seeing the Serengeti, Ngorogoro Crater, the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, the Usambara Mountains, and Zanzibar. I'll post about my adventures throughout the next year.
 
#55 - visit Mexico. Done! I spent about three weeks in Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. We started in Mexico City and made our way up the top side of the Yucatan Peninsula and back down the other side to Antigua, Guatemala. Loved it. Again, I'll post about my trip througout the the year.
 
#72 - read Romeo and Juliet. In the process of doing this one. I'm finding that if I read it a scene at a time, the Shakespearean language doesn't get the better of me.
 
As you read this, I'm off camping (you know, assuming this year didn't end the same way as the last one did), so I'll wish you all a happy New Year and I'll see you early in January :)

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Restaurant Review - The Meeting Pool, Eltham

On a hot, windy summer’s Saturday my dad and I went for a lunch date to a (I believe) recent entry in the Age Good Food Guide – The Meeting Pool. It’s literally walking distance from my mum’s house, and, besides visiting Montsalvat many a time growing up (including giving a brief harpsichord recital in the gallery above the Great Hall; being chased around the place by peacocks; and visiting a violin-maker friend of my (quite musical) uncle Andrew) I’d also been there before for a pre-wedding rehearsal dinner. I enjoyed it then, but at the time I obviously didn’t take any photos or pay a great deal of attention to the food (and I can’t even remember what I ate, being 18 months ago!), and this time around I wanted to really concentrate on the food rather than the socialising.
The brick building, backing onto an art gallery (Montsalvat being an artists’ colony), was pleasantly cool on such a warm day; and, owing to its limited capacity, service was rapid and friendly. There is also a courtyard outside, but the day was too hot and blustery for more than two brave souls to sit out there. The restaurant is named after a childrens’ book one of the co-founders of Montsalvat, Mervyn Skipper, wrote. The book is now out of print, but drawings from the book adorn the walls, and you can buy copies through the gift shop. His grandson is still affiliated with the colony, and Mervyn’s son Matcham (I presume he’s still alive!) lives down the road from my mum (and my childhood home). His yard, guarded by an imposing gateway, is filled with all sorts of building junk from Montsalvat and other homes in the area, and is a little slice of Eltham history. My brother and I would sneak in and explore the yard on our adventures down the creek in summer.
The specials of the day (from memory) included a pumpkin soup with coriander; a sweet potato gnocchi with basil; and a flourless chocolate cake with berry coulis. All of those sounded incredibly appealing, but I’d already planned my line of attack by viewing their menu online and committed to the duck salad ($22) followed by a dessert (the jury was still out at this stage as to which dessert that would be). Duck may not be especially low-fat, but it was one of the better options. Particularly when you are simultaneously trying to lose several kilograms of stress-eating and holiday weight, and also planning on eating dessert. Which, believe it or not, can be done. True story!
I was given around 150-200g of duck (i.e. the amount of meat one is supposed to eat in a sitting). It is described in the menu as “Confit du canard en salade – warm duck salad with shallots and walnut dressing”. I have to say, I don’t think what I got particularly resembled what was written on the menu – it was duck salad, alright, but to uncultured me, shallots are spring onions so I was momentarily confused when I realised that they actually meant those tiny French onions, which were cooked to perfection and sat atop the duck. I'm still not quite convinced it involved a walnut dressing, though. Perhaps it was a small, seasonal change to the menu, or was perhaps related to the availability of ingredients, or maybe someone just put the wrong dressing on my salad; but it was essentially duck served on a bed of salad greens in a regular soup/salad-sized bowl (not crazy-large, not old-fashioned small), the shallots, a couple of grape cherry tomatoes, and a dressing that was light in texture but heavy on the balsamic flavour.
I thought I detected the slightest hint of the bitterness of walnut in the dressing, which may or may not have been the power of suggestion. Certainly there were no walnut pieces to be seen, not that the menu suggested that there would be. But by the time I came to wipe the last pieces of duck around the dressing in the bowl I was slightly more convinced that there was walnut lurking, somewhere – there was a certain creamy, nutty richness to the dressing that went beyond the sharp, cutting flavour of the balsamic. But it might have been a good-quality olive oil that I could taste, too.
Two of the three pieces of duck were cooked to perfection – succulent and tender, the (relatively scant) skin melted in my mouth, and the meat was pleasing both with and without the skin. It is difficult to describe the flavour of the meat, except to say that it had the sweetness of duck meat and a spice somewhat reminiscent of Chinese Five Spice (very possibly the chef would be offended to hear that!). The third piece of duck was lacking skin and also moisture, and, never having actually cooked duck myself, I will go out on a limb and presume that the two are related. But it wasn’t dry enough to be upsetting, and I was happy enough mopping the flavoursome meat around my plate to absorb the moisture from the scant remains of the dressing - nice that it wasn't drowning in dressing, too. The salad itself was a bit pedestrian, but let’s face it, I was in it for the duck. You don’t win friends with salad!
My dad opted for the Wagu rump steak open sandwich on grilled sourdough ($25), which was served with a smear of beetroot relish (or perhaps it was some sort of grated beetroot – I didn’t taste that part myself) cushioning the medium-rare steak; crowned with a spoonful of pleasantly sweet, caramelised onions; and accompanied by a heaping pile of perfectly-cooked, golden French fries. Nobody needs that much potato in their life, but the good news is that it meant I could sneak some off dad’s plate without him objecting too loudly! So much for shifting that holiday weight…
Dad was good enough to give me a small sliver of meat, and it was tender enough, but I’m a medium-rare girl and the edges of the steak – which I was given – were distinctly medium. I’m also the wrong person to ask about the quality of the meat because, whilst it sported the gentle richness one expects from a Wagu steak, I’m just as happy with a cheap porterhouse smothered with pepper sauce down the pub, and prefer the fat to be down the side of my steak and not marbled throughout. I know, I know, chefs everywhere are lining up to slap me, but I prefer the meatier flavour over the fattier one.
After our plates were cleared the waiter asked whether I would like to see the dessert menu, to which I responded with a resounding “Hell, yeah!” He handed me the menu and I was trying to decide between the flourless chocolate cake special ($12.50) and the lemon sabayon tart ($15), when the waiter threw a spanner in the works and told me his favourite was the House-made Neapolitan ice cream-filled profiteroles with hot chocolate sauce ($16). During my recent overseas holiday I learnt to ask the waiter what he or she recommended as I found myself ordering the same old familiar things, so I went with the profiteroles and I was not disappointed. 
Three profiteroles, stuffed with what I took to be house-made ice cream, smothered in a hot chocolate sauce, were served with a blob of whipped cream and a sliced strawberry splayed across the top. The chocolate ice cream was incredibly rich and quite dark; the strawberry ice cream was tart, with small pieces of the strawberry fruit to be seen in it; and the vanilla ice cream was relatively mild – you could see little pieces of vanilla bean, but the flavour was more creamy than vanilla. Mind you, I do a lot of baking, and I’ve been known to lick the spoon after I scoop vanilla bean paste out of the tub or measure out pure vanilla extract, so I’m probably not the best judge of whether vanilla is too mild or not. The profiteroles were a little hard, which is to be expected when they have to sit in the freezer filled with ice cream, but thawed out well enough under the heat of the chocolate sauce. A word of warning, though – use your spoon to steady your profiterole while you imbed your fork, then use your fork to steady it while you cut with your spoon, otherwise I suspect the profiterole will go flying!
All in all, I will definitely be making a repeat visit. Not only am I blessed to have this gem more or less in my back yard, but it combines a relaxed atmosphere with good-quality food which are two of my favourite things. I wouldn’t necessarily suggest it for those on a tight budget, unless you are the sort of person who can contain themselves to eating just one course (I’m afraid I’m not someone that can do that!), but the more limited lunch time menu is more affordable than the dinner one so it is still possible to treat yourself.
 

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Pina Coladas

One of my 101 Things challenges was to learn to make a Pina Colada. I have become quite the connoiseur during my round-the-world trip, but discovered that there is no one way to make a Pina Colada. So, I took a recipe from a cookbook and then fiddled with it until it seemed right. And here's what I came up with - it will fill 6-8 martini glasses, but is really only four standard drinks for the whole batch. Not a bad option for a summer cocktail party, or a pre-Christmas drink (or three!).

1 regular tin of Golden Circle pineapple pieces in juice, chilled (I imagine freezing it would make a nicer cocktail)
3 shots of white rum, chilled
1 shot of coconut liquer (e.g. Malibu), chilled
1 tray of ice cubes
Pineapple juice, chilled, to taste
Sugar to coat the rim of the glass
Pineapple wedges with skin on for garnishing

Frost the rim of the glass with sugar by moistening it and dipping it in sugar.

Blend all ingredients as far as the juice together in a blender (how much pineapple juice you add is up to you, but I added about half a cup initially).

Pour into frosted martini glasses and garnish with pineapple wedge.

Refrigerate the blender jug until you need seconds (won't be long!).

Happy summer days, everyone!
 

Monday, 17 December 2012

Christmas Baking: The Sneak-Peek!

Howdy!
 
It's been a crazy, crazy week. That's the nature of the couple of weeks pre-Christmas, and this time around I squeezed five Christmas-related meals in between Tuesday and Saturday evening *pats food baby* On top of that, I was at work at 6:30am every day, spent about twelve hours there, and spent two of those days outside in 35-40oC heat. Suffice it to say that, come Friday, I was a little tiny bit exhausted.
 
But, being pre-Christmas, I had baking planned for my Friday night (plus making a salad for Saturday's Christmas lunch, which I will hopefully get around to posting before Christmas - it's a broccoli salad, and a surprisingly tasty one. Probably not much good for the Christmas dinner table for those in the Northern hemisphere, but for us Down Under it would go down well). The baking plan kind of failed when the supermarket neglected to deliver a couple of key items, and I ended up driving up to the supermarket to get them. D'oh! So I only ended up making the salad on Friday night, and it wasn't until I got home at 9pm Saturday night that I began my baking. 220-ish biscuits in four hours ain't bad!
 
Because I'm so wrecked and need to be in bed within ten minutes, I'll post the easy one. It's easy because I've made them before - it's the recipe for Margaret Fulton's Christmas Spice Biscuits that I made for my cousin's engagement party.
 
This time, instead of making pretty snowflakes and stencilling royal icing onto them, I made Christmas trees and piped royal icing on and glued some bits and pieces on instead. I used Heather's recipe for royal icing from her Sprinkle Bakes book (and I have to say, I don't think I've seen "stiff peak", "soft peak" and "flood" icing described so well before, so I recommend the book if only for that!). 
 
It's more or less as I remember mum teaching me - two egg whites, a little lemon juice (2 tsp in this case), 3c sifted icing sugar (NOT soft icing mixture) plus half a teaspoon of whatever essence you want to use (I used peppermint this time). Once I had beated the heck out of it on low speed and achieved stiff peak icing (it stands up on its own) I then took half a silicone spatula's worth out (hah! What a detailed measurement!), dolloped it in a small bowl, coloured it using gel colour then added a single drop of water using a dropper, stirred it around and tested it (the peak now flopped over on itself) I imagine if you're using liquid colour you should DEFINITELY add it before the water because it may, in itself, water the mixture down... but as I said, that's what I imagine! Check your facts first, because it's a lot easier to water royal icing down than it is to thicken it up again.
 
This is me piping, and obviously getting distracted by having to take a photo with a DSLR with my left hand - note the big blob of icing coming out!
 
This is what I call Piping Grip - it's how I choose to hold the piping bag, and works well for me. You cradle the twisted part of the bag between your thumb and index finger and apply pressure with the remaining fingers. I've also been taught another way - use your two little fingers to keep the bag twisted, then rest the fat end of the piping bag in your palm - but I feel like I have more control this way.
 
60-something biscuits, plus the mixing bowl soaking my red piping tip (note the pink water!).
 
And now I've made them pretty, with cachous (mind your teeth!) and candy-cane shaped sprinkles (which actually taste like peppermint) which I seem to recall I got from Baking Pleasures (although they don't appear to be in stock at present, which is kind of a moot point anyway because they're closed for Christmas!)
 
I can't decide which I like better - the red
 
or the green?
 
I think the green ones are more appropriate, but the red have more of a visual impact when you're presenting them. Plus I seem to recall reading that "cool" colours and neutrals dull the appetite, whereas brightly-coloured foods stimulate it. Not that anyone is likely to be dissuaded from eating a biscuit based on the colour of its icing!
 
 
Stay tuned for recipes for the other biscuits in this box. The boys at work ain't gonna know what hit them!
 

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 cafĂ© 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 SprinkleBakes.com 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!