I’ve been decorating cakes for 24 years, so have seen many changes in styles and techniques in that time. Cake decorating, like most crafts, is constantly evolving. New ideas, products and materials come and go however many of the basics remain the same. The internet is an amazing resource that we cake decorators all use. However, the plethora of information out there can mean that finding suitable answers to burning cake questions may be a bit hit and miss. I was therefore delighted to be asked by Cake Masters Magazine to take part in their Ask the Expert series – to be their February 2015 cake expert.
Ask the Expert – Lindy Smith
Here are the cake conundrums and decorating dilemmas I was asked in this month’s Ask the expert feature. I hope you find my answers helpful and useful…
Q: What is the best kind of glue to use? Some people just use water – is that enough?
A: For most of my cake decorating I just use water but I also use gum glue, let down modelling paste, royal icing and sometimes even nothing at all! It really depends on the moisture content of what you are trying to stick together. To stick decorations to the top of a recently iced cake, previously boiled water is quite sufficient. On the other hand, the simplest way of sticking dried decorations to the side of a firm cake is to use dots of fast drying royal icing. My advice is to start with water and if you need something a little stronger opt for gum glue and if that is still tricky try royal icing.
Q: Do you use sugar syrup to keep your cakes moist?
A: Only very occasionally when I want to use it to add an additional flavour to a baked cake! I know many cake makers use sugar syrups on all their cakes, but as surprising as it may seem, I don’t have a very sweet tooth so I prefer my cakes not to be overly sweet. Yes, sugar syrup can add moisture to a cake but there are plenty of other healthier and less sweet alternatives. I prefer to add ingredients when baking that help increase the cakes moisture content examples include ground nuts such as almonds, fruits and vegetables such as pineapples and carrots or simply glycerine which is hygroscopic.
Q: What is the best way to fix a stencil to the side of a cake?
A: Adding a stencil to a side of a cake can be challenging and I’ve noticed that people are using various methods for this. I tend to either add the stencilled pattern directly to the side of a cake using royal icing and a side fixing kit (Lindy’s Cakes sell these online!). Alternatively, I stencil a strip of modelling paste with edible dusts or royal icing and then attach this to the side of a cake. Which I choose depends on the results I wish to achieve and the stencil pattern itself. If for example, I wrap a stencil around the side of a cake and sections of the design stick out, the best policy is to stencil a modelling paste strip. Generally the larger the diameter of the cake the easier it is to stencil directly onto the cake itself.
Q: Why do I sometimes get a jagged edge when using flower cutters?
A: This a perennial problem and a pet hate of mine!! Various factors come into play here, the cutting edge of the cutter, the paste being used and the technique being applied. The most important factor, however, is the cutter itself. Sugarcraft cutters come in all shapes and sizes and are manufactured from either plastic or metal. My advice is to buy the best you can afford, cheap imitation plastic cutters from China, that are flooding into the market at the moment, are cheap for a reason!
Try and buy cutters from well known reputable sugarcraft brands. I personally prefer stainless steel cutters, which is why all my own cutter designs are manufactured from Stainless steel. Stainless steel cutters are easy to care for, they don’t rust like tin plate cutters and most importantly they have fantastically sharp cutting edges. When cutting out shapes be sure to press down firmly onto your work board. For some cutters, you will also need to give them a little wiggle as well. For more intricate shapes the best results are often obtained by placing the paste on top of the cutter and rolling over it with a rolling pin.
Q: How far in advance can you make a cake?
A: This depends entirely on the recipe you are using. Some cakes are best eaten on the day they are baked whilst others improve on keeping. For decorated cakes I like to give myself time. I hate being rushed, so I always opt for cakes that I know will keep. Chocolate fudge cakes, orange and poppy seed cakes or of course fail-safe Madeira’s, which can be flavoured in a myriad of ways and be kept for up to 2 weeks. All the cake recipes I include in my cake decorating books are suitable for baking in advance – I believe that it’s very important that a decorated cake tastes as good as it looks!
Q: Is Swiss meringue buttercream really better than “normal” buttercream
A: It really depends on what you are trying to achieve. I love using Swiss meringue buttercream, it is smooth and silky and a lot less sweet than standard buttercream, ideal as a topping for an elegant cupcake. However, Swiss meringue buttercream takes longer to prepare. I use a standard buttercream recipe when I am using buttercream as a glue to stick sugarpaste to a sponge cake. Swiss Meringue when I want to be a little more creative. When choosing which to use also bear in mind that Swiss Meringue buttercream doesn’t hold up well in high temperatures, so it’s no good on a hot summer day!!
Ask the Expert – advice reactions
Here are a few comments about my Ask the Expert feature from our Facebook page. My advice is freely given so I do love to know it is appreciated. Thank you to everyone who took the trouble to comment.
Louise Reber: Excellent advice!
Gillian Harding: Just read it, invaluable advice as always
Rose Macefield: Excellent Lindy, your advice is brilliant x
Yvonne O’Neill: Read it last night! Some great tips x
Happy baking and decorating
‘Bringing world-class sugarcraft into your kitchen’