Lavender cake and cupcakes. Photo by Jennifer Melo
Nelia’s 40th birthday cake
For my sister’s 40th birthday, cake AND cupcakes would mark the occasion. A vanilla sponge cake is covered in white fondant and I used flower cookie cutters to make the flowers and leaves.
Nel’s favourite colour is purple. I used purple icing gel to pipe the letters and rather than pipe a border on the cake with my shaky, inexperienced piping hands, I stuck on small fondant flowers all around like a garland.
I bought the flowers and leaves cookie cutters at Golda’s Kitchen and I love them. I’ve found many uses for them over the years.
The vanilla cupcakes are topped with vanilla buttercream and fondant decorations.
Why is it that the simplest cakes in design tend to be the most aggravating when you’re cake decorating?
My eldest niece turned 13 in January (tears!) and because she’s now an official teenager, I didn’t want to make a cake that was too childlike for her liking.
With “purple” as my only guidance, I decided to keep things ultra simple, girly, and pretty. Stripes in varying shades of purple seemed like a good idea. Ombré, it would be.
Even though I thought this cake would be an easy one to decorate, it turned out to be hella tricky.
Purple ombre cake, unstacked. Photo by Jennifer Melo
Stripe cake challenges
- Rolling long pieces of fondant, in varying shades, to a consistent thickness for each stripe is challenging. Thick and thin strips stacked next to each other would make for a lumpy appearance so you want to roll to a consistent thickness.
- Cutting long, even pieces, without leaving ruler impressions in the fondant proves to be a problem for me.
- Handling the fondant strips without stretching, misshaping or tearing them was a real challenge. Maybe I should’ve rolled them up loosely while moving them from the counter to the cake. I used a pizza cutter and a ruler to cut individual fondant strips but when I lifted them and tried to place them on the sides of the cake, some of the strips tore. Grr!
The top tier was much easier to manage because the strips didn’t have to be quite so long. The shorter the strip, the easier it is to handle.
To make the varying shades of fondant, I started with a piece of purple fondant and kept adding more white fondant to it for each level or stripe I rolled and cut.
Starting at the base of the cake, I gently applied a strip of fondant to the cake and wrapped each strip so its joints aligned at the back of the cake, hidden from view.
The hard part’s not over yet
Your cake needs to be quite level or you’ll have to cut irregular pieces when you reach the top.
Cakes are imperfect by nature so the straight, exact lines of stripes can be unforgiving, highlighting every imperfection.
A ruler and a tape measure are your friends. Your cake pans reveal your cake’s circumference but in case of expansion or shrinking while baking and cooling cakes, measure your cake’s circumference before you cut your fondant strips.
Carefully measure each strip’s length and width. When you reach the space of the topmost band of fondant, where it’ll meet the cake’s surface, measure the space left all around. You’ll really see how level your cake is now. Remember, it’s better to have a wider band you can trim to size than not enough height. I opted to leave a bit of overhang on one side to keep the uppermost strip looking even.
Top tier of the purple ombre cake. Photo by Jennifer Melo
2. Apply a light crumb coat
Go easy on the buttercream when you apply a crumb coat. Too much icing will ooze out between the layers of strips.
3. Don’t rush
It’s best to approach this project when you’ve got some energy, patience and plenty of time.
4. Don’t dawdle
Don’t take too long either. Your fondant strips will dry out and be more susceptible to rips and cracks once exposed to air, so keep on moving once you’ve started rolling fondant of varying shades.
Purple ombre cake, stacked. Photo by Suzy Melo
Once I stacked the cakes, I noticed the top tier shifted and leaned to the left. I was able to correct it a bit by pushing it with a fondant smoother. But I didn’t want to shift the strips and risk unsticking them (see the bulges I made by pushing the cake?) so I left things imperfect rather than fussing too much.
Baptism cake. Photo by Jennifer Melo
The evening before my niece Aliya’s baptism, I turned up at my sister Suzy’s house to help her decorate the cake.
Quilting tip: Do the sides only
This was my first attempt at a quilting technique. After we got the fondant on the cake, I used a diamond-shaped cookie cutter and lightly pressed it into the fondant.
All was going well and then I quickly learned that it’s best to only quilt the sides of the cake — and not the top. The quilting pattern never aligns properly at the corners when you try to carry the pattern onto the top of the cake.
When you need to start again
I knew I royally screwed up the first cake when the pattern went awry and I couldn’t really fix it. So the cake you see above is actually a replacement cake.
I didn’t feel too bad about ruining the original cake because it was sort of droopy and needed a couple of extra layers for height, and my sister wasn’t all that happy with it anyway.
I offered to make a whole new cake so Suzy could relax a bit and focus on the rest of the party-planning particulars.
Cakes need time to settle
We decided on cream fondant, a square vanilla cake with two tiers and a lemon marmalade filling. The rest was left up to me.
I kept things simple with an oval name plaque, and small fondant flowers to hide a multitude of sins. I anticipated this cake-decorating project wouldn’t go perfectly. I find it difficult to cover square cakes with fondant because the fondant tends to pleat at the corners. Somehow, expecting trouble made me feel more prepared to deal with it. I was pretty relaxed about all the boo-boos.
The multitude of sins
My replacement cake didn’t have enough time to settle so after I covered it in fondant, the sides bulged in places — you can really see it on the top tier.
I probably should’ve kneaded the fondant more thoroughly and rolled it more thickly because it cracked and ripped in sections when I draped it over the cake, especially at the corners. That’s when fondant flowers come to the rescue. I used them to disguise the biggest cracks.
Using a cookie cutter, I cut a fondant cross for the top, then I used the quilting tool on it for texture and added a single silver dragee (sugar pearl or ball) in the center. I outlined the cross with white piping gel and piped a bead of white in the center of each flower.
Cake-decorating tip: Decorations cover mistakes
Here’s a closer shot of the top tier. Lots of flowers = lot of cracks under there.
Top tier of the baptism cake. Photo by Jennifer Melo
I used white glaze piping gel for the letters, and that was risky on a hot summer day but I didn’t have enough time to make another batch of buttercream. The white gel was store-bought and ready to use. Thankfully, it didn’t run or melt under the blazing sun and stayed in place.
The baptism went off without a hitch and the cake was a hit.